Me and my digital shadow

darkened-keyboard-120.jpegIT managers are about as eager to hear future data growth projections as Canadians are to hear about another snowfall.

EMC this week published the results of an IDC study it commissioned that says the so-called digital universe grew to 281 exabytes last year, with an expected 117 trillion GBs of information over the next three years. It’s too much to wrap your head around, so the company came up with a better, more visual analogy: more data exists now than there are stars in the sky. And you can blame it on what IDC calls our “digital shadows.”

Those digital shadows might also be called our digital exhaust – they are the byproducts of all our Web surfing, online shopping, social networking and monitoring of individuals. Just as we used to Google ourselves to find out how many results our names generated, we can now Flickr ourselves, or find references to ourselves on Facebook. The amount of personal shadows that fall within the billing systems and other databases inside companies is probably much more immense.

All this helps EMC prove the need for more storage and content management technology, and the study does little to suggest that the lengthening digital shadows are really a problem. They are, after all, part of the electronic paper trial we all need in order to ensure companies are accountable for our transactions with them. If, like some sort of digital vampire, we were unable to see our shadows, we would be highly alarmed that, in one very important sense, we had ceased to exist.

If you dig a little deeper into the IDC report, you’ll see that the data growth is largely fuelled by the rise of consumer technology. Data from financial services, for example, makes up only six per cent of the digital universe, while entertainment, communications and (ahem) media account for 10 times their share of IT spending. What will be harder for the IDCs of the world to track, of course, is the extent to which consumer technology is used for business purposes, and how that affects the growth of a user’s digital shadow.

As data continues to proliferate, the next boom in enterprise software almost certainly seems centered around the monitoring and management of digital shadows – helping organizations to pull out elements of a digital shadow as part of an e-discovery process, for example, or maybe just to look into a customer service issue as part of a master data management strategy. These monitoring systems, in turn, may create digital shadows of their own. If we call data about data metadata, there will likely be digital shadows about digital shadows, or digital metashadows.

Compelling though the term may be, perhaps calling these digital shadows isn’t all that appropriate, because it suggests something that trials off in our wake, something less important than the transactions themselves. Time will prove, however, that the record of where we moved in the digital world will be an important part of learning about who we are as people. If you really want to identify someone, looking into their digital shadow will be one of the best ways to shed some light.

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