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What would happen if we printed the internet?


What would happen if we printed the internet?

Those of us who went to school in the 1990s may remember Microsoft Encarta, which was essentially an enormous encyclopaedia with tens of thousands of entries, all condensed into one computer programme. Pre-internet, it was the go-to place to research your homework, or just look up rude body parts and laugh at the fact that there was a type of bird called a ‘booby’.

A funny moment I remember from school was when somehow, someone in my class accidentally managed to print the whole of Encarta. Before he knew what he was doing, the printer was churning out information about the letter A, and then producing copy about the aardvark. It was working on Winnie the Pooh writer A. A. Milne’s entry before the irate teacher turned off the printer, seized the dozens of pointlessly printed sheets and scolded the boy for his greenhorn printing methods.

Of course, the internet came and made Encarta, along with many printed encyclopaedias, largely redundant. It contains far more information than you could fit in a book, bookcase, library, or even a 1990s computer for that matter. This makes me wonder what would happen if my one-time schoolmate still hadn’t learned to print correctly in 2016 and, in a moment of spectacular oafishness, managed to print the entire internet?

A work of art

I’m disappointed but not surprised to learn that I’m not the first person to consider the possibility of printing the internet. Poet and University of Pennsylvania professor Kenneth Goldsmith conducted a 2013 project called ‘Printing out the Internet’ in which he encouraged people to send printed pages from the web to a Mexico City art gallery. He ended up with an exhibit of printed material weighing 10 tonnes, irking environmentalists and those with copyright protection concerns in the process.

On paper or in practice

Goldsmith’s efforts were a start, but a study from last year indicates that he barely scratched the surface of the behemoth that is the World Wide Web.

University of Leicester students Evangeline Walker and George Harwood worked out that printing every single page on the visible Internet would require 136 billion sheets of A4 paper, which is enough to reach from Britain to the Pacific Islands if stacked on top of one another.

With even the fastest printers capable of only getting through 100 pages per minute, it would take more than 2,500 years for a single printer to physically reproduce everything on the web, and that’s not allowing time for the inevitable paper jams or toner cartridge replacements.

And there’s more!

Bear in mind that the internet is expanding exponentially, so you would actually be getting further and further behind in the time the printing process took. Also, don’t forget the ‘deep web’ – the non-visible part of the internet estimated to be up to 550 times bigger that the visible content – and the scale of the task becomes truly unimaginable.

In short, don’t do it. The internet is big, so keep it on your computer or mobile device.

John Murray

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