The Titanic Problem of Information Overload: Its Scope and Scale

“Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink”, 18th century words that have 21st century relevancy. In Samuel Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the mariner is in an ocean of water, but cannot find a drop to drink. In the 21st century, the mariner is all of us. In an age of vast seas of information, all of us must navigate the information that surrounds us all day—every day—to find the few drops of information that are consumable and usable.

In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, the oceans of information we produce and consume are titanic. In 2008, Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes of information. Let me break that down. One zettabyte is equal to a million million gigabytes. As a number a zettabyte looks like this: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That is twenty-one zeros. Yes, twenty-one zeros. If 3.6 zettabytes of information were printed in the form of a textbook, all of the continental United States and the state of Alaska would be covered with a seven foot stack of books.1

This all raises the question, how is information measured? There are many ways to measure information. In the digital age, information can be measured as the flow of bits and bytes. On a computer, a binary bit is equal to either a 0 or 1. Taken together, many bits convey meaning.

What about information that is printed and consumed in hard copy? Well, A typical character is equal to 1 byte which is equal to 8 bits of information. After doing some math, one would find that the typical book is roughly equal to 1 megabyte of information.

The information that Americans consume every year comes from a myriad of places: television, print, radio, phone, internet, movies, and music. Interestingly, though, despite the pervasive presence of the internet in our lives, it only accounted for about 25% of the information consumed (in word format and time wise) in 2008. Americans consume about 12 hours of information every day, of which 60% of that time is spent listening to the radio and watching TV.2

Netcraft’s January 2010 Web Server Survey puts the number of website online at 206,741,990 sites (this includes top-end domains and their sub-domains).3 All of which contain about a trillion webpages. That is a lot content, and that is just the web. In 2005, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt estimated the internet’s size to be five million terabytes of information (a terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes). Eric Schmidt went on to say that from 1998 to 2005, Google indexed .004% of the internet and that if the internet stopped all growth and became stagnant, at its 2005 size, it would take another 300 years for Google to index it.4

Beyond interactive bits and bytes, many of us still consume our information from hard copy sources. I love books, but can there be such a thing as too many? Take the Library of Congress, it is the largest library in the World. It houses over 100 million items, adds 7,000 new books to its collection each day, and has over 530 miles of shelving. Looking at the question from a global scale, in all of the world’s libraries there are 16 billion volumes, or 2.5 times as many books as people on the planet.5

The world’s library collections are enormous in scale, but the publishing industry is not far behind. According to Bowker publishing, during the year 2008, there were 275,000 new titles and new editions published. That is down 3% from the year before.6 With numbers like these, interlibrary loans and system holds are critical library tools.

In the 21st century, consumers are besieged by a cacophony of information that is at times dizzying and overwhelming. From 1960 to 2008 the per capita time spent consuming information has gone up by 60%: from about seven hour a day to about twelve hours a day.7 However, as the idiom goes: garbage in, garbage out. Quantity does not equal quality, and for this reason librarians will always be in demand.

  1. Roger E. Bohn, & James E. Short. How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers. Retrieved January 13, 2010, from http://hmi.ucsd.edu/howmuchinfo_research_report_consum.php
  2. Roger E. Bohn, & James E. Short. How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers. Retrieved January 13, 2010, from http://hmi.ucsd.edu/howmuchinfo_research_report_consum.php
  3. January 2010 Web Server Survey – Netcraft. Netcraft. Retrieved January 14, 2010, from http://news.netcraft.com/archives/2010/01/07/january_2010_web_server_survey.html
  4. Thomas H Forthe. (2009, May 12). How Big is the Internet, and How Does One Measure a World Wide Phenomenon? Retrieved January 14, 2010, from http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1728454/how_big_is_the_internet_and_how_does.html?cat=15
  5. Libraries: How They Stack Up. (2003). OCLC. Retrieved January 20, 2010, from http://www.oclc.org/reports/2003libsstackup.htm
  6. Bowker Reports U.S. Book Production Declines 3% in 2008, but “On Demand” Publishing More than Doubles. R. R. Bowker. Retrieved January 14, 2010, from http://www.bowker.com/index.php/press-releases/563-bowker-reports-us-book-production-declines-3-in-2008-but-qon-demandq-publishing-more-than-doubles
  7. Roger E. Bohn, & James E. Short. How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers. Retrieved January 13, 2010, from http://hmi.ucsd.edu/howmuchinfo_research_report_consum.php