‘When British mathematician Clive Humby said ‘Data is the new oil‘ back in 2006, he meant that data, like oil, must be refined and transformed to make it into useful products and services.’
Tim O’Reilly quoted this to open his recent article Data Is the New Sand for The Information. He concluded that data isn’t oil, it’s more like sand.
And that got me thinking, as I suspect O’Reilly wanted: his very first line was that ‘The metaphors we use are like a map. They can guide us or lead us astray.’
Alfred Korzybski got everyone who thinks about such things thinking harder when he wrote that ‘The map is not the territory’. It was his metaphor for not being able to have an absolute knowledge of reality.
My life has depended on sand. Yours too since sand is the foundation of global economy. One of us probably knows more about sand than the other and certainly we know different things about it.
Think of your holidays and beach excursions, the memories of sand between your toes and all that beach volleyball you may or may not have played. To be called sand, like the crud you brought home in the gusset of your swimwear, the grains should be between 0.02 and 2 millimetres in diameter.
I’m typing this memory looking through eyeglass sand that is lit from sunlight that has been UV filtered through window glass. OK I’m stretching a point. My glasses are more likely acrylic but you get the drift. The sand that is useful for making glass is mostly quartz with a little beryl added for resilience and sheen. My favourite camera lenses also include flourite but that’s another story.
The window frame is set in bricks and cement that include a lot of sand. Sand and water and a touch of lime. There’s a company in the US trying to commercialise a new technology that turns bricks into batteries. They are looking exploit the porous nature of fired house bricks by coating the pores with a nanofibrillar conducting plastic that can store charge.
A rain drop falls in the mountains. It might freeze in a fissure in a rock. The ice expands and in cracking the rock, a small piece breaks off. It washes downslope and finds its way to a stream and is carried to a river. It’s rounded by abrasion alongside other grains driven by the same gravity that propels the water. With enough flow, it’ll be suspended in the fluid water because it’s insoluble and won’t decompose.
Eventually, it will reach a low point and the grains will accumulate. Perhaps they will become placer sands to be mined for diamonds or gold. Perhaps the suspension will invert and grain sitting on grain, they will be geologically hardened to create a lattice within which there will be empty space. Such pore space could be invaded by water or if restricted by folding or faulting, the spaces might be flush with hydrocarbons. Some sandstones are often comprised of 30% pore space.
You probably think that sand is ubiquitous and cheap as chips. However, there are 8 billion of us rather than 2 billion when the age of concrete construction started. Sand exploitation is happening without any global oversight. We need policies, planning, regulation, management and a functioning governance if sand is to be sustainable. Indeed it may be too late already.
I knew the rice grain as a sand grain in the classic chess board exponential counting analogy. A single grain of rice is placed on the first square of the chessboard, then two grains on the second square, four grains on the third, and so on. The number of grains doubles on each square. If rice, your kingdom runs out of rice before you get half way along the board. If sand, well, it helps us understand the enormity of the numbers, very useful for a geologist who needs to think with bigger (and smaller) numbers than most.
Or in time of pandemics, exponentials need to be more widely understood.
For almost 50 years, Moore’s Law has been accurately predicting how computing technology will develop exponentially. But we are reaching the limits of our ingenuity.
Data collection is also exponential and we are at low numbers on the equivalent chessboards.
And all of today’s computing is built on sand. Soon we will need organic or quantum computing to build the technology to collect and store ever more data. But for now, we need sand. Lots more sand.
You know that computer chips are made of silicon because it’s a good semiconductor. To be efficient and cost effective, chips need to made from sand that contains as much silicon as possible. And that’s where quartz comes in handy. It’s composed of silicon and oxygen.
It may be decades before quantum computers become mainstream. By then perhaps vanadium will have replaced silicon in the chip recipe. Or perhaps something else entirely new.
For now, we we need to respect and protect our sand supply. Nothing less than the whole of civilisation depends on it.