By Isabelle Robinson, M.Sc.Apr 20 2018
The internet comprises of videos, documents, and web pages. It contains a massive amount of information that grows every day. Every email sent, a comment left, and an article published creates more data which is stored in binary digits (1s and 0s) and read by computers. Given that this data must have mass, how much does the entire internet weigh?
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A professor of Computer Science at the University of California, Dr. John Kubiatowicz, uses the example of the e-reader, Kindle, to show how information can have mass. He explained that a Kindle uses a type of transistor that uses trapped electrons to distinguish between the two states of binary.
“Although the total number of electrons in the memory does not change as the stored data changes,” Kubiatowicz stated, “the trapped electrons have a higher energy.”
Using Einstein’s famous equation (E=mc2) and a conservative estimate of 10-15 Joules per bit of stored data, then the difference between the mass of an empty kindle and a full kindle can be calculated as approximately 10-18 grams. (Ray, 2011)
Taking this further, Russell Seitz used the idea that the internet is composed of server networks that run the internet. He approximates that 100 million servers are operating at around 350- 550 watts each (Seitz, 2006) or 40 billion watts collectively. Given this information, and the fact that silicon logic runs at approximately 3 volts and a chip runs at a gigahertz, Seitz calculates that the entire weight of the internet is approximately 50 grams, the same as the weight of a large strawberry (VSauce, 2011).
However, this is a calculation of the weight of the energy that is used to run the internet rather than the energy contained on the internet.
Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO of Google, estimated that the internet holds around 5 million terabytes of information, although this figure is likely to have increased significantly giving that the internet is growing alarmingly quickly, doubling every five years.
By using this figure, a simple calculation can be used to find out that the internet weighs only about 0.2 millionths of an ounce in stored data. This minuscule mass is roughly the same as the smallest possible grain of sand (Cass, 2007).
Of course, these figures were based on the internet a decade ago. According to recent studies, 90% of the data has been created within the last two years (Hale, 2017). In a 2014 study by Supercomputing Frontiers, the estimated storage capacity of the internet was 1024 bytes. However, it could be argued that a better way to estimate the size of the internet is to measure its communication capacity which, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index Initiative is approximately two zettabytes per year! (Pappas, 2016)
Using the estimated storage capacity, the fact that an electron weighs approximately 9.1x10-31 and the knowledge that there are approximately 40,000 electrons per bit (Cass, 2007) (although only around half of these are stored as 1’s), we can estimate that the internet now weighs around 5 ounces.
As no one knows exactly how big the internet is, it is nearly impossible to reach an accurate figure. The mass of the internet is subjective and depends upon which method of calculation you use. However, it is evident that the internet will continue to expand with no sign of stopping and will, therefore, increase in mass as well.
Cass, S. (2007, May 29). How Much Does the Internet Weigh? Retrieved from Discover: https://discovermagazine.com/
Hale, T. (2017, July 26). How Much Data Does the World Generate Every Minute? Retrieved from IFLScience!
Pappas, S. (2016, March 18). How Big is the Internet, Really? Retrieved from LiveScience: https://www.livescience.com/54094-how-big-is-the-internet.html
Ray, C. C. (2011, October 24). The Weight of Memory. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/25/science/25qna.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&src=tp&adxnnlx=1319904165-PvwPMwuILjGNEh8dgt7zAA
Seitz, R. (2006, October 25). Weighing the Web. Retrieved from Adamant: http://adamant.typepad.com/seitz/2007/04/weighing_the_we.html
VSauce. (2011, October 29). How Much Does the Internet Weigh? Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaUzu-iksi8
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