It is easy to worry about losing our privacy when it seems that everyone wants or already has our personal information. But what would one great mind have thought about our data (not information) storage age – the age of barcode labels?It is said that Albert Einstein never bothered to remember his phone number because that is what phone books are for. Did the man who said that “imagination is more important than knowledge” ever imagine a world of every imaginable type of information retrievable by reading barcodes? One suspects that the great scientist would have loved the idea of putting information that he might one day need on barcode labels pasted around his office at Princeton. When he was a lowly patent clerk in Switzerland, he might have used barcodes to store information about all of the patents he dealt with and reserved one rather large segment of the barcode storage capacity for general relativity. “Now, where did I put those darn Lorentz transformations?”, we can imagine him saying. Then, with a flick of his handy barcode reader, he identifies a folder stuffed with scribbled equations, and all is well in the search for scientific truth.
It seems there is no end to the things we identify, label and record. As the world moves on, we keep inventing more storage capacity without necessarily creating more knowledge to store. On one hand, we worry about the loss of personal privacy entailed in storing our personal information. On the other hand, we revel in the interesting and fun aspects of information storage and retrieval. The sheer variety of things people come up with can be entertaining.
While we can imagine Albert Einstein with a barcode reader, we can also picture him wearing a shirt made of flexible arrays of light-emitting diodes featuring his equations, which he might review as they scroll across his sleeves. What would he do if he were here? The ever-curious Einstein would probably have been fascinated by the technologies that underlie this data storage age. He would probably have sniffed at the idea that we are storing really useful information and said that much of what we are accumulating is just meaningless data. But, the technical details of our society, such as label printing on gizmos such as a digital press, would probably have interested him. Maybe he would have had barcodes referencing his equations printed to put on his shirt just so that he could play with his barcode reader.
Einstein would certainly have had an opinion about the ease of recording and finding information in today’s society, as well as the futility of trying to record everything. But, he would not have let the fast pace of change bother him. “I never think of the future. It comes