IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about computer data and all the data that's out there. We talked a lot about the cell phone - your cell phone that you have. But you are bombarded with - we're all bombarded with lots of data thrown at us all day long. You wake up in the morning, you turn on your radio or your TV, you flip through your paper as you drink your coffee. You listening to music on the train or in your car. You leaf through a magazine. You watch the billboards and you overhear someone else's annoying cell phone conversation.

If you add all that stuff up, all the TV shows, books, movies, text messages, podcasts, Web pages - whew, that's a lot of data. But how much is it, right? We're talking science. Somebody has got to quantify it. Well, we have somebody who's been looking at it. And this was a report that comes from the University of California in San Diego called "How Much Information."

And my next guest is one of the authors. Roger Bohn is professor of Technology Management at UC-San Diego, also director of the Global Information Industry Center there. He joins us from the university. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Bohn.

Dr. ROGER BOHN (Technology Management, UC-San Diego): Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.

FLATOW: Well, you're very welcome. How much data is out there? How much are we exposed to everyday?

Dr. BOHN: Well, we estimate an average person on an average day is getting about 34 gigabytes of data, which is a number that's a little hard to grasp, but it's five DVDs.

FLATOW: It's a whole - a giant hard drive.

Dr. BOHN: Well, we don't store it. We couldn't possibly store it. It goes in one eye and out the other. Even more incredible to me was 100,000 words per day...

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. BOHN: ...either read or heard.

FLATOW: Did that surprise you when you came up with those figures?

Dr. BOHN: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, bytes, it's hard to relate to, but 100,000 words sounds like a lot.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And do we know where most of it's coming from?

Dr. BOHN: It - yes, we do. Television is still the biggest single source. It's about 40 percent in terms of words and bytes. Oddly enough, a lot of the bytes come from computer games, which is something that has not been studied much at all, so the data there is a little bit uncertain. And - but the words are then distributed among a whole bunch of other sources, including a lot from radio, a certain amount from reading, and so forth.

FLATOW: So reading, still, is popular.

Dr. BOHN: There is still reading, although actually what we found is that the amount of reading has increased since 1980, which was our base year. But the reason is people are now reading on the Internet. They're not reading in print anymore.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BOHN: Or they're reading less in print and quite a lot on the Internet.

FLATOW: And they're hand-writing a lot less, I'll bet.

Dr. BOHN: Oh, well, who does that anymore at all?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I - why do you need to know? Why do you need to measure all the streams of data?

Dr. BOHN: Well, it's interesting to know the relative proportions from different sources, and also the growth rate was quite surprising. I was expecting it to grow at kind of a Moore's Law rate, and, in fact it's only been growing a few percent per year.

So that's either a missing - a missed opportunity, or it's telling us that people don't actually care that much about getting the latest high-resolution graphics in their everyday life. They more care about the content, which is not particularly byte-intensive.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. A lot of stuff gets compressed these days, the data itself.

Dr. BOHN: Yes. We've measured the compressed stream, which was one of the measurement decisions we had to make. So, for example, your cell phone transmits at a lower rate than your conventional phone. It's 10 kilobits per second on the cell phone and about five times that on a regular phone...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BOHN: ...which was - it's interesting, and it's reflected somewhat in the quality of cell phone calls, which is not as good.

FLATOW: All this data that's getting thrown at us - and when you say 34 gigabytes or something like that. What do we do with it? Can we make any useful information out of it, or is there a difference between the data and knowledge that we take away from all this data?

Dr. BOHN: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, we didn't measure how much of it is assimilated. We measured how much reaches your eyeballs...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BOHN: ...passing through into your brain - we didn't try to count that - and being retained. Obviously, it's only a tiny fraction of that. People have information sources on in the background when they're driving or they have the radio on when they're using the computer or whatever. It doesn't mean they're actually paying attention to this. And a lot of it's just entertainment in one form or another.

FLATOW: You've now mentioned your eyeballs twice. Does that mean our ears are not important anymore?

Dr. BOHN: Oh, well, in terms of bytes, our ears are not important. In terms of words, our ears are very important.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BOHN: In terms of byte measurements, the only thing that really adds up is the moving pictures.

FLATOW: I see. Interesting how you've parsed that out. How do you handle multitasking? We all - we're all into multitasking, like if I'm watching TV and I'm, you know, surfing the Internet, which - people have their laptops on, right? Well, one of them is serving background at any one time. How do you handle it?

Prof. BOHN: That's right.

FLATOW: Does that count as information consumption, even if I'm not paying attention to it?

Prof. BOHN: Yes. The way we measured it, it's stuff you were exposed to and you may or may not have paid attention to it. We have different data sources for different streams of data, so we couldn't really take care of the double counting. We have double counting in our data. We say an average of 12 hours per day, but it's probably more like 10 hours per day plus another two hours of double tasking.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You mentioned that the - you've expected the byte consumption to be like Moore's Law, but it's actually going up very slowly.

Prof. BOHN: Yes.

FLATOW: Why is that? I would think that it would be exponentially being bombarded with this stuff?

