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Page last updated at 07:02 GMT, Tuesday, 14 August 2012 08:02 UK

The age of information overload


Victoria Belmont finds out who is really in charge - our technology or us?

By Alex Hudson
BBC News

From reading emails to managing status updates on mobile devices 24/7 with an all-you-can-eat data plan - we are consuming information like never before.

Forget about describing bytes as mega and giga, think exa and zetta because by 2016 there may be the data equivalent of every movie ever made hurtling across the internet every three minutes.

While that may seem like way too much for a person to watch, an academic study by the University of California, San Diego, suggests that current data levels are the equivalent of each US citizen consuming 12 hours of information - or media - each day.

An average US citizen on an average day, it says, consumes 100,500 words, whether that be email, messages on social networks, searching websites or anywhere else digitally.

In this photo illustration the Twitter website is displayed on a mobile phone at a NRL match
In some cases, talking about an event is more important than the experience

And as the university says we sleep for seven hours a day, in practice that means that three quarters of waking time is spent receiving information, the majority of which is electronic.

But the definition of "media consumption" is hazy and any difference between seeing something and actively reading it, is, in statistics, difficult to differentiate.

"If you are on the computer and the TV is on, Nielsen [a television measurement firm] still call it watching TV," says co-author of the report Professor Roger Bohn, of UC San Diego.

"In principle, you can have more than 24 hours of consumption in a day."

Tasered with a text

So with there still being the same 24 hours in a day, more information is being circulated in the same amount of time, leading to something that has been titled as "information overload".

168 million emails sent
694,445 Google searches
695,000 Facebook status updates
370,000 Skype calls are made
98,000 tweets on Twitter
20,000 new posts on Tumblr
13,000 iPhone apps downloaded
6,600 new pictures on Flickr
1,500 new blog entries posted
600+ videos posted totalling over 25 hours duration on YouTube

And that is a problem that is beginning to get noticed.

"A lot of this is a user interface problem," says author and New York Times journalist Nick Bilton.

"Things are designed to really grab your attention. When you get a text message, your phone vibrates, it dings, you have to respond to it."

And what this means is that real life conversations are being interrupted by digital distractions.

Bilton added: "It's like if I wanted to have a conversation with you and I zapped you with a taser and held a stop sign in front of your face.

"It wouldn't be a nice way to talk to you."

But what is this information that is being received?

Take for example, the tweets passing through Twitter at a rate of around 100,000 a minute. Research commissioned by The Harvard Business Review says that only 36% of tweets from a user's feeds are worth reading.

And the use of the internet as a whole is being linked with addiction that could affect one in 10 people.

Those with the condition, a report found, felt similar effects to those addicted to alcohol, cocaine or cannabis.

Information society

But the internet is seen as something more integral to a modern way of life than those addictions.

A man works on a booth as preparations are under way for the CeBIT IT fair on February 28, 2011 in Hanover
Digital information has become an integral part of many people's lives

So much so that inventor of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee believes that access to the web has become a human right.

"It's possible to live without the web," he told an MIT symposium.

"It's not possible to live without water. But if you've got water, then the difference between somebody who is connected to the web and is part of the information society, and someone who [is not] is growing bigger and bigger."

The influence of the internet has now grown so much that some people are going to extreme lengths to escape "overload".

Technology journalist Paul Miller has given up the internet for a year.

"Every conversation feels informed by the internet in some way, or like it will end up on the internet some way," he wrote.

If you want to comment on his escapades, you can reach him not on Twitter, or by email, but by phone or writing a letter to his PO Box.

To many people, this will feel almost nostalgically old-fashioned.

The world wide web is still only 23 years old.

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