How much is 34 gigabytes?

It’s the equivalent of all the data on seven DVDs — all those tiny bits of information that become moving images. Or just more than the amount of data as you’d find on the best iPhone filled to the brim with thousands of songs and apps.

It’s also the amount of data that you’re exposed to each day if you’re an average American, according to University of California, San Diego researchers who tried to measure the true heft of all the email, newspapers, TV shows, websites and everything else that make their ways into our personal space each day.

We’re also exposed, on average, to 100,500 words a day, more than 170 times as many as are in this story.

But it doesn’t mean we’re actually processing that much data.

I asked study co-author Jim Short, research director at UCSD’s Global Information Industry Center, to explain.

Why is it useful to understand how much information we’re being exposed to?

People are intrigued by the idea of the volume of information that is now part of daily life. People speak about overload, turning things off, how they have quiet time.

There are various ways that people have made adjustments because of an implied volume of information available to them. At the same time, they feel a need to monitor some fraction of that information.

One of the questions we were trying to address is: What is the volume if someone was going to try to monitor the information flow that typically occurs?

What do you think it means for our brains to take in all this information?

We stopped short of saying people actually consumed this data. It’s the volume of information that’s available to be consumed.

For example, when the TV is on, someone could be asleep and not watching the television or partially watching it and multitasking.

People say that no one reads anymore, but you found that there’s been huge growth in how much we read thanks to the computer revolution.

Reading, which was in decline due to the growth of television, has tripled from 1980 to 2008. That’s measured in terms of the number of hours that people report for reading. That’s reading across all sources of text-based material, so that includes emails and text messages as well as traditional newspapers and print-based magazines.

Will that have an impact on the written word?

We intend to look at that. We’ve talked to some linguists who study language, how many words get used, and what kinds of words get used more frequently.

The implication of your question is an interesting one: How does the delivery method affect how the content is created?

In an earlier era, the idea of placing a phone call was new to people. We would assume that telephones would have been adopted rapidly, but that was not the case.

People were slow to adopt the technology because the idea that we wouldn’t travel to meet each other to speak person-to- person was unusual. The implied assumption was that you needed additional information besides the words.

Over time, I guess people filled in the data that they previously needed to have in a face-to-face conversation.

Did you check your own exposure to information?

I fit with the average profile. And I found out that I’m unsuccessful at dealing with all the information that comes in.


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