In this post we examine how much textual information we consume in a typical day, focusing in particular on blogs, news, email, IMs, Twitter. In a follow-up post, we will explore visual information consumption.
At a high level, information is a fascinating concept. Each year we learn more and more profound facts about the seemingly simple patterns of zeros and ones that make up our daily lives. Indeed according to recent discoveries in Physics, we are made of information. Seth Lloyd, professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, popularized and explained this notion in his bestseller Programming the Universe. His theory revolves around information as a physical entity and the universe itself as a quantum computer. In his work, he poses questions like this:
- How much information is there in the universe?
- What information existed at the moment of the Big Bang and what happened to it?
- How do quantum mechanics and chaos theory interact to create our world?
- Could we attempt to re-create it on a giant quantum computer?
But he does not just pose these questions, he works to answer them as well. In 2002 he calculated the answer to to the first question (how much information is there in the universe?) to be a whooping 10120 bits.
The Big Bang of the Social Web
Leaving the cosmic matters aside, let's focus on our daily lives. Obviously information via the Internet and other media is having an increasing impact on us. In addition to exchanging more information daily, we are consuming more and more information. What's more, the recent rise of social services has brought nothing less than a content explosion - which has led to a sharp rise in our daily information consumption.
But just how much information do we digest daily? Of course it varies and it's hard to calculate exactly. But now we will look into several text information types and try to figure out how much information is contained in each.
Text Information: Blogs, News, Email, Chats and ... Twitter
It is common these days to use news aggregators like Bloglines or Netvibes to subscribe to RSS feeds. So we can build a simple model to estimate how much information people consume via these channels. The model is of course crude and depends on the number of feeds that you subscribe to, but you can get a feel for the order of magnitude. Below is the model that I worked out based on my own RSS subscriptions. All of the blogs that I read are divided into categories, depending on number of post that they generate. In the first row there are blogs that generate at least five posts per day. As an aside, some of the blogs that I read have been generating 10-15 posts per day - ouch! I like filtering information, but I like it even better when others do it for me! Then there are blogs that do at least one post per day and the ones that do at least one per week. Finally, some blogs I read post very infrequently, which this model ignores. Here then is the result:
So my daily intake via RSS is about 55KB. Of course I do not really read 32 posts fully, instead I skim them. But that happens with most things these days.
The other forms of text that we considered were Email, Chat and Twitter. These are tricky to calculate because you have to make a lot of assumptions. In the example below, Email and Chat numbers are based on my experience - but I personally do not use Twitter that often. If you would like to plugin your own numbers, here is the Excel spreadsheet that we used for calculations. Please note your own results in the comments to this post.
So all the text information I consume daily adds up to 100 KB. Perhaps for some people this number would be two or three times more, but it is unlikely that someone is consuming 10MB of text per day.
Now for a comparison with the universe! 100K is about 106 bits, which is vastly smaller than the universe. And note that this is only for text-based information. Images and Video are entirely different, much heavier objects. We are planning to cover visual information in a separate post.
You need to take these calculations with a grain of salt. The amount of information that you are actually processing when reading a piece of text is actually much more than just the number of bits in the text. It is an intricate interplay between the object and the observer - and truly it is in the eye of the beholder. However, the amount of information that you are getting when reading this article is no less than the number of bits in it.
Human beings are capable of a staggering array of things. There is little doubt that our information processing abilities are near the top of this list. Interestingly, with the rise of social services and the read/write web, these abilities are being put to the test. How much can we process? Is there a limit, or will we continue to learn new ways of dealing with information? These are profound questions that neuroscientists are working on everyday.
In the mean time, we are left with a sea of information to deal with on a daily basis. Good luck to you with that, filter well and have fun!
Note: the top image is from the Afg Checks web site.
Note: Thanks to Lars Hundertwasser for pointing a bug in my original calculations