What is exponential growth anyway?

I was just thinking about old computers. Back in the late 80’s there wasn’t much of an Internet but there were BBS’s. You used a modem to call a phone number and it would create a link to some other computer. Then you could post messages to other people or look for copies of The Anarchist’s Cookbook (a very shady little publication distributed in text files. It had recipes for explosives that, more often than not, would explode in your face. I’m glad I never tried ’em.)

My first modem was a 1200 baud modem. This means it transfered about 1200 bits per second. This was, of course, maddeningly slow but it was all we had. Maybe a year later we upgraded to a 2400 baud modem which was twice as fast! A couple years later we upgraded to a 9600 baud modem, and that was pretty great. Four times as fast as the 2400 baud. A year later we had a 28.8 kbaud modem, or 28,800 baud.

They made a 56 kbaud modem but by that time I had lost interest. My best friend had got on the beta test list for a new service: cable Internet. We hooked it up one day and started downloading some files, and we were shocked and overjoyed to see the speed climb almost up to 100 kbytes per second. This was lightning fast! This was a revolution.

My family moved to Calgary and we got cable Internet. It climbed up to almost 200 kbytes/sec which was astounding. Virtually every couple of years the cable company would announce system upgrades and the link would speed up. I remember the first time I hit 500 kbytes/sec, and the first time I hit 600 kbytes/sec.

The greatest day was the first time I hit 1,000 kbytes/sec. The download speed meter in my browser switched, for the first time ever, to a megabytes meter. 1.1 mbytes/sec. Astonishing.

Now I’m in Berlin and I have DSL internet of a very high quality. The package I have draws an amazing 2.5 mbytes/sec down, and for an extra five Euro per month I can upgrade to the top tier service which is approximately 5 mbytes/sec.

Every step in this chain was approximately a doubling of speed, but here’s the thing:

My DSL Internet connection is as fast as 16,667 1200-baud modems.

Despite this astronomical speed, the DSL modem is about the same size as my 1200-baud modem, though it runs a little hotter.