Chances are fairly good that you grew up with the internet.
Well, in some capacity, at least. ARPANET, the precursor to the internet, established its first computer-to-computer link in 1969, and the modern internet came into being with the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1990. That means that, as of the time we wrote this, the internet has been influencing—and eventually reshaping—world culture for nearly 50 years.
Nevertheless, we sometimes take this technological marvel for granted. By delving deep into math and history, we can see the internet in a completely new light—even if that means comparing it to a piece of fruit.
1. With some creative math, we can actually figure out how much the internet weighs. It’s pretty sweet.
First, let’s get this clear: We’re not talking about the weight of the servers, wires, and connectors that make up the internet’s physical infrastructure. We’re talking about the actual data that makes up the internet.
And yes, data does actually have a weight; it’s just very, very small. In 2011, YouTube host Vsauce decided to try to quantify that weight. Vsauce worked with professor John D. Kubiatowicz of Berkeley University in Florida, who used Einstein’s formula for mass–energy equivalence to assign weight to the electrons that make up stored data.
Kubiatowicz figured that storing 50 kilobytes of data—roughly the data required for one email—would require about 8 billion electrons and weigh about “two ten-thousandths of a quadrillionth of an ounce.” Scaling that up, a full 4GB Amazon Kindle would weigh about 0.000000000000000001 gram more than an empty Amazon Kindle.
Estimating the size of the internet at 5 million terabytes, Vsauce concluded that all of that data would weigh about 50 grams (again, not counting the energy required to deliver that data). That’s about the same weight as a strawberry.
Of course, there’s a slight issue here: The internet has grown substantially since 2011. Unfortunately, nobody knows exactly how large the internet is, and it’s realistically impossible to calculate accurately. Regardless, it’s presumably a seed or two heavier than a strawberry today.
Here’s Vsauce’s original video:
If you think that’s incredible, consider this…
2. In 1956, a five-megabyte hard drive weighed a ton. Literally.
Remember, when Vsauce and Kubiatowicz estimated the internet’s weight, they weren’t considering the weight of the technology required to deliver the data from one place to another. If they had, they’d have found that the internet weighs quite a bit more than a strawberry—or all of the strawberries in the world, for that matter.
While data itself can be explained as a collection of electrons, in real life, we can’t store data so efficiently. We rely on hard drives and other technologies, and those tools can be heavy (not to mention expensive).
Consider the IBM 350 Disk Storage Unit. Introduced in 1956 by the International Business Machines Corporation, the unit was an absolute behemoth, both in terms of size and capability. It held an astounding five megabytes of data—an enormous sum in the late 1950s, yet a sneeze compared to your smartphone’s capacity—and weighed over a ton.
To store data, it used an innovative system of 50 discs coated with magnetic material. Used in conjunction with the 305 RAMAC computer system, they were basically the first commercially successful hard drives.
Fortunately, data storage science improved substantially over the next several decades. That efficiency was crucial to the spread of the internet, because…
3. Each year, the internet requires over 90 billion horsepower to operate.
A report from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory calculates the cost of energy consumption at American data centers at around 70 billion kilowatt-hours per year. If that were mechanical energy, it would be equivalent to around a yearly 93 billion horsepower.
That’s just for the major data centers that provide services like Netflix and YouTube. Add in all of the private servers, and the numbers are truly staggering—and, once again, essentially incalculable, since the internet doesn’t keep a running record of all its hardware.
The Department of Energy (DOE) estimate notes that data centers consume about 1.8 percent of all of the electricity produced in the United States, and unfortunately, most data centers don’t really need to consume that much juice. According to the DOE, data centers could reduce their electrical consumption by 45 percent by using energy more efficiently.
4. Every minute, YouTube users upload over 300 hours of video.
Collectively speaking, of course. Granted, most of that content isn’t worth watching—how many cat videos can you watch before you’ve seen them all?—but it’s an impressive figure, given the site’s humble origins.
YouTube started in 2005, reportedly after founders Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim had trouble sharing videos they’d shot at a dinner party. The site’s first video, an 18-second clip of Karim standing in front of elephants at the zoo, was posted on April 23, 2005, and has racked up more than 45 million views to date.
Today, about a billion people use YouTube every day. That’s about a third of the internet’s total traffic, and the site is truly international; YouTube has local versions in more than 88 countries and in 76 different languages.
5. A single Google query utilizes about 1,000 computers.
When you type “cute cat pictures” into Google, you probably imagine a single computer accepting and processing your query, then returning a list of results. Perhaps you think of a big room of servers—or perhaps you’ve never thought about it at all.
In any case, chances are fairly high that you’re underestimating Google’s search infrastructure. While the company is extremely secretive about its methods, in 2009, Google fellow Jeff Dean acknowledged that a search query utilizes 1,000 machines to return results in about 200 milliseconds.
Those results, by the way, are tailored to each user. Search for “cat food,” then search for “Purina,” and the search engine should route you towards Purina’s cat food (as opposed to the brand’s dog food). Google considers factors like search history and word choice when creating its results, which takes a lot of processing power.
The good news: Google claims that its search engine infrastructure is extraordinarily efficient.
“We currently use about 0.0003 kWh of energy to answer the average search query,” Google wrote in 2010. “This translates into roughly 0.2g of carbon dioxide …. By purchasing and generating renewable energy, as well as buying high-quality carbon offsets, we bring our carbon impact to zero.”
6. About 4 billion people will use the internet regularly in 2018.
That’s over half of the Earth’s population (7.6 billion). Today, internet access is often seen as a fundamental to human expression. The United Nations even mentions the internet in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” the organization states. A later section of the document specifically mentions the internet and discourages member nations from restricting citizens’ access.
That’s a somewhat controversial view, as countries including Russia, China, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa oppose idea of the internet as a fundamental human right.
Still, the internet will likely continue to grow over the next decade. In 2016, total global internet traffic surpassed one zettabyte (a single zettabyte is equal to one trillion gigabytes), and as low- and middle-income households in Asia continue to gain access, the internet should continue to grow.
7. With that said, let’s take a look at the first email ever sent.
In 1971, engineer Ray Tomlinson sent an electronic message from one computer to another via an ARPANET program called CYPNET. Granted, the computers were right next to each other in his Cambridge, Massachusetts laboratory, but the ramifications were enormous: He’d essentially invented email.
So, what was the first message exchanged on this world-changing piece of technology? If you’ve got your hopes up, prepare to be disappointed:
“something like QWERTYUIOP.”
Tomlinson was simply testing the programs he’d designed, so he didn’t put much thought into the actual message. It’s not exactly “one small step for man,” but “something like QWERTYUIOP” still holds an important place in internet lore.
Later, Tomlinson would introduce the idea of using the @ symbol in email addresses. Prior to that, the symbol was used primarily in accounting to describe pricing (for example, “4 computers @ 1,000 = $4,000”).
In 2017, internet users sent about 269 billion emails, and some analysts estimate that email will grow by about 4.4 percent over the next four years. The average American office worker receives about 121 emails a day, but most of those messages are spam.
8. Ever wonder where the term “spam” comes from?
Oh, and while we’re on the subject: Today, the term “spam” is widely understood to mean “unwanted emails.” That wasn’t always the case. In 1993, an early internet user compared junk mail to the unpalatable lunch meat in a famous Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch:
In the bit, a group of vikings sing a song consisting of the single word “spam” until a woman yells at them to shut up. The joke caught on, and today, the term is inexorably linked with email.