Humanity has always had a propensity to look upwards, to gaze into the night sky and all of its unfathomable infinity. We try in vain the get our heads around just how mind bogglingly huge it is. Some of us spend nights lying awake simply from the knowledge that it’s there, in all of its terrifying enormity. But for all its long-eye stargazing, humanity oft misses things right beneath its collective noses. For on this island earth of ours we have created a colossal thing also of unfathomable size, perhaps not to quite the same magnitude as the entire vista of creation but still fairly big. And what makes it even more mind-blowing is the fact that we did it almost by accident: piecemeal, day by day we have added to it and let it grow and it has become a titan far beyond even the most outlandish and fevered dreams of its creators. This thing of which I speak is the internet and it just keeps on getting bigger.
The comparison of the internet to the universe is one which I think is suitably apt. Until the mid-90s most people in the world had never even heard of the internet. It was a quaint curiosity known only to a hardcore group of computer wizards and science-smiths. Then it exploded. Now a little over fifteen years later and it is beyond ubiquitous. We can stand in a deserted field in the arse-end of nowhere and have access to the accumulated knowledge of modern society cradled in the palm of a hand. But I feel we often don’t quite appreciate how wondrously big the internet is. Just look at YouTube. It launched in early 2005 and by 2007 it was estimated that it was using more bandwidth than the entire internet had used in the year 2000. In a single day nearly 12 years worth of video footage is uploaded, which equates to over 4,000 years worth of video being uploaded every year. You might think that’d be more than enough to sate the appetites of the masses but the amount of material watched by the aforementioned masses dwarfs this. Extrapolating the approximate figures from YouTube’s own website in a single year a staggering 4,109,589 years worth of footage is watched. By contrast humanity, in its current evolutionary form, has existed for perhaps a little less than 200,00 years. Four million years ago was the time of Australopithecus afarensis. Just think about that for a moment, the vast majority of human evolutionary history was over a time-scale comparable to the amount of time the human populace spends watching videos of funny cats. As for internet popularity? YouTube only takes home the bronze medal.
My pondering over the size of the internet came when I discovered a particularly humorous video-blog series that had been running since 2007. It’s not something that had dwelt in obscurity, it was actually pretty popular. But despite this I had continually failed to learn of its existence for five years. With the internet being as big as it is, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to see or view all of the popular or worthwhile content. The actual size of the internet is something that is hard to measure, being a diffuse entity you can’t quite pin all of it down and measure it with a big cyber-ruler. Estimates as to its size vary wildly from 1 exabyte (1018 bytes or 1 followed by 18 zeroes) up to 1 yottabyte (1024 bytes.) As a comparison it’s been estimated that “all words ever spoken by human beings” could be stored in 5 exabytes of text, or 42 zettabytes (4221 bytes) if digitized as 16 kHz 16-bit audio. That is a lot data. As a further comparison consider that the observable universe contains between 30 sextillion (3021)to a septillion (1024) stars. So in essence humanity has effectively constructed its own micro- universe and filled it with porn and cats.
But where will the relentless march of the internet end? With the ever-increasing amount of content available it is even now almost impossible for someone to partake of it all, it’s more or less impossible to just skim it. In the future will the sites you frequent on the internet become as defining as your regional or nationality identity is today? A world where it becomes more relevant to say “I’m from literary blog-cluster 478#FF2” than it is to say “I’m from Northern England.” I’d like to think that this would in some way tear down to walls of national sovereignty and usher in an age of global unity, but humanity doesn’t have such a great track record on this front. It would probably just become another reason for mankind to enact violence upon one another. As I am found of saying “Give a man a fish and he’ll weaponise it and use it to kill his neighbour.” This of course assumes that the internet proceeds on its present course of expansion. It’s entirely possible that we could one day reach a point where the internet hits a data zenith before starting to collapse under its own weight, too large and unwieldy to manage, use or navigate. Or the internet could just be hacked away at bit by bit, pruned by government regulations, gnawed away until all its voluptuous flesh is gone and only the bones remain. The process could even occur naturally, areas of the net simply dying off through lack of traffic, becoming lonely ghost towns, still there but utterly empty. Slowly being supplanted by new sites, falling into the cracks between directories like a building being swallowed by the desert only to be rediscovered decades or centuries later by teams of determined cyber-archaeologists. These brave souls forever in search of the lost Lol-Cats of legend.
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