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The Fastest-Growing Thing:

I'm in Boise, Idaho, of all places, at the moment, getting ready for a talk tomorrow (Jefferson's moose, the Internet, and all that), and I'm just wandering around and wondering about something (and I've found that when I'm wondering about something, VC readers can sometimes help me out). Has the Internet been the fastest-growing thing on the planet over the past 30 years or so? It's a funny question, but an interesting one, when you ask it like that. The Net's been growing pretty steadily at a rate of around 4-5% a month at least since 1980 or so — say 30 years, going from a couple dozen machines to over 550 million. Is there anything else on earth that can match or better that, over that long a period? I can't think of anything.

At least, I can't think of anything tangible. There may be intangible things — like "computing power," for example, or maybe "human knowledge," or the like — that kept up a growth rate this high over this long a period. But is there anything with real, material existence — any population of bacteria, or grains of sand on a beach, or leaves on trees, or houses on a stretch of road, or ... that did so?

And if not, that's got to amount to a pretty remarkable achievement — to have built the fastest-growing thing on the planet? How did we do that? And who do we give the medals to?

Update: Thanks for all the ideas -- keep 'em coming. Many of the suggestions, though, fall into the "interesting, but not really close" category, e.g. kudzu, bamboo, human population, bacteria . . . The Net's growth rate, 4-5 % a month, implies doubling every 14 months or so — if the amount of kudzu on the planet had been doubling every 14 months or so, for 30 years, we'd be covered with it. Literally. Like many organisms, it can grow really, really fast - but it does not keep it up, year after year after year after year. And human population isn't even close - if it had been doubling every 14 months since 1980, the total population would be over 150 trillion.

Other networks are interesting - I don't have the data for railroads, telephones, cell phones, etc., but I seriously doubt they can match it for this long a period - adding that much capacity is incredibly costly, and doubling capacity every year or so starts getting expensive after a while . . . but I'm going to look into it.DavidP

A Law Dawg:
Not even close. Have you ever seen Kudzu grow?
4.9.2009 6:02pm
A Law Dawg:
I capitalize Kudzu because you don't disrespect sentient beings.
4.9.2009 6:02pm
A Law Dawg:
More seriously, I would suggest the mobile phone network, if you're counting units.
4.9.2009 6:05pm
DiversityHire:
Oh sure, now that the credit market is in correction, the Internet may have edged ahead of outstanding debt, but give debt a chance to catch-up.
4.9.2009 6:08pm
Publicus (mail):
Given a 30-year window, I'd look at the following for comparison: rail systems, telegraph systems, telephone systems, electrical grids.
4.9.2009 6:11pm
cboldt (mail):
Everybody should know, by now, that the medal for the internet goes to Al Gore.
.
Not since 1980, as your question implies, but in human history I'd look at telephone and electrical power distribution networks.
.
For natural things, the re-greening of Mt. St. Helens (just a piece of wild speculation, as it re-greens from a bleak condition; starts from scratch, etc.)
4.9.2009 6:15pm
Observer:
That must be why Mr. Gore deserved the Nobel Prize.
4.9.2009 6:15pm
Finance lawyer (mail):
The federal deficit?
4.9.2009 6:17pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Welcome to Boise, David. (I'm actually a few miles north of Boise.)

The original Internet was ARPAnet--which I hacked into about 1972, when I was in high school. It was growing fast throughout the 1980s, but the real takeoff happened when the "non-commercial use only" requirement went away in the early 1990s.
4.9.2009 6:19pm
cboldt (mail):
Commercial air travel might have had a 30 year period of continuous growth, too.
4.9.2009 6:19pm
alkali (mail):
It depends on your answer to the following question: Does this look infected to you?
4.9.2009 6:20pm
Don Miller (mail) (www):
Welcome to Idaho David!

Too bad I am on call tonight, I would have offered to buy you dinner.

The Internet might very well qualify as the most complicated machines that humans have ever built. Especially if you count every node that accesses it as part of the machine. Even more so, since it requires cooperation and agreement between all involved parties to function.
4.9.2009 6:26pm
IPGuy:
According to Judge Patel, the internet is not a "thing," it is an "abstraction." See CyberSource Corp. v. Retail Decisions Inc., 2009 WL 815448, *6 (N.D. Cal.).

The internet is a network of millions of individual machines. Indeed, the internet was initially conceptualized as a network robust enough to withstand the loss of a large number of particular machines. See Barry M. Leiner et al., A Brief History of the Internet, available at http:// www.isoc.org/internet/history/brief.shtml (as visited March 13, 2009, and available in the court's files). A distinct feature of the "packet switching" protocols underlying the internet is the capacity of data packets to reroute to reach their intended destinations if a first-attempted route is blocked due to the failure of a particular computer. See id. The internet continues to exist despite the addition or subtraction of any particular piece of hardware. It may be supposed that the internet itself, rather than any underlying computer or set of computers, is the "machine" to which plaintiff refers. Yet the internet is an abstraction. If every computer user in the world unplugged from the internet, the internet would cease to exist, although every molecule of every machine remained in place. One can touch a computer or a network cable, but one cannot touch "the internet." See Ferguson, 558 F.3d 1359, 2009 WL 565074 at *5 (holding a company is not a machine because, inter alia, "you cannot touch the company").
Id.
4.9.2009 6:30pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

The Internet might very well qualify as the most complicated machines that humans have ever built. Especially if you count every node that accesses it as part of the machine. Even more so, since it requires cooperation and agreement between all involved parties to function.
However, most of those nodes are running identical software. There are hundreds of millions of PCs running Windows, but they are all running only slight variations of the same software for the network connectivity. Ditto for the Macs, and the many Linux variants out there.

