Information overload

Information overload

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by information overload lately, you may not be alone. The amount of new information stored on various media such as hard drives has doubled in the past three years, to five exabytes of new information produced in 2002, according to a recently released study by the University of California.

That’s exabytes, as in one byte with 18 zeros behind it, six zeros more than a terabyte. The amount of information put into storage in 2002, five exabytes, was equal to the contents of 500,000 new libraries, each containing a digitised version of the print collection of the entire US Library of Congress, according to the study by professors Peter Lyman and Hal Varian of the UC Berkeley School of Information Management and Systems. The professors estimated that between two and three exabytes of information was generated in 1999. Most of that data — 92 per cent of it — was stored primarily on hard drives, the study estimated.

The study, a follow-up to a 2000 study by UC Berkeley, doesn’t dwell on how people and companies process these massive amounts of information coming at them, Lyman said, but his next goal was to produce a study examining that very issue.

“I’m going to spend the next year on the consumption of information,” he said. “How do people make sense of this? How do they cope?”

The current study didn’t address the quality of information and how people choose good information sources, he said. Significant differences existed in the “accessibility and usability and trustworthiness” of information between various sources, Lyman said.

“We treated it all the same, simply to understand how much there was ... but when you get into consumption, the discrimination over the quality of information, and how you make that decision, really becomes important,” he said.

With the amount of stored information growing at a rate of about 30 per cent a year, a “real change in our human ecology” is taking place, he said.

“Everything is public,” he said. “Everything is on the record.”

One problem with all this information being stored was that it’s not always accurate, he said.

As information passed through multiple hands, it could be condensed or mischaracterised, so commentaries or reports on a speech or a paper Lyman gave 20 years ago sometimes contained distortions, he said.

“There are multiple renditions, only one of which I remember,” he said.

The study underscored the need for companies to smartly manage their information, director of corporation information at EMC, Gil Press. But IT solutions weren’t the only answer, because humans still needed to look at information with a critical eye.

“We are getting swamped, and we need better ways to organise and manage information,” Press said. “Hopefully, information technology will never replace smart thinking and the human analytical thinking.”

The amount of stored information is not all the information that’s being produced. Electronic channels — including TV, radio, the telephone and the Internet — produced three and a half times as much information as was stored in 2002.

Most of that information was exchanged through voice telephone calls and not recorded or stored, Lyman said. The telephone accounted for the largest percentage of information flow -— 17.3 exabytes if stored in digital form — followed by email, which generates about 400,000 terabytes of new information each year, the study’s authors said.

The researchers estimated that the World Wide Web contained 172 terabytes of information on public pages.

The UC Berkeley researchers used various methods to estimate the amount of information generated and stored, including statistics such as hard drive and paper sales, publication statistics and a sampling of the Web.

One surprise for Lyman was that while digital storage continues to grow, the use of paper to transmit information is not shrinking. His team estimated that the number of terabytes of information put on paper each year increased by 36 per cent from 1999 to 2001. The amount of data stored magnetically each year increased by 80 per cent between 1999 and 2002.

North Americans each consume 11,916 sheets of paper each year. Residents of the European Union consume 7280 sheets, the team estimated.

The majority of that paper information is produced by office documents and mail, not in formally published titles such as books or newspapers.

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