How much information do our brains “download” each day?

internet vs tv

If you were to transcribe every word you saw or heard during a week, the result would be longer than War and Peace. That’s one of the statistics thrown up by a report that finds the average person now reads three times as much as their 1980s counterpart, thanks mainly to computers in general and the Internet in particular.

The headline statistic from the research by the Global Information Industry Center is that the US population as a whole consumed 3.6 zettabytes of information during 2008. That fact appears to have been given prominence mainly so that the authors can show off having heard the unit “zettabyte”: it’s equal to one million million gigabytes.

Expressed in a slightly more manageable way, the figure works out as 1005000 words and 34 gigabytes per person each day. That’s 4.72Mbps, meaning we receive data quicker than many broadband connections could supply it. (It’s also equivalent to 2.1GB of data each hour, which would be enough for my cable provider to throttle my brain if it had the chance.)

The data figure is based on all information users experience, including TV pictures. The study only covers information consumed at home rather than work, and notes that on average we spend 11.8 hours per day receiving information at home. Throw in sleep and work and that doesn’t seem to make sense until you remember to account for weekends, holidays and people who don’t work. Probably more significantly, the same hour can be counted twice if somebody is, for example, “watching” TV while using the internet. Even with that in mind, it’s clear that for the average citizen there is very little time when they aren’t receiving information.

The most surprising note is that video games are responsible for 55% of the information received by people at home, simply because of the level of detail in animated graphics.

The figures recorded for the study are purely for the information which the consumer actually hears or consumes. The authors note this leaves out data such as the content of commercials which are recorded on a DVR but skipped through.

While consumption of print media is on the decline, the presence of the internet means people today actually read considerably more. Indeed, whereas in 1980 only around 12% of the words people came across each day were read rather than heard, today that figure is around 36%.

The study also looks back at figures gathered since 1980 and notes that although improvements in technology has meant the potential information we can receive increases by around 30% each year, the actual information we receive only increases by a little over 5 percent. However, that does add up to a four-fold increase over the past three decades.

The main reason for this relatively slow rate of increase is that TV dominates our information consumption, but the level of information carried by a broadcast has changed little over the past 30 years because the technology itself is virtually identical. That’s likely to change significantly as people switch to more detailed high-definition pictures.

As you’d imagine, the data is drawn from a variety of sources and includes a huge degree of estimation and extrapolation.

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2 Responses to How much information do our brains “download” each day?

  1. This is interesting data, from a worthwhile research project. That said, it’s important to keep in mind that information has quality in addition to quantity. That the information I read in a week has more words than War and Peace does not necessarily mean its value – by whatever measure you like – is necessarily higher than that book’s. I’m really curious to know how the quality of consumed data is trending, and hope someone will end up researching this as well.

  2. This is interesting data, from a worthwhile research project. That said, it's important to keep in mind that information has quality in addition to quantity. That the information I read in a week has more words than War and Peace does not necessarily mean its value – by whatever measure you like – is necessarily higher than that book's. I'm really curious to know how the quality of consumed data is trending, and hope someone will end up researching this as well.

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