What's amazing to me (having written code for some of them) are how well so many different network routers manage to cooperate. Partly this is because of the RFC process for defining how different components are supposed to cooperate.
4.9.2009 6:30pm
SeaLawyer:
Computing power is tangible. I don't have any numbers for it but I am sure you can find it if you are really bored and want to look.
4.9.2009 6:32pm
BT:
Obama's ego.
4.9.2009 6:34pm
SeaLawyer:

The Internet might very well qualify as the most complicated machines that humans have ever built.


It's not really that complicated.
4.9.2009 6:35pm
seadrive:
Cell phone usage, perhaps.
4.9.2009 6:37pm
SeaLawyer:

Cell phone usage, perhaps.


Phone usage in general. Microwave ovens, radios, auto's (minus the last 6 months)?
4.9.2009 6:43pm
ChrisTS (mail):
Kudzu HAS to be it.
4.9.2009 6:46pm
Bruce Hayden (mail):
What's amazing to me (having written code for some of them) are how well so many different network routers manage to cooperate. Partly this is because of the RFC process for defining how different components are supposed to cooperate.
Could that also be a result of the same sort of situation you noted with the computers running on the Internet, that there really aren't that many different variants out there? Don't a small number of companies provide the bulk of the routers?
4.9.2009 6:47pm
krs:
Once the internet becomes self-aware, the Governator will have to act quickly if he wants to save us.
4.9.2009 6:51pm
kentuckyliz (mail):
Human population?
4.9.2009 6:53pm
SeaLawyer:

Could that also be a result of the same sort of situation you noted with the computers running on the Internet, that there really aren't that many different variants out there? Don't a small number of companies provide the bulk of the routers?


The answer is yes. A small number of companies provide the bulk of everything having to do with the internet.
The standards make everything work together. That is one reason Apple is small time. They wanted to go with appletalk which nothing else worked with, so companies/govt did not want to use them for anything. Now they are regulated to people who want to think they are special.
4.9.2009 7:02pm
DiversityHire:
It's not really that complicated.

Depends on your level of abstraction. Watching videos streamed from Europe on your CDMA cell phone in Playa Vista is the culmination of everything we as a people know—from physics,mathematics,computer science, engineering, business administration, finance, law, statecraft, psychology, aesthetics, design, etc. Nobody understands the whole kit and kaboodle at a deep level.

On the flip-side: the core internet protocols probably still fit on an 800k floppy. But most programmers, much less human beings, don't understand them well enough to make good use, much less implement them.
4.9.2009 7:07pm
hattio1:
Besides the examples of Kudzu and bacteria, what about Bamboo? I've heard it's remarkably fast growing.
4.9.2009 7:09pm
Fub:
The Net's been growing pretty steadily at a rate of around 4-5% a month at least since 1980 or so -- say 30 years, going from a couple dozen machines to over 550 million. Is there anything else on earth that can match or better that, over that long a period? I can't think of anything.

At least, I can't think of anything tangible
Spam, at least commercial spam. April 12, 1994 marks Canter &Siegel's first large scale commercial spam, although on usenet, not via email. In the 15 years since then spam (of the email variety) has grown to account for upwards of 90% of traffic.
4.9.2009 7:11pm
SeaLawyer:

Depends on your level of abstraction. Watching videos streamed from Europe on your CDMA cell phone in Playa Vista is the culmination of everything we as a people know—from physics,mathematics,computer science, engineering, business administration, finance, law, statecraft, psychology, aesthetics, design, etc. Nobody understands the whole kit and kaboodle at a deep level


Building an aircraft carrier is more complex. Watching a video is no different then reading a webpage. Data is data. You are mistaking devices for the internet. I know 99% of people out there are "laymen" when it comes to the net but it really is pretty simple.
4.9.2009 7:20pm
DiversityHire:
SeaLaywer, AppleTalk—like NetWare, Banyan Vines, or NetBEUI—is an artifact of the LAN era where everyone had their own protocol suite. Macs were the first personal computers to include a TCP/IP stack in 1988; since 1995, TCP/IP has been implemented in Mac OS using standards-based stacks (first Mentat's, then BSD's); AppleTalk is more or less deprecated now, although a few of its ideas have been introduced into TCP/IP through the RFC process. If AppleTalk slowed the adoption of Macs it was into Netware, Banyan, or NetManager networks—which are now equally dead—not into TCP/IP environments.
4.9.2009 7:37pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Don't a small number of companies provide the bulk of the routers?
Yes, but there are (or at least used to be) a fair number of companies building network switches (which in a sense are routers on steroids), although many of them don't have big market share.
4.9.2009 7:43pm
rogerthis:
Victim Hood, baby. Nothing spreading faster, worldwide.
4.9.2009 7:50pm
DiversityHire:
You are mistaking devices for the internet.

