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How Much Data Do We Consume?

How much data and information do we in the U.S. consume? What kind of data is it? University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers asked these, and many other questions, in a just released research report (PDF) which contains stunning results.

My emphasis from their executive summary: "In 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day. A zettabyte is 10 to the 21st power bytes, a million million gigabytes. These estimates are from an analysis of more than 20 different sources of information, from very old (newspapers and books) to very new (portable computer games, satellite radio, and Internet video). Information at work is not included."

That's a lot of data! What impressed me about their findings was that they took in to account multiple source inputs since, as I've found, many of these research studies focus on the new, internet-centric data consumption as though traditional forms of data delivery (the "old" above) are suddenly irrelevant.


Their explanation of our consumption -- outlined in the chart above -- and helps us understand why the growth rate is only 2.6 percent per year though digital data seems to have accelerated dramatically in that timeframe: "Hours of information consumption grew at 2.6 percent per year from 1980 to 2008, due to a combination of population growth and increasing hours per capita, from 7.4 to 11.8. More surprising is that information consumption in bytes increased at only 5.4 percent per year. Yet the capacity to process data has been driven by Moore's Law, rising at least 30 percent per year. One reason for the slow growth in bytes is that color TV changed little over that period. High-definition TV is increasing the number of bytes in TV programs, but slowly."

So what of the accelerating change in computing and internet-centric digital data delivery? Since I believe we're at the very early stages of a shift from physical to digital media and that the acceleration in its delivery has only just begun, I was interested to see how they approached that portion of their research, "...computers have had major effects on some aspects of information consumption. In the past, information consumption was overwhelmingly passive, with telephone being the only interactive medium. Thanks to computers, a full third of words and more than half of bytes are now received interactively. Reading, which was in decline due to the growth of television, tripled from 1980 to 2008, because it is the overwhelmingly preferred way to receive words on the Internet."

Once again this gives me warm fuzzies about the fear many of us have had about the possible loss of literacy in an internet age and also points to the future I've been predicting over and over again on this blog: the shift to an online, internet-centric delivery of content and information is accelerating and is one our students will inherit and soon. For that reason alone, it's worth downloading (PDF) and reading this report and familiarizing yourself with its conclusions.

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I'm shocked by these fingures.

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