Study quantifies information consumption


A UCSD researcher has quantified how much information U.S. households consumed in 2008 in a report released Dec. 9 and noted that for an average annual growth rate of 5.4 percent.

According to the report, the average American’s information consumption of 34 gigabytes a day is the equivalent of about one-fifth of a notebook computer’s hard drive, depending on the model.

Roger Bohn, director of the Global Information Industry Center at UCSD’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, figured out that Americans consumed approximately 3.6 zettabytes of information in 2008 — the equivalent of the information in thick paperback novels stacked 7 feet high over the entire United States, including Alaska.

One zettabyte is 1,000,000,000 trillion bytes.

“How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers,” is part of a project creating a census of the world’s information in 2008.

The study measured information consumed by U.S. consumers in and outside the home for nonwork-related reasons, and included the gamut of information sources, including going to the movies, listening to the radio, talking on the cell phone, playing video games, surfing the Internet, and reading the newspaper, among other things.

“This report is a snapshot of what the information revolution means to the average American on an average day, who consumes 34 gigabytes and 100,000 words of information,” Bohn stated in a news release.

“The total volume of 3.6 zettabytes consumed last year is much larger than previous studies have reported, partly because they measured different views of information, such as information creation rather than consumption. Also, nobody had looked at the role of computer games, which generate a staggering number of bytes.”

Some highlights include:

  • The new report estimates that between 1980 and 2008, bytes consumed increased 350 percent, for an average annual growth rate of 5.4 percent.
  • On average, 41 percent of information time is watching TV (including DVDs, recorded TV and real-time watching).
  • Based on bytes alone, computer games are the biggest information source, totaling 18.5 gigabytes per day for the average American consumer, or about 67 percent of all bytes consumed.
  • Approximately 80 percent of the population plays some kind of computer game, including casual games such as Bookworm, Tetris and social networking games.
  • Americans spent 16 percent of their information hours using the Internet (second only to TV’s 41 percent). With the proliferation of e-mail, instant messaging and social networking, the Internet today dominates two-way communications, with more than 79 percent of those bytes every day.
  • Despite rapid growth, consumption of new media such as YouTube videos, text messaging or games on smartphones is still outpaced by traditional media.

“There are several hundred million TV sets in the U.S., and depending on whom you ask, about 50 million smartphones,” explained report co-author James Short, research director of the Global Information Industry Center. “And new media devices are increasingly personal devices — mobile phones, Kindles and hand-held gaming devices — with small screens and relatively low resolution, limiting the number of bytes consumed.”
Looking to the future, the report’s authors point to current patterns of information consumption that will change the information landscape by 2015. In addition to the expected widespread use of HDTV, mobile television and video over the Internet have the potential to revolutionize where American consumers receive their visual information.

According to the study, the 3.6 zettabytes of total information used by Americans in their homes far exceeds storage or transmission capacity. For example, the total is roughly 20 times more than what can be stored at one time on all the hard drives in the world. Less than two percent of the total information was transmitted over the Internet.

“What is clear is that we consume orders of magnitude more information than can be stored on hard drives or transmitted over today’s Internet,” said Internet pioneer Larry Smarr, Director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, a partnership of UCSD and UC Irvine. “Even small changes in how Americans consume information would have serious implications for network planners and require large-scale investments.”

To allow comparisons with earlier studies, the UCSD report’s authors devised mathematical formulas to convert all information statistics into words, bytes and the number of hours spent consuming information.

The report, “How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers,” can be found at