The internet is huge. So huge that humans have spent years trying to quantify the concept. As noted by Live Science, for example, a study published in Supercomputing Frontiers suggested that the internet had a storage capacity of 10^24 bytes, while tech company Cisco estimates that global internet traffic will reach 1.1 zettabytes per year by the end of 2016. But it doesn't stop there. A few years ago, physicist Russell Seitz asked another question: How much does the internet weigh? He got an answer — 50 grams — but what's this data worth? Here's a look at why digital mass matters to consumers and corporations alike.
The Strawberry Solution
Seitz' work is explained by a Vsauce video from 2011, which puts the weight of the internet in context as a "fat strawberry." But how did Seitz find his number? Put simply, it's all about electrons. For data storage and transfer to happen on any device — smartphone, desktop PC or internet server — you need electrons. And while these particles aren't exactly massive, they do have weight: approximately 9.1 x 10^-31 kg. Take that and apply it to an ordinary email, which comes in at about 50 kilobytes: You need 8 billion electrons. Sounds like a lot but only comes in at two ten-thousandths of a quadrillionth of an ounce.
Seitz scaled this up to determine the weight of all internet traffic and got 50g, or the weight of one strawberry. Applied to all the stored information online, which is around 5 million terabytes, the number is just 0.2 millionths of an ounce. Of course, Seitz' original numbers were based on estimations made five years ago, meaning the total weight of the internet has increased substantially compared to his original measurement. Ultimately, however, all this information remains virtually weightless.
The Medium and the Message
So here's the question: Does weightless mean worthless? Is there any value to the Seitz calculation beyond the satisfaction of knowing something we didn't know before? Absolutely. Let's start with data itself: Electrons may be virtual lightweights, but that doesn't mean they're capable of organized transmission without the right physical medium. In other words, without the weight of servers, modems, routers, desktops and mobile devices around the world, these electrons are nothing more than a random assortment of information rather than the semi-regular collection of emails, videos, text messages, news articles and corporate systems that now exist online.
When it comes to the internet, the medium is the message: Physical objects are necessary to convey digital data. As a result, the question "how much does the internet weigh?" is a kind of reductio ad absurdum, effectively pushing the boundaries of human knowledge to their ultimate end to see what sticks. What matters here isn't the final calculation but the fact that humankind is capable of building this sort of system, let alone quantifying its properties.
But what about all that weightless information? Categorized as nearly massless, it makes the data contained online seem almost trivial, since humankind has a preponderance for large, imposing objects which by their mass signify their importance, for example the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, or the Statue of Liberty. As noted by NPR, however, even electron-based information still carries weight — just a different kind.
Perhaps it's a picture of revolution, of intolerable cruelty or the spark of human kindness, but the weightless data transmitted by electrons causes a kind of cascade effect in the human brain: new neural pathways are built, associations developed and conclusions drawn. In effect, the internet functions like a fledgling brain, carrying ideas across the world in milliseconds to change the way people think.
Bottom line? Measurements of the internet — its size, shape, weight, breadth and depth — will continue unabated as human beings look for ways to quantify what lies beyond the scope of casual thought. What matters here, however, isn't the mass of electrons sent around the global every day or the crushing weight of servers needed to hold the data of humankind but rather the function of the internet as a kind of idea machine that speeds the growth of new thought and innovation.