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Where the Data Is

person on sofa with remote control

Photograph by Keirsten Balukas

The vast Internet delivers only a sliver of the information the average American consumes each day, according to a recent report by the University of California, San Diego ( Less than 1% of the daily data diet comes from Web browsing, way behind the top three providers—video games, television, and movies, says Roger E. Bohn and James E. Short in "How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers." That improbable finding is due to a statistical slight of hand that measures information consumption in bytes, giving streaming video supersize status. The numbers are less extreme though still slanted when Internet information is measured in hours (15.6% of total versus 75.1% for moving-picture media) or words (24.7% versus 47.6%). They are skewed further because they only measure information consumed at home, not work.

The report is full of extravagant, oddball stats: Americans consumed 1.3 trillion hours of information in 2008; those 3.6 zettabytes are 20 times more than could be stored at one time on all the world's hard drives. Some 70% of adults play computer games; 10 million subscribers watched 3.6 hours of video on average per month on mobile phones; and gaming PCs occupied less than 2% of data consumption hours but almost 40% of total bytes. And on it goes; data devoid of context. What else to make of its comparison of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (1,293 bytes) with an episode of NBC's "Heroes" (10GB)?

The report sidesteps assigning "value" to information and allows that the Internet "provides a substantial portion of some kinds of information" but misses a key distinction: movies and computer games aren't consumed as a source of data. They are junk food, M&Ms to the Web's square meals. Yes, the Web also serves empty calories, and TV can serve healthy fare. But people do not use video-based media to finish work, communicate with friends, and help make decisions. The Internet plays all these roles. It is the primary source of news for 40% of adults ( Some 80% use it to socialize ( It is a source of information on medical conditions and treatments for 61% of U.S. adults ( And 53% find help for financial decisions ( online.

Serious stuff, but hard to see amidst the 34GB you take in each day.

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