As we advance our computing power and (more specifically) mini-maximization of storage capacity, the naming conventions march along. If you thought the graduation of million/billion/trillion was bad, the Byte family is the dorkiest of them all.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!
So, there I am, reading this article about DARPA’s troubled Nexus 7 (a controversial ‘spy’ program) and I come across a word with which I’m unfamiliar: Exabyte.
Look, I’m a consumer-level nerd. That is, I’m very familiar with technology terms used in the workplace or home. Generally, if there’s some techie attribute in a listing for a product sold by, say, Future Shop, I know what it means. But that’s it. I didn’t go to University for Advanced Applied Sciencey Anything. I’m just the dude you call to fix your PC who knows just enough to know when to say, “It’s screwed. Get a professional.” And, yes, given the word-form and context, I knew that exabyte was a measurement of data storage units.
Problem is: it’s stupid.
Yes, I know there are brilliant minds at work out there making our PVRs smarter, our cars safer, our computers faster, and our economy more stable and equitable. Oh, wait, forget that last one. Anyway, I also took enough science courses to both sometimes sound as though I could have been much more productive with my life and to understand some of the basic concepts at play here.
Our naming conventions are rooted in the International System of Units, which is tied to the metric system, and labelled with Latin prefixes. I get that. For the longest time we were, collectively, operating within the realm of micro to mega. I also understand that as technology advanced, we went smaller then the previously science-fictionesque nano and larger than the videogamey mega.
Beyond that, though, we’re really pushing this convention.
The Alpha to Omega of Kilo to Tera
Here’s your step-by-step progression (and I’m not referencing any boy bands for that) [Editor: You just did.] [A.B.: You are starting to seriously damage my calm.] [Ed.: Also, now that you’ve added Adam Bernstein to the author list, you can’t use “A.B.” anymore. Just sayin’.].
The world was introduced to the computing realm with the use of bytes which was quickly trumped by kilobytes and its cooler nomenclature KBs (which gave it some street cred). That all made sense. Even the Empirically-inclined could fathom the whole affair. Kilobytes, kilometers, kilograms — it was all easy to figure out.
Then, in the early 1990s, we started touting the megabyte. Ooo, MEGA! We were okay with that. Although, in all honesty, most people started losing the relationship to the whole SI system and thought that the name was picked for sheer cool factor by nerds who grew up watching Megatron plague the Autobots (and who would never guess that some brat named Michael Bay would happily waste millions of dollars to piss all over those happy Saturday morning cartoon memories). We all got used to the whole megathing. Besides, we were too busy stealing, er, sharing music on Napster to care about those details.
Along came the gigabyte to make us take notice. GIGA! That sort of sounded like a monster from a Godzilla movie! It was both fun to say and great to have. For a while, before nerddom became mainstream (shut up and recharge your smart-phone before you deny it), the coolest geeks in the group were the ones who had hard drives with gigabytes (GBs) of capacity. And when they got gigahertz CPUs, those guys were the ones getting laid. Albeit by nerdy girls (who we didn’t know existed until the turn of the century) but still … girls!
By now, however, tech had thoroughly gone mainstream. Apple had gone from obscurity to prominence and straight to a citadel of cellphone domination. CGI effects in movies now made the original TRON look like a first year film school project. “Did you see that thing on YouTube?” was now said more often than “Did you see that thing on TV?” And somewhere around there, the kids were talking about The Terabyte.
Actually, no one put “The” in front of it at all. In fact, people started dropping the ‘-byte’ too. Tera, in all its spacey-future gizmography simply walked in the room, looked at the aging Kilo and his friends, and commanded respect like Samuel L. Jackson at a cursing competition. Only losers tried shortening it to TB (which a nefarious disease has long held as its monogram), and the cool kids just merged terms to create names like ‘tera drive’ instead of ‘terabyte hard drive’.
So, here we are, in the teraworld. But that’s where it’s gotta stop.
The Tragic Molestation of Terminology
You see, if you look at that SI list, you’ll notice there’s only so much of this scientific nicknaming we should allow. Kilo seemed logical, Mega was geeky-cool, Giga was slightly awkward but forgivable, and Tera has a certain exotic charisma. That’s fine. You know what’s next in the evolution?
Peta. Yeah, Peta.
I don’t even know how that’s pronounced, whether properly or (as eventually happens) as determined by pop culture. Either we’ll start thinking the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals expanded into the technology sector or that the rise of our robot overlords begins with storage devices molesting our children. Think about it. Petabyte? Petahertz? Peta drive? PBs? Do you really think that’s gonna fly? The best thing that could happen is for tech to advance two generations straight to the next prefix on the list: Exa.
Okay, now exabyte doesn’t sound so stupid in comparison to petabyte but really, as a whole, it’s gettin’ kinda dumb. Exa is like that recent sort-of-good album by an aging rocker which doesn’t completely suck but won’t hit number one before it’s entirely forgotten. There will be knowing looks shared between everyone else at the party but no outright guffaws. Probably. Mega sometimes runs his mouth when he gets drunk.
And after Exa? It’s Zetta and Yotta.
Zetta & Yotta? That sounds like an as-yet-undiscovered ancient Greek play. Funny thing they tell us about most Greek plays: They were tragedies. Zetta will fall for Yotta, Yotta will indulge in some Bacchanalian affair while abroad selling olives and, I don’t know, there will be some betrayal, some ships, and swords, and blood, and crying, and we’ll all feel as though we have some greater understanding of the human condition even though we’re not really sure why Zetta and Yotta had to die over a drunken, mistakenly-given kiss on the cheek. Also, what was with the singing goats?
It Is Never Too Late For Nonplussing
So, if you don’t want your children to be saying things like “I need a yottatablet for university” or “How many zettas does that hold,” let’s put a stop to the use of SI units in computing. We already have to contend with “friending” (and now “plussing”). Let’s at least try to slow the stupefaction of geekspeak before we even get to petafiles, or the tragedy of Zetta & Yotta.
Remember, the people who instituted this convention used to socialize by getting on to text-only chat rooms (or Usenet newsgroups) to kvetch about intelligentsia and scifi minutia and all manner of things ending in -ia. Now, the demigods of celebrity and wannabe-hipsters get on this thing called Twitter to tell us about all the cool things they’re doing. And Twitter, for all its vainglorious achievements as a current so-called cornerstone of cool is really little more than a text-based chat room. The worldview on technology has shifted.
The realm of bytes and everything that it affects is not just for scientists and codemonkeys, anymore. Drop the application of SI Units in naming stuff that we’re all using now and will use in the future. Maybe you don’t think it’s a big deal but I think this is hella important.
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Editor’s Note: Angelo’s first internet handle (Rancorr) came about while using text-only chat rooms and Usenet newsgroups in the late 1980s. You can also find him on Twitter these days. His Twitter ID is — you guessed it — @Rancorr.