A recent piece in Discover Magazine sets out to weigh the Internet.
How heavy is information? Most of us know that computers represent all types of information–e-mails, documents, video clips, Web pages, everything–as streams of binary digits, 1s and 0s. These digits are mathematical entities, but they are also tangible ones: They are embodied and manipulated as voltages in electronic circuits. Therefore, every bit of data must have some mass, albeit minuscule. This prompted DISCOVER to ask the question: How much would all the data sent through the Internet on an average day weigh?
Okay Slaw readers. Write down now what you think the weight of the entire Internet traffic might be? A mountain? A car? A brick? A feather? Heavier than all of that? Lighter than all of that? I’ll give the answer after the picture at the foot of the page.
The physical objects that move through the Internet never go very far. What really goes the distance—what carries the weight, for our purposes—is the bit pattern that represents each packet, which gets continually rebuilt in the electronic memory of system after system as information traverses the network.
If we can work out the weight of the bits associated with a piece of information when it is assembled in a computer’s memory, we are halfway to figuring out the weight of the Internet.
75 percent of all traffic on the Internet is due to file sharing, with 59 percent of that file sharing attributed to people swapping video files. Music tracks account for 33 percent of the file-sharing traffic. E-mail, it turns out, accounts for just 9 percent of the total traffic. And that total is… a staggering 40 petabytes, or 40 x 1015 bytes: a 4 followed by 16 zeros.
Every shade and aspect of human life encoded as 1s and 0s.
Taken together, everything that moves across the Internet in a single day weighs roughly the same as the smallest possible sand grain, one measuring just two-thousandths of an inch across.