IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

America's media consumption so high it's measured in zettabytes

Media consumed by hour
Roger Bohn and James Short / UCSD
David McNew/Getty Images

Americans consumed 1.27 trillion hours of media in 2008, says a study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego. A trillion not doing it for you? In that same period, 10.85 quadrillion words were consumed. In this evaluation of the nation's media consumption, the sheer totals are astounding.

The researchers, Roger Bohn and James Short, wanted to get a sense of the total media consumed, if you count every second and every byte of data that every person is exposed to. The approach they took involves a lot of estimation and modeling, so the numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, but these figures seem to at least be in the ballpark.

The paper is very inclusive in what it considers "consumption." If one person watches an hour-long TV show, that's one hour of consumption. If there are two people on the couch, that makes it two hours. If they're on their laptops the whole time, that makes four hours — not to mention all the words and bytes of data they're consuming all the while. The result is that their estimated totals are numbers that seem almost defy belief.

For digital consumption in 2008, which was the year for which the study collected data, Bohn and Short calculate that Americans consumed a total of around 3.6 zettabytes of data. That's 10 to the 21st power, or 3.6 million million gigabytes: 34 gigabytes per person per day. It's hard to imagine what this could all be, but when you consider how much data in every format and context we encounter every day, it starts to sound more realistic.

Roger Bohn and James Short / UCSD

Scroll up and down this article; you have just consumed several megabytes of data and a few thousand words. Watch a movie (TV and streaming services are both transmitted digitally now) while checking your email and Facebook — more megabytes, more words, and of course more hours. The researchers couldn't consider how closely we attend to the data, so exposure is all that matters for their purposes.

It also means that you can be exposed to more than 24 hours of information per day, though it would be difficult. Phone calls while looking at webpages, TVs on in the background, and so on add up, and we can consume all this information without really even registering it.

And needless to say, consumption of all forms of media has increased since 2012, especially Internet-based streaming.

Interestingly, the capacity for the average American to consume media has increased far more quickly than their actual consumption: Since 1980, the report says, there has been a steady increase rather than the exponential one that might reasonably be expected. They explain it thusly:

Roger Bohn and James Short / UCSD

The method they used to estimate bytes per second consumed by various devices (SD television signal versus, say, a high-resolution PC game) may be questioned by some, and alternative interpretations could easily produce lower, or higher, estimates. In fact, much of the report relies (as many do) on averages, generalizations and extrapolations, since there is no way of directly measuring the amount of data consumed by every single person in the country. But as Short told NBC News in an email:

In media research circles the question continues and there is no magic bullet, it's more likely a problem where composite measures and over-time indicators of device usage, substitution, and multi-tasking each give a picture of one part of the question, but not all of it.

In other words, their research uses certain methods and gets certain relevant results, but other methods might produce other results, no less relevant though perhaps very different.

Their report is long and thorough, and there is a lot of interesting data tucked away inside. You can download the full report in PDF form here and peruse it at your leisure.

Short also said that a new report is in the works and should be available later this year, in which no doubt there will be even more zeroes attached to the end of the figures.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.