Consuming Mass Quantities

by Robert Pondiscio
December 10th, 2009

Americans consume an estimated average information diet of 100,000 words each day, in print and online, via TV and radio, as well as music, movies and even games.  An exhaustive study of data consumption by researchers at the University of California, San Diego concludes Americans averaged almost 12 hours per day of  information consumption in 2008. 

Despite a surge in computer use, “traditional media of radio and TV still dominate our consumption per day, with a total of 60 percent of the hours. In total, more than three-quarters of U.S. households’ information time is spent with non-computer sources.”  A New York Times summary of the study points out that consumption of print media is a mere 36 minutes per day on average, but the report itself notes that time spent reading is actually rising:

The use of different media has changed dramatically over time. It is a cliché that reading is in decline. But on the other hand we get considerable information from the Internet, which is a heavy print medium. Do we really read less?  Conventional print media has fallen from 26 percent of [words consumed] in 1960 to 9 percent in 2008. However, this has been more than counterbalanced by the rise of the Internet and local computer programs, which now provide 27 percent of [words consumed].  Conventional print provides an additional 9 percent. In other words, reading as a percentage of our information consumption has increased in the last 50 years, if we use words themselves as the unit of measurement.

 The study focuses exclusively on consumed information and is largely focused on information as data (34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day).  There was no attempt to capture the number of words “consumed” in face-to-face conversation, although phone usage is part of the study, thus face to face conversation would add to the 100,000 word average daily consumption.  There was also no apparent attempt to look at information consumed by different demographic and socioeconomic groups.


  1. Thanks for drawing attention to this study. Sounds like a must read.

    I wonder if there’s a way to measure the amount of time devoted to sustained reading of a single article or text. There are different types of reading, and I find that my own reading on line seldom takes me from beginning to end of anything. That’s not necessarily bad, but might we be losing something even as we gain volume of words?

    Comment by Claus — December 10, 2009 @ 11:22 am

  2. This was a large thrust of the Atlantic piece last year, “Is Google Making Us Stupid.” This is was nut graph of that piece by Nicholas Carr:

    “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

    Where’s Dan Willingham when you need him? I’d love to get his take on all this.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 10, 2009 @ 11:30 am

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