What would it take to print out the Internet?

Print out the Internet? The entire Internet? That's the dream of the New York Museum of Modern Art's eccentric poet laureate. And you know what? It's impossible.

Kenneth Goldsmith, whose "art" has included printing out everything he's said for a week (dubbed Soliloquy) and a day's worth of The New York Times (also called a "newspaper") now has launched a Tumblr page to encourage the world to print out the Internet, and mail the printouts. To Mexico.

The goal, Goldsmith said, was to memorialize Aaron Swartz, one of the earliest founders of Reddit who committed suicide after being arrested for downloading copyrighted academic articles from JSTOR, an academic database, and publishing them online.

"The amount of what he liberated was enormous—we can't begin to understand the magnitude of his action until we begin to materialize and actualize it,” Goldsmith told Yahoo.com via email. “This project tries to bring that point home.”

Wikipedia

So is Goldsmith's dream possible? Of course. If you want to bankrupt the nation, that is.

Goldsmith's rules are relatively simple.

"What you decide to print out is up to you—as long as it exists somewhere online, it’s in," Goldsmith wrote. "We’re not looking for creative interpretations of the project. We don’t want objects. We just want shitloads of paper. We’re literally looking for folks to print out the entire internet. "

In Mexico, Goldmsith said, is a 500-square-meter facility, with ceilings six meters high, ready to receive the mountains of paper. And that's where the fun begins.

What would it take to print out the Internet?

According to an estimate by the TheWorldWideWebSize.com, the size of the Internet on Friday, May 31, 2013, totaled at least 4.73 billion pages. (The estimate is compiled by calculating search results for common words like "the" on search engines like Google and Bing, together with some extrapolations and other calculations.

Let's assume that the each Web page can be printed out on a single sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper. Granted, some pages are larger than others, and "infinitely scrolling" pages like Twitter or Google images completely break the model. But for all of the modern, formatted pages with dozens of images that scroll on and on, let's assume that there just as many older pages with archived content, buried in the back corners of the Web. Waving our magic wand, we now have 4.73 billion sheets of paper.

Burj KhalifaWikipedia
The Burj Khalifa, Earth's tallest building.

So how big is that? Well, each ream of paper—500 sheets—is about 5.2 centimeters thick, with one sheet equaling 0.0104 cm thick. Multiply that by 4.73 billion, and we get a stack of paper 491,920 meters high, or 1.61 million feet, or 305.67 miles.

That's about 55.7 times the height of Mt. Everest—or, because it's my favorite building—582.2 times the height of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building.

But that's also a very narrow stack, and it certainly wouldn't stay upright in a stiff breeze. In fact, if it tipped, it would fall nearly the distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco, as the crow flies.That's where Goldsmith's storage space comes in.

Actually, if all our assumptions hold true (and there's a lot of wiggle room built in) Goldsmith's storage space isn't nearly enough to hold the Internet. A 500 square meter warehouse with six-meter ceilings equals 3,000 cubic meters. An 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper works out to 216 mm x 279 mm (or 0.216 m x 0.279 m); multiply that by our 49,192-meter stack, and we get 29,645 cubic meters, without gaps. Not even close.

But wait, there's more

Unforutnately, however, Goldsmith mucked it all up. In his Tumblr post, he says that "[T]here are many ways to go about this: you can act alone (print out your own blog, Gmail inbox or spam folder) or you could organize a group of friends to print out a particular corner of the internet..."

And there in lies the problem. If you begin factoring in email into the definition of "Internet," then the solution really blows up.

In fact, Royal Pingdom estimated that in 2012, 144 billion emails per day were sent over the Internet. That's 52,560,000,000,000 emails per year. Assuming each email represents a piece of paper, and adding back our 4.5 billion Web pages just for fun, we get a stack 52,564,500,000,000 sheets high. That's a stack 5,466,708,000 meters high, or 117 billion feet, or 3,396,850 miles. That's 14 separate stacks of paper from the Earth to the Moon, or 11,634,300,000 cubic feet, just for one year of email, incluidng the total amount of the Web's content.

Assuming our math is correct (and, knowing the Internet, you'll check it) we think we can safely assume that Goldsmith doesn't have a clue as to the size of the Internet.

And what would it cost?

The United States Postal Service offers a handy international box option: 5.5 inches deep, and sized for standard 8.5 x 11 paper. By my calculations, the box will hold 1,344 pages.

To satisfy Goldsmith's request ( a year's worth of email, plus the entire Web) would require 39,110,491,072 separate boxes. At USPS rates, the total cost would be $3.126 trillion, excluding printing costs.

Don't bother.

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