How much does the internet weigh?
The special “Science, Technology, and The Future” issue of Discover magazine arrived a few days ago. One of the articles was about how much the Internet weighs. Turns out they didn’t really solve the question that they asked, but who am I to quibble.
To start with their definition of the Internet is how much traffic there is, not how much data there is. I think that the proper definition of what the Internet “is” would be the sum total of all of the bits available, not the bits transferred. Having said that… their number for total Internet traffic was 40 petabytes, which is 40 x 1015 bytes, or a 4 followed by 16 zeros. Like this:
40 000 000 000 000 000
Give or take a byte or two. Next, they determined how much a bit weighs by figuring out how many electrons it takes to set a memory bit “on”, and they came up with 40,000 electrons for each 1 bit, and of course zero electrons for a zero bit. They made the assumption that a data stream would average half of the bits on and half off… afterall a stream of nothing but 1 bit values would not be very interesting. I think that’s a safe assumption. It turns out that each electron weighs about 2 x 10-30 pounds. Which is to say, not much.
So take 40PB of data and reduce it by half so that we get only the 1 bits. Take that times 40,000 electrons per bit, and the weight of an individual electron, do the math… (carry the one) and you find out that the Internet weighs in at 1.3 x 10-8 pounds, or about 0.2 millionths of an ounce. It’s about the same weight as a very small grain of sand.
For my part I’m going to start transferring a very large picture that is nothing but
black white (all 1’s) just to make the Internet weigh more. Come on, who is with me? Let’s start sharing black white squares.
meh, messed up on the first release of this post. Black is, of course, #000000 and white is #FFFFFF… black just looked heavier
Next question: How big is the internet?(in centimeters)
Comment by Ganon_Master — May 9, 2007 @ 11:11 am
I’m the editor who wrote that article, and I thought you might be interested to know why we focused on traffic, not the total amount of available data.
The reason is because until it is accessed — i.e. becomes part of the Internet data stream — the vast majority of this information is stored on magnetic media. However, storing a bit on a magnetic medium does not change the weight of the mediumâ€”altering magnetic domains is a mass-neutral activity, unlike filling a DRAM memory cell with electrons. So, in the same way that we didn’t count all the other parts of the physical infrastructure which transport dataâ€”routers, undersea fiber optic cables, etcâ€”on the basis that it weighs the same whether a single packet is traversing the internet or not, we excluded magnetic media, and the information on it, and just concentrated on the actual data being transmitted.
Good luck with your campaign to make the Internet heavier, although be warned — you could increase the data weight of the Internet by a factor of 100, and still easily be within the range of masses for sand grains!
 There is an argument to be made via the connection between Information Theory and Thermodynamics that writing a bit into any system, (including magnetic media) generates a least a certain amount of heat, and that heat, via E=mc^2, contributes to the mass, but we ran the numbers on this and a) its a really tiny mass contribution compared to the electrons in the world’s DRAMs, and Landauer’s principle has been criticised in recent years anyway. Finally, this mass increase would only occur when a bit was written, and as a bit could be months or years old, we felt it couldn’t really be counted into the current weight of the Internet.
Comment by Stephen — May 11, 2007 @ 2:15 pm
I can’t tell you how surprised and then pleased I was to see your comment, Stephen. Thank you very much for participating in my own little corner of the blogosphere.
I certainly enjoy your magazine. In fact, this is the second post that I have made that references something from Discover Magazine… the first was about the current and quickly growing number of blogs on the web. Maybe it would be interesting to see how soon the rate of blog increases will have a perceptible impact on the weight of the web.
Thanks again for the comment. And your explanation certainly makes sense.
I would be interested to hear how you found my blog post about your article, if you are so inclined…
Comment by dave.rathbun — May 11, 2007 @ 3:56 pm
Glad you like Discover! It’s a lot of fun to work on… As to how I found your blog — there I have to admit to a spot of ego-surfing on Technorati.
Comment by Stephen — May 15, 2007 @ 7:01 pm