Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Startling statistics in the age of digital

Andrew Walmsley
Andrew Walmsley

This is the 100th column I've written for Marketing. One hundred is an important number in Western culture - we follow the FTSE 100 and the Billboard 100, we review after the first 100 days and who can forget Haircut 100?

So this week I'm going to look at some of the numbers that tell us a little about how digital has taken our world by storm. The web is 6555 days old today (Wednesday), counting from when Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau submitted their 'World Wide Web: Proposal for a Hypertext Project', which contained the first use of the www term. Even for someone like me, who lives and breathes this stuff, some of the figures are staggering.

The internet was a purely text-based environment then, but Berners-Lee and Cailliau's idea of marrying it to hypertext caused a revolution. Despite British Telecom's failed attempt in 2002 to enforce a patent on hyperlinks, the web has become a big force for change.

Every possible permutation of three-character dot-com domains has been registered. The BBC has 43 different translations of its website, while social networking site Facebook has 63.

Worldwide, 74bn searches are made each month, and the size of the index held by search engines continues to grow. In 2001, a search for 'search engine optimisation' gave up 12,300 results in Google. Today the term receives 77.8m.

The average number of monthly searches per searcher in the UK is 124, the same as the average number of cups of tea per Briton per month. And although those results are delivered in the blink of an eye, according to worldometers.com, users so far this year have spent 240,000bn hours waiting for web pages to download.

Perhaps it was worth the wait. In the US, one in every eight couples getting married last year met over the internet.

However, the internet is not immune to external fiscal factors. Proof of this came during the creation of one of President Bush's economic stimulus plans, which involved sending cheques of up to $1200 to US taxpayers. The plan was widely reported as having created a 30% boost in internet pornography revenues, which currently run at $3075 a second.

Among internet users, 30% have made a purchase as the result of spam emails. A recent study also showed that fewer than one in 1m spam emails actually leads to sale, which explains why there are so many of them.

After years stuck at your computer, mobile is becoming a serious force in digital. The number of text messages sent and received every day exceeds the world's population, and a SIM-free mobile phone sells on eBay every 17 seconds - part of the 1.3bn handsets that are expected to be sold this year.

Ray Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns describes the exponential growth of change in technological progress. He believes Moore's Law, which states that the processing power available for a dollar doubles every two years, can be applied to technology. Consider that agriculture began 12,000 years ago, the first cities appeared 6000 years ago, printing 532 years ago, and the internet 18 years ago.

If Kurzweil is right, half the change we have experienced since the internet started has occurred in the past two years, and the next 18 years will bring 362 years' worth of change.

So our power to predict the future, plan our businesses and understand our consumers, is increasingly threatened by this acceleration. The voices that say they now understand digital are the most dangerous of all, because if they understood it yesterday, things are different today.

Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 seconds on... Ray Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns

  • Modern theories of accelerating change have become associated with Raymond Kurzweil, who in 2001 published an essay entitled 'The Law of Accelerating Returns'.
  • The essay takes its idea from Moore's Law, which states that computer processing power grows exponentially.
  • Kurzweil's theory applies Moore's idea to technology in general, rather than computers specifically.
  • The main tenet is that a technology will always be invented to overcome problems unsolved by existing systems. He says such inventions are increasingly common.
  • Kurzweil adds that progress in the 21st century 'will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate)'.
  • He argues that machines will soon be cleverer than humans, and the speed of change will cause a 'rupture in the fabric of human history'. He goes on to describe 'software-based humans', but does not say whether these creatures will be used in the workplace.

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