Death of news, part eleventy zillion

December 17, 2009

Here is the best-guess estimate of the total amount of information consumed by the average American in 2008:

In 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day. A zettabyte is 10 to the 21st power bytes, a million million gigabytes. These estimates are from an analysis of more than 20 different sources of information, from very old (newspapers and books) to very new (portable computer games, satellite radio, and Internet video). Information at work is not included.

Zettabytes?  A million million gigs?  Thirty-four gigs per person, on average?  As my head explodes, I recall that the great concern of dinosaurian media types is the “daily me”:  the cocooning of the citizenry in think-alike, self-confirming information.

Not bloody likely.

The opposite argument will soon be hit upon – for all I know, has already been made:  in such information chaos, we truly need a newspaper with our morning coffee, to make sense of the world for us.  This argument has some validity.  In a swirling storm of zettabytes, we need something to make sense of the world.

But there’s no evidence Americans believe newspapers, or news of any kind, provide such a service.  In a typical 2008 poll, 34 percent said they trusted newspapers, and 33 percent trusted TV news.  By far the most trusted source of information was “friends,” and even they only garnered 48 percent.  The effect of information chaos isn’t a smug daily me but the opposite:  distrust of all sources of information.

Nor do newspapers set out to make sense of the world, or even provide information.  From a business standpoint, newspapers sell wall space to advertisers.  Ideologically, producers of news wish to set the agenda rather than explain the world.  They view themselves as the wise shepherds of a dimwitted human herd.

The combination of business need and ideological zeal make the news utterly incoherent:  a miniscule zone of chaos within the larger zettabyte cyclone.

An interesting fact, not often remarked on, is that the majority of information consumed both in bytes and in hours consists of images – TV and video games primarily.  The image has displaced the word in setting the information agenda.  How this affects people’s opinions and behavior is a mystery worth exploring in a future post.