The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information, and the worst graphics I’ve seen in a really long time

The current issue of Science includes an article by Martin Hilbert and Priscila López entitled “The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information.” The content of the article seems to me unremarkable, a laborious estimation of the total quantity of data stored on different media in recent decades. It’s hard to see anything useful coming out of this, but to paraphrase Muhammad Ali — if they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, perhaps they can make something useful out of this study.

I mention the article only because of the astoundingly bad graphics it contains. Take this for example,

bad graph

And as confounding as that is on screen, it was far worse in print, where the various colors and patterns were harder to distinguish. Scientific graphics should illustrate trends and/or to encapsulate voluminous data in useful summaries. Beyond the trivial point made by the line graph in the background that we’re storing more data now than we used to, this graph seems to tell the reader “we don’t know if any of this matters, so we’re going to print everything.” Meanwhile, the pie charts are so hard to read that the reader would almost certainly have been better off had he just been given the tables of underlying data.