Are numbers getting too big to understand?

Image with permission from web site ( numbers used to be a tactic used by public relations practitioners to attract media attention and demonstrate their cause or story was of major significance.

When we are dealling with more and more global and complex issues, I’m wondering whether some numbers are too big for us to comprehend? 

I outlined some figures to PR undergraduates yesterday regarding the number of blogs that Technorati tracks – which is 70.5 million.  This number didn’t get a reaction at all – even when broken down to 1.6 million posts per day, or over 18 updates a second. 

I’m not sure if they were unimpressed or overwhelmed by the volume of chatter online.  The reports the amount of digital content produced across the world last year was 161bn gigabytes.  This is “equivalent of 161bn iPod Shuffles or 161 of so-called exabytes” – but I can’t get my head around 161 billion anything.  Even a metaphor doesn’t create a recognisable image – “a dozen stacks of hardback books stretching from the earth to the sun.”  Maybe a comparison will help:

“all human language since the dawn of time would take up about 5 exabytes if stored in digital form. In comparison, last year’s email traffic accounted for 6 exabytes.”

What I did understand is that little of this “stuff” is original; most is replicated material.  But by 2010, apparently, 70% of digital information will be “user-generated”. 

A number that did grab me was that London’s 200 traffic surveillance cameras generate roughly 8m gigabytes every day.  I’m not really sure what it means, but it sounds a lot – which makes me nervous when combined with a quote from IDC that:

“The real opportunity represented by digital information is that it can be used more efficiently, we now have the opportunity to analyse the heck out of it.”

Does it matter if people cannot identify with big numbers?  Without understanding we rely on the context to tell us whether something is worthy of our interest or concern.    When huge figures are cited in relation to global warming, poverty, disease, waste and other important issues, if we can’t relate to them, it will be easier to influence us on the basis of an impression that something is good or bad. 

I don’t think the students yesterday understood how to react to the increasing number of blogs – is it impressive or frightening?  I’m not sure, but feel it is important to understand big numbers.

So in an attempt to do so, let’s turn to the Guardian explanation: a bit is effectively a single entity (0 or 1), and a byte is eight bits (eg 01010101) – which when invented in the 1950s at IBM was the smallest amount of data from which a computer could undertake a calculation. 

1,000 bytes = 1 kilobyte (KB) – 2kb is roughly the amount of data on a typewriten page
1,000 KB = 1 megabyte (MB)
1,000 MB = 1 gigabyte (GB)
– a 1GB iPod will store around 240 songs
1,000 GB = 1 terabyte (TB)
1,000 TB = 1 petabyte (PB)
1,000 PB = 1 exabyte (EB)
1000 EB = 1 zettabyte (ZB)

If you are still with me, 1 ZB = 1,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000 bytes

And in writing this, I think I’ve just contributed another kilobyte or so.

Update: Image used with permission from Prodige Software Corporation via website ( – many thanks.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

3 thoughts on “Are numbers getting too big to understand?”

  1. Numbers are my weak point too, I would be lost without my computer. Do you know how many zeros there are in a billion or trillion?

  2. I’m actually good at maths (having achieved double A level), but these large numbers are particularly hard to grasp.

    The challenge with billions and trillions is that there is a difference between the US and the rest of the world – and further confusion because even here, the US approach is increasingly common.

    The traditional UK, approach was fairly easy and logical if you remember bi = 2, so billion has twice as many zeros as a million (that’s 12) and tri = 3, so trillion has 3 times as many (that’s 18).

    The US apprpoach is billion = a thousand million – 1,000,000,000 (9 zeros) and trillion for our billion (12 zeros).

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