“A Challenge to Intuition”: Music and our Expanding Digital Universe

“If you cross the mirror in the other direction, there really is a universe of self-reproducing digital code. When I last checked, it was growing by five trillion bits per second. And that’s not just a metaphor for something else. It actually is. It’s a physical reality.”

– George Dyson, Edge Interview, March 2012

Five trillion is a gargantuan number. How much of those bits could be music?

That might be impossible to guess but let’s look at a sliver: SoundCloud. Figures from 2012 purport that ten hours of audio is uploaded every minute.

How does that translate to bits? A three minute song contains about thirty million bits. What if we add twenty of those songs together to form an hour? That would be a grand total of six hundred million bits per hour.

Now the fun part. If we multiply that figure by ten, then ten hours of audio would roughly translate to six billion bits of per minute. What does that mean every second of that minute? About one hundred million bits.

It cannot be emphasized how small of a sliver one hundred million bits is for the five trillion a second expansion of our digital universe. Less than a percent would begin to cut it. How about one twenty thousandth (1/20,000)? And that does not take into account Youtube, Spotify, and other digital means of music distribution. Who knows what a sliver of the five trillion bits they would all make up together. Maybe a percent?

There is no sign that the digital universe will stop expanding on the musical side of things. People continue to upload tunes as they see fit. The numbers have probably even increased since those 2012 statistics. These awe inducing facts bring up further questions about the nature of the digital universe music is a part of.

One that comes up is the concept of expansion and our analogy of the Internet as a universe. Because, in fact, neither are compatible when it comes to our own universe. The universe as we know it actually does not expand. Bill Bryson explains this in A Short History of Nearly Everything:

 “For the moment it is enough to know that we are not adrift in some large, ever-expanding bubble. Rather, space curves, in a way that allows it to be boundless but finite. Space cannot even properly be said to be expanding because, as the physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg notes, ‘solar systems and galaxies are not expanding, and space itself is not expanding.’ Rather, the galaxies are rushing apart. It is all something of a challenge to intuition.”

What could this mean for the new bits that we say are being uploaded as songs, that are supposedly expanding the digital universe? Is a song an expansion or is it rather part of a curved universe that is rushing apart? Is it creating new space or already part of preexisting curves?

As Bryson writes, it all really is a challenge to intuition, especially if the digital universe actually expands as we continually upload music. Could it mean that the Internet is not a universe but a universe that is in a constant state of becoming? Is it more like a digital Big Bang, spreading bits that become planets of audio like SoundCloud and Youtube?


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