Back to Cass’s explanation:
Inside a typical computer’s memory, the thing that remembers if a given bit should be a 1 or a 0 is a capacitor. This is a component on a chip (typically) that is capable of holding a small amount of electrical charge. Charge up a cell’s capacitor and it represents a 1. Uncharged, it represents a 0. The memory’s capacitors are so small that they each require only about 40,000 electrons to charge up. That’s a really small amount: Some 5.7 x 1018 electrons flow through a 100-watt lightbulb every second.
Cass estimates that a typical “50-kilobyte e-mail weighs about two ten-thousandths of a quadrillionth of an ounce, about the weight of 21,000 lead atoms”; keep in mind that an ounce of lead contains “about 82 million quadrillion atoms.” In calculating how much information passes through the internet, Cass arrives at a figure of a “staggering 40 petabytes, or 40 x 1015 bytes: a 4 followed by 16 zero.” If you plug this figure into the same formula as that used for the 50-kilobyte e-mail, you get a figure of 1.3 x 10-8 pound which is equal to “about 0.2 millionths of an ounce.”
Seitz arrives at a higher weight (the strawberry) by considering “what fraction of the silicon inside [a box full of integrated circuits] is abuzz with electrons in motion.”
Whether it’s a strawberry or grain of salt, the physical weight of the internet is staggeringly dwarfed by the vast amounts of information we access, stream, send.
The Bearable Lightness of Being in the Internet Age
A question such as “how much does the internet weigh” might seem a philosophical conundrum, today’s equivalent of how many angels there are on the head of a pin; a topic for medieval philosopher types to debate. But the weightlessness of the internet suggests that being light and nearly weightless doesn’t mean you are powerless.
The Internet connects people. What it is doesn’t matter. What it carries, that matters. Ideas aren’t like chairs or tables. They have their own physics. They make their own weight.
So the Internet weighs about as much as a strawberry? It can still stop tanks.
Not only can 2011 be tagged as the year of the protester. It has also been a year in which it can be said that that the almost-weightless mattered and literally made real change in the form of fallen dictators and bodies amassing amid calls for democracy in the streets.
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