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How We Use Media (And Vice Versa)

Humans are good at many things, but perhaps nothing more so than staring at the bright and diverting. It began with fire, which was probably stared at late into the night, writes Quentin Hardy.

india Updated: Sep 15, 2009 20:52 IST

Humans are good at many things, but perhaps nothing more so than staring at the bright and diverting. It began with fire, which was probably stared at late into the night. More recently we've looked at television screens, computer screens, mobile phone screens, GPS navigation screens, game screens and in-store display screens, to name a few. And they tend to be more entertaining than flame.

The average American will, this year, stare at one electrified screen or another for a total of 3,188 hours. That is more than the average adult will sleep. This momentous crossover--the triumph of 40 blinks over 40 winks--is a remarkable testament to the power of media, and how much great stuff there is on all those screens.

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OK, a lot of it is still television--commercial television, at that. We will exceed 365 hours of commercial viewing this year, and that is not counting all the pop-ups, float-overs and on-site videos we'll see on the Internet. But at least the television--which is still far and away our largest electronic commitment--has a really big, clear picture. In 2004 we had just 6 million high definition televisions in the U.S.; today we boast 10 times as many.

The most remarkable thing about electronic media is not just its abundance. It is the way we just consume more of it--all of it. For years, we have heard about the death of radio because of television, television because of the Internet, Web surfing because of the mobile Web. You will notice, however, that almost nothing seems to go away. For the most part, it does not even ebb.

"There is no single medium we track that is going considerably down," says Nicholas Covey, a researcher at Nielsen, which tracks consumption of all these media, plus magazines and newspapers. "Everyone wants us to say something is up at the expense of something else. We have to keep reminding them that very little goes away."

Book reading, he notes, is going up. Even things that seem to die have often just morphed. Printed newspapers and magazines, which still take up about an hour of the average day, are transitioning to the Internet and other platforms (the problem for print media is revenue, not readers.)

Western Union ( WU - news - people ) sent telegrams for 162 years, until 2006, trading that business for money orders, a different form of wire-based information transfer. If you want some popular media that outright died, you have to go back to stereoscopic slides: The Keystone View company, founded in 1892, had by the mid-1930s some 2 million images, and most middle-class homes in America had a viewer. Keystone lasted in that business until the mid-1950s, and only donated its images to a university collection in 1978.

Clearly, we seem wired to take information in, with no desire to stop. That makes sense from an evolutionary point of view--when would our ancestors not have wanted information about where the lion was? But it leaves researchers with a puzzle. Where are we finding the time? "Don't know," says Covey. "The clock isn't getting longer, but people want more."

The answer may be in our collective triumph of viewing over sleep--according to the Centers for Disease Control, many of us are not getting enough shut-eye anymore. It's hard to do, when YouTube is adding 20 hours of new video every minute--you might miss something.