I don't understand this distinction. Without roads, traffic laws, and automobiles, there is no interstate highway system, either. As an artifact, aircraft carriers are likely more complicated than the notion of the internet; as notions, they're at about the same level of complexity ("float an airfield" or "connect two networks").
4.9.2009 7:54pm
GD:
CFR?
4.9.2009 7:55pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):


You are mistaking devices for the internet.



I don't understand this distinction.
The devices are individually pretty weak. The Internet is the sum of the devices and the protocols that allow them to work together. You don't really realize how dramatically synergistic this is unless you are a fossil like myself, and can remember when moving data from one computer to another computer ten miles almost always involved putting the data on 9 track tape--and then hoping that both computers were made by the same company.
4.9.2009 7:58pm
Curt Fischer:
The Net's been growing pretty steadily at a rate of around 4-5% a month at least since 1980 or so[...]

How about the number of people infected with AIDS. If you assume about 100 people were infected in 1980, and 35 million will be in 2010, the rate of growth, averaged over the whole 30 year period, is pretty close to the Internet's.
4.9.2009 8:05pm
DiversityHire:
when moving data from one computer to another computer ten miles almost always involved putting the data on 9 track tape

That's "sneakernet"—an ad hoc, faith-based protocol stack kept alive by the thumb drive—with enterprise ("loafernet") and academic ("birkenet") variants.
4.9.2009 8:19pm
ChrisTS (mail):
hattio1:
Besides the examples of Kudzu and bacteria, what about Bamboo? I've heard it's remarkably fast growing.


Not so fast (especially as compared with kudzu), but very 'aggressive.' In garden-talk, that means "impossible to limit and nearly impossible to kill.'
4.9.2009 8:38pm
NYOPINION (mail):
According to Internet World Stats, on a number of users scale it's grown 342% worldwide since 2008 (perhaps significantly greater on a bandwidth scale) - certainly pales by comparison to kudzu and nonsense emanating from conservative talk radio
4.9.2009 9:12pm
JM Hanes:
From a slightly less literal perspective than others here, the Internet has certainly been far and away the fastest growing "thing" in my life -- both in terms of the time I spend online and the things I do online. How would one calculate such transformative power, I wonder?

Then there are the books, supplies, appliances, equipment I order (and track) on line, and which are now delivered to my door, not picked up at local stores in person. It seems to me that such chains of events could arguably be included in any assessment of the internet's reach and extent.

Similarly, you could factor in the internet's depository/archival capacity for knowledge/news/games/music -- perhaps in some sort of units of information for example, perhaps simply by calculating the explosive growth in "things" like KBs of information both stored and transmitted.
4.9.2009 10:24pm
nkb (mail):
A baby grows from a single cell, a zygote, to around hundred trillions cells, as a full grown human. Hypothetically, if you take a polygamist father and say he conceives, what, 20 kids, one cell, the polygamist father at his conception, turned into 2 quadrillion cells. The average annual growth rate easily beats the growth of the internet, whether you say he was born 30 years ago or 40. And that's not even accounting for how many kids his kids produce.
4.10.2009 12:48am
Guest12345:
On nkb's theme, I'd suggest a blue whale.

I'm also a bit confused by exactly what "the Net" is in this question. If one binds it by the same requirement of tangibility, then it presumably is the actual infrastructure. In which case the global total length of copper wire and equivalents would readily exceed the Net. If the Net is something more like the amount of data available, then I'd suggest that there is a lot more storage not accessible via the net than is accessible. Or the total amount of heat generated by electrical devices.
4.10.2009 3:38am
Tracy Johnson (www):
So, will there be an internet bubble like the housing bubble? (Not the internet business bust of the late 1990s, rather the internet itself.)
4.10.2009 10:10am
K. Stringfield (mail):
Number of people moving to Idaho.
4.10.2009 1:04pm
Sisyphus:
According to Kryder's Law (and supporting empirical data), hard drive storage density doubles annually. See e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Kryder.

This is a little faster than the rate of doubling for the Internet (14 months) and Moore's law for transistor density (18 months).
4.10.2009 5:36pm
ChrisTS (mail):
if the amount of kudzu on the planet had been doubling every 14 months or so, for 30 years, we'd be covered with it. Literally

But, we would be covered over - in the U.S. South, at least - if humans were not doing daily battle against kudzu.

Your original question sought the 'fastest growing thing on this planet' - not 'the thing that has had the fastest unhindered growth.' Really, it's not a fair competition: so many folks are busy trying to stop kudzu, bamboo, and bacteria. The Internet has been nourished and supported. Kind of a wimp, if you think about it.
4.12.2009 1:48am

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