(Extra)ordinary Article 003: The Portable Encyclopedia

  • Wikipedia is amazing. There are many reasons why (and I hope to cover more reasons in the future), but here we will consider only one. And it is a big one delivered in a small package.
  • Portability.
  • Unlike older encyclopedias, Wikipedia was created in the era of computers, which brought in a revolutionary change to print as we know it. For the end user, the content you were reading no longer had to dictate the size of the medium you read it from. This was not always the case. Physical books (remember those?) do not have this ability. They are restricted by the medium they are printed on and have limited space per page on which to display content. That is why books are thick: they are stacking pages of content on top of each other and the user can flip through each one to view the content. That is also what makes them heavy. With modern technology, this problem disappears.
  • Now, an entire book can be contained within a device thinner than the book itself. Instead of interacting with stacked sheets of paper, you interact with a single screen that displays the content you want to view. You interact with one page, but that one page can display all of the content you would ever dream of looking at. And the weight now depends on the device, not the content:
  • iPhone 6 Plus weight: 6.07 oz
    iPhone 6 Plus weight (with Wikipedia): 6.07 oz
  • So with this revolutionary change, how portable is Wikipedia? Let’s look at the alternative.
  • Wikipedia is a collection of articles that could be printed, like any other content, as a book. This has been done in some capacity, but as XKCD pointed out there would be some problems. But who cares! Hooray for Hypothetical Land!
  • What would it look like? It would be quite big. There is, of course, a Wikipedia article on the subject but the weight is currently missing, which is a crucial question when it comes to portability. So what would it weigh?
  • This is where we go beyond what physical books can do. Wikipedia is expanding all of the time. This question about the weight of Wikipedia was answered by Vsauce back in March of 2013.
  • About 7000 pounds.
  • But since then, Wikipedia has not been sitting still. As of this posting on July 10th, 2015, the Wikipedia size is at 2174 volumes. Assuming each volume is about 4 pounds, that comes out to:
  • About 8700 pounds.
  • It has increased by more than 20% of its March 2013 size.
  • So, in your smartphone, you have access to a collection of knowledge that, in book form, would be getting bigger by about a volume every other day and heavier by about two pounds a day.
  • Widening your jean pockets is a small price to pay.