How Much Data Does America Consume?

How much data and information do people in the U.S. consume? What kind of data? Those were some of the questions researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) recently set out to answer. They turned up some eye-popping results.

The report, “How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers,” reveals that U.S. households consumed approximately 3.6 zettabytes of information in 2008. (The numbers also include television and radio transmissions.) That’s roughly the amount of information found in thick paperback novels stacked seven feet high over the entire U.S. — including Alaska — according to UCSD estimates. One zettabyte is one billion trillion bytes.

Among the other findings:

  • The 3.6 zettabytes of total information used by Americans in their homes far exceeds storage or transmission capacity.
  • 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 2 percent of the total information was transmitted over the Internet.
  • Between 1980 and 2008, bytes consumed increased 350 percent, for an average annual growth rate of 5.4 percent.
  • The average American’s information consumption tops 34 gigabytes a day.
  • On average 41 percent of information time is watching TV (including DVDs, recorded TV and real-time watching).
  • American consumers watched 36 million hours of television on mobile devices each month.
  • 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.
  • Americans spent 16 percent of their information hours using the Internet (second only to TV’s 41 percent).
  • Americans consume about 1.8 hours of Internet video every month, or roughly 0.89 exabytes.
  • Communications and web browsing result in 65.7 hours of usage per month, per user, and generate about 8.01 exabytes of data.

These data sets are based on an interesting interpretation of the meaning of data and information.

We distinguish between data and information. Information is a subset of data – but what is data? For our purposes, we define data as artificial signals intended to convey meaning. ‘Artificial,’ because data is created by machines, such as microphones, cameras, environmental sensors, barcode readers, or computer keyboards. Streams of data from sensors are extensively transformed by a series of machines, such as cable routers (location change), storage devices (time shift), and computers (symbol and meaning change). These transformations, in turn, create new data. Data is not information until it becomes available to potential consumers of that information.

So what is information?

Our measures of information include all data delivered directly to people at home, whether for personal consumption (such as entertainment), for communication (e.g., email) or for any other reason.

The caveats notwithstanding, one can easily argue for or against this study. I don’t care either way. One of the reasons I’m so intrigued by its findings is because I believe that the big growth in data (and information) consumption is not behind us, but ahead of us. Just imagine when there are billions of smart edge points: smartphones, e-readers or entirely new Internet content consumption devices. This is going to be the single biggest challenge — and opportunity — of the coming decades. It won’t be long before zettabyte becomes yet another word we learned on our way to a world that is drowning in data.