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?
In searching for an answer, we scanned technical databases, tore through reference books, Googled like crazy, and checked with experts. It soon became apparent that if we wanted an answer, we were going to have to work it out for ourselves, as no one else appears to have tackled this question before*. So we put our thinking caps on and set the coffee machine on extra strong.
The key to figuring out the weight of the Internet relies on understanding the essential process that controls all the information passing through it, whether you are talking about an e-mail being sent across the street or a video feed from a Webcam on the other side of the world. In order to travel across the Internet, information is broken down into packets—little gobbets of data ranging from a few dozen to over a thousand bytes in size. As well as the information being transmitted, the packet also contains addressing details that routers—computers dedicated to moving data around—use to determine where the packets should go.
But that’s just one e-mail. How much information—all the Web pages, instant messages, video streams, and everything else you can imagine—passes through the Internet as a whole? Not an easy number to track down, but finally we got our answer from Clifford Holliday, author of Internet Growth 2006 (published by the telecommunications consultancy Information Gatekeepers). He estimates the total amount of Internet traffic by looking at the activity of end-user connections, such as dial-up modem lines, DSL, and fiber-optic connections. Broadband connections to homes and businesses, like DSL and cable modems, are responsible for generating most of the load, which also goes a long way toward Holliday’s discovery that 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.
Taking Holliday’s 40-petabyte figure and plugging it into the same formula that we worked out for our 50-kilobyte e-mail results in a grand total of 1.3 x 10-8 pound. At last, after much scribbling (and perhaps a little cursing), we had our answer: The weight of the Internet adds up to just about 0.2 millionths of an ounce.
Love letters, business contracts, holiday snaps, spam, petitions, emergency bulletins, pornography, wedding announcements, TV shows, news articles, vacation plans, home movies, press releases, celebrity Web pages, home movies, secrets of every stripe, military orders, music, newsletters, confessions, congratulations—every shade and aspect of human life encoded as 1s and 0s. Taken together, they weigh roughly the same as the smallest possible sand grain, one measuring just two-*thousandths of an inch across.
William Blake’s famous poem Auguries of Innocence (1803) begins, “To see a world in a grain of sand....” He was being more prophetic than he could have ever known.