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How Many Zettabytes Do You Consume?

We've heard terms "infoglut" and "information overload" for years, but now we know just how much information we really consume.

U.S. households consumed about 3.6 zettabytes of information in 2008, according to a study just released by the University of California, San Diego. One zettabyte is 1,000,000,000 trillion bytes. The researchers equated the total bytes consumed to thick paperback novels stacked seven feet high across the United States -- including Alaska.

The research effort was announced last year along with the sponsorship of several tech heavyweights including AT&T (NYSE: T), Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO), IBM (NYSE: IBM), LSI, Oracle (NASDAQ: ORCL), Seagate Technology and PARC.

The study measured information consumed by U.S. consumers in and outside the home for non-work related reasons. This included going to the movies, listening to the radio, talking on a cellphone, playing videogames, surfing the Internet and reading the newspaper.

On average, a typical U.S. citizen consumes 34GB and 100,000 words of information a day, according to the report's author, Roger Bohn, who directs the Global Information Industry Center at UC San Diego's School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.

And where is all this information coming from? TV still rules. The report estimates on average, 41 percent of information time is spent watching TV. This includes DVDs, recorded TV shows and live programming. The advent of advanced mobile devices is having an impact, too. The report estimates American consumers watched 36 million hours of television on mobile devices each month.

Surprise, growth is slowing

If there was one surprise in the results it's that the rate of growth of information consumption isn't increasing all that much. "You'd think it's growing at the speed of Moore's Law , but it's not," Bohn told InternetNews.com. "The amount of information available to people may be increasing at a high rate, but the amount they consumer is only growing a few percentage points a year."

Because the study estimated information consumed in terms of bytes, the growth of services like Twitter, which really hit its stride this year, probably won't have a positive impact on information consumption growth rates.

"Twitter uses very short messages so the bytes-per-minute are tiny," said Bohn. If you're using bytes, and there's an argument to made whether that's the best way to measure, video is what counts, nothing else matters that much."

Based on bytes alone, computer games are the biggest information source totaling 18.5GB per day for the average American consumer -- about 67 percent of all bytes consumed. About 80 percent of the population plays some kind of computer game, including casual games like "Bookwork" and "Tetris" and those found on social networking sites, according to the report.

Sixteen percent of an average American's "information hours" were spent using the Internet, second only to TV's 41 percent.

Bohn said an updated study is likely in the next three to five years that will reflect the changing technology landscape, including the rapid adoption of HDTV and social networks.

Bohn noted that the technology exists to let everyone watch whatever programming they want whenever they want to, but it hasn't proved economically feasible to offer commercially.

"The big question everyone has is what's going to happen to delivery of what today we call today 'TV?'" said Bohn.

While the Internet plays a key role, it's far from the only information source.

"What is clear is that we consume orders of magnitude more information than can be stored on hard drives or transmitted over today's Internet," said Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, a partnership of UC San Diego and UC Irvine. "Even small changes in how Americans consume information would have serious implications for network planners and require large-scale investments."

The study, "How Much Information," is available in PDF format here. Future studies will look at information consumption in the workplace, a research area that's generated some surprising findings.