Prof. BOHN: Yeah. It's about five percent. It's only been growing at about five percent per year on a per-capita basis.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BOHN: And the first reason, of course, is the number of hours in the day is fairly finite - not totally finite, but it's limited. So our consumption went up from seven hours in 1980 to 12 hours now...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BOHN: ...which is a very slow rate of growth over - spread out over 25 years. But the other big factor is the television technology has progressed very, very slowly.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BOHN: We looked at 2008. There are some HDTV in the 2008 data, but even HDTV, in terms of byte streams, is only about three times better than conventional television. So that is not going up at a Moore's Law rate. It's the old technology lock-in problem. Once you have a standard set, everything sticks to that standard and it slows down the rate of change.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But interestingly enough, as you said before that your results suggest that the idea that we're obsessed with computers now isn't entirely true. We're still obsessed with television.

Prof. BOHN: That's where a lot of the time is going. Although it's - there certainly are some age patterns in television consumption, as you would expect. The most television is consumed by retired people, as far as I can tell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Oh, is that right? You mean, kids do not watch television anymore?

Prof. BOHN: Well, they watch a lot less than their elders.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. They time shift.

Prof. BOHN: They time shift, and the average teenager watches less than four hours a day, whereas the average person in the 60 to 70 age bracket is watching about seven hours per day.

FLATOW: Hmm. And I guess advertisers watch these numbers very carefully.

Prof. BOHN: Yes. And as you know, there's all kinds of efforts to figure out how to advertise on the Internet.

FLATOW: Does your research suggest any upper limit to the amount of information that we can consume at all and our brains are able to hold?

Prof. BOHN: Well, we didn't look at the - what the brain is holding. And there is a lot of interesting research where people look at fMRI scans of people and absorbing information and see what they're retaining and so forth. Certainly, there appear to be limits to that. What's happening now is we're getting more and more stuff thrown at us, probably about the same amount and sticking as before, although it's...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. BOHN: ...it's really hard to tell.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Gordon in Honolulu. Hi, Gordon.

GORDON (Caller): Greetings, gentlemen. I'd like to find out that people that are blind are really challenged by the society we live in. A lot of the data is are not accessible, even the devices for accessing data are not accessible. And it's one of the things we really have to work with in going forward into the future.

FLATOW: I take it from this that you are blind, yourself?

GORDON: Yes, I am. Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: And so this is a good question. And this is a good problem for people who are blind. How do we reach them? Roger, any suggestions?

Prof. BOHN: Well, it's - words - a lot of words are still taken in through the ears, but a lot more are taken in through reading. So that's definitely an issue. And as you know, there are assistive technologies with computer programs of various kinds. I'm not sure how well they really work, though.

FLATOW: Gordon, do you have a suggestion?

GORDON: Well, yes, indeed. You know, the standards is the problem. The large corporate entities that control a lot of the technological innovation really do limit, you know, how rapidly we adapt. And I'd like to see a time in which we pay a pence to the people, places and objects in our world the data - a tag that one could use to link to the knowledge of the world. Instead of having the genie in the bottle on your desk or in your living room, you could just encounter it, discover it in the world as you move about.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right. Thanks for calling.

GORDON: You're welcome.

FLATOW: Good suggestion. 1-800-989-8255. So where are we headed with this, Roger? Where is this all going?

Prof. BOHN: Well, it's going to increase the amount of so called multitasking goes up, as you probably talked with other guests on the show. There's - the research suggests that people aren't really understanding multiple streams of information simultaneously nearly as much as they think they are.

FLATOW: They're crashing with their cars a lot more.

Prof. BOHN: And they're crashing - absolutely. They're crashing with their cars, and they're not paying attention to me in class, darn it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BOHN: So...

FLATOW: You know, you actually can notice the difference.

Prof. BOHN: Well, to a certain extent. I mean, one of the anomalies in the information age is the face-to-face lectures still seems to be a good way of imparting information. Why on Earth should that be true?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BOHN: And clearly, there's something about our nature, our social nature or the ability to pay attention to non-verbal cues that works better in a face-to-face situation.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So you find yourself having to put up with people who are sitting there with their laptops and not paying attention to you?

Prof. BOHN: Well, I can cold call them and things like that. And - but obviously, you know, they make their own decisions. I teach in graduate school and everybody's an adult...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BOHN: ...and, of course, we go to faculty meetings and some people sit around checking their iPhones.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you - when you collect all this data, does something like that enter in, a lot - if you're driving your car and you look at the location of your car, the billboards I'm looking at, the tweets I'm doing at the same time, do you count all that as - those as separate streams?

Prof. BOHN: That is a good question. No. We're only looking at artificial data that is presented to people, not the - not what you see naturally. And, unfortunately, I could not figure out a way to measure face-to-face conversation.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Prof. BOHN: Yeah. I would love to do that because if you think of face-to-face conversation as something that people use to be really good at and that they would do it for hours after dinner, it's possible the amount of information we receive in bytes has actually gone down.

FLATOW: Interesting. We're talking with Roger Bohn this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

So what does it take for you to measure that stuff?

Prof. BOHN: Well, we need better models of how people assimilate information, their estimates of the equivalent of face-to-face conversation. As you know - probably know, Cisco has a video conferencing system. So we can put rough numbers on that. On the other hand, what I'd really like to know is how did people spend their time 100, 200, 1,000 years ago? And that, unfortunately, is before we started recording anything.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. BOHN: So that's going to be very hard to figure out.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you, Roger. And...

Prof. BOHN: Okay.

FLATOW: ...have a happy holiday. Happy new year to you.

Prof. BOHN: Thanks very much. You, too.

FLATOW: Roger Bohn is professor of Technology Management at the University of California, San Diego and director of the Global Information Industry Center there.

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