Reconciling the Limits of Human Bandwidth

Despite all of the great intentions and ideas to have a perfect deliberative discourse, we run up against very practical and even principled problems that I call the bandwidth problem. This piece examines what the bandwidth problem is, and how to best manage it.

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What is the problem?

With the unending stream of current affairs news, one can easily lose any semblance of productivity merely by trying to keep up with things. The conundrum is clear, particularly for those who want to stay fully up-to-date with current affairs. On the one hand, you have the principle of informing oneself, engaging with people in discussion, and to some degree or other “putting yourself out there”. On the other hand, there is the importance of self-care and productivity, the practical limits of these discussions (and thus the limits of their utility), and the difficulty of systematically discerning between important content to learn and consume and the extraneous content of innumerable forms.

What are some examples of how the problem manifests itself? 

Social media appears to be one of the main culprits of bandwidth maximization, in particular Facebook and Twitter, but the 24-hr news cycle writ-large plays a notable role too.

Consider the last time you posted some content on your social media profile about a current affairs issue. As is the case for nearly all of these issues, multiple interpretations of the event or issue are not only plausible but probable. Even as many people increasingly find themselves locked in echo chambers in social media, there still often emerges at least one voice of dissent of your take.

Now the question: do you engage the dissent?

Many have stories of times in the past where they engaged in similar scenarios and the discussion either descended into a never-ending tit-for-tat, or into an all-out ad hominem exchange (or even both). As such, it is natural to feel some trepidation about diving in again with a similar outcome likely (or at least possible).

someone is wrong on the internet.png

This problem can also manifest itself in more indirect ways as well. The media landscape is such that people are constantly bombarded with content from those competing for their eyes and ears. This becomes overwhelming at some point for everyone.

While there are other ways that the bandwidth problem can manifest itself, the sheer magnitude of media volume, particularly from social media, likely represent the largest effects on this trend in the past decade.

What do we do?

The first thought to combat this issue is to simply cut back.

To some extent, this is actually a good idea, but only if done in a strategic manner. To simply cut out media consumption completely or even drastically, regardless of your interest in these issues at the start, undermines your ability to contribute to the body politic, and weakens the larger discourse.

A major challenge is understanding what the minimum threshold of current affairs knowledge is that allows one to remain vigilant and able to discern a requirement to deep dive (where digging further into a story is appropriate). In this context, I suggest finding ways to avoid most of the “breaking news” and simply find the appropriate times to consume the information needed at an interval that works in your routine. Consider how often it is critical that you know about a breaking news story as soon as it released. For most people who are not journalists, PR professionals or political staffers (or the like), learning about a breaking news story as soon as it happens is not necessary to remain an informed citizen. In fact, it is common for imperfect information to spread in many such news stories. Waiting a few hours or even longer increases the odds that the information available is of better quality.  

How do we move forward?

As should be clear by now, answers are not simple and straightforward. However, it is at least useful to acknowledge the problem as it stands in all of its complexities. It seems to me that the best we can do as individuals after acknowledging the issue are three things:

1)      Take an Audit

2)      Experimentation

3)      Create Mental Models of Engagement

Take An Audit

It is one thing to understand the problem in the abstract, but quite another to understand its effects on your personally. Taking a simple evidence-based approach would be useful here, but avoid overcomplicating it. The goal here is to understand what your consumption is like so that you can eventually understand what you really need.

For example, we can leverage a number of different tools on the internet which calculate how much time you spend on various websites. Rescue Time is a great example of one of these apps but there are a number of others. Find such an app that connects to your browser to understand your habits for at least a week. There are rudimentary ways to track it manually, but I suggest apps to maximize both ease and accuracy. In this audit, try not to change anything about your habits.

After the minimum week sample, you can better understand your media habits at least electronically (note that these apps should be used on both your computers and your smartphones for best results). Such an approach does not account for every type of media that people typically consume, but for most of us, it should account for the lion’s share of the consumption. From determining your baseline from a simple audit, you should move to experimentation.

Experimentation

Experimentation will largely depend on your own context, but this is meant to better understand what media consumption you actually need.

If you are a public relations professional, political staffer, journalist or otherwise in a field that has news consumption as a requisite, you will necessarily have to take a different approach than most other people. However, it doesn’t mean that optimization is not possible for you.

There are any numbers of different experiments you can try for yourself to move towards optimization. I recommend two types of experiments: 1) Deficit (cutting back), and 2) Rebuild (selectively re-adding your news back into your routine). At minimum, it is important that the experiments are: time-limited, measurable (absolute precision not necessary though), and easy to implement/small in scale.

Here are a couple of Deficit experiment examples:

1)      Total Media Blackout for One Week:

This is basically an iteration of “going off the grid” without having to give up emails, text and phone. Otherwise, one is to try to avoid any news, social media, or other current affairs for a week. Perfection is not the goal here, as in strict terms it is nearly impossible to accomplish unless you accompany such a blackout with a trip into a remote place. However, the goal should be to pull yourself out of the 24-hr news cycle. Any content like books or podcasts which have a wider perspective than just a few days or weeks could be permissible. Social media should be part of this blackout (there are a number ways to automate your social media effectively for a short period in most cases if your job includes these duties). Slight customization on the time period or acceptable media is appropriate, but be sure to start from total restriction approach first and only add back what is mission critical to maximize the learning from the experiment.

2)      Cut out a particular platform or type of media for one week

Similar to the previous example, this would be a blackout but just of a smaller sub-segment of one’s media consumption. Good examples are taking little hiatuses from Facebook or Twitter. Like the previous example, one week is usually a good benchmark to avoid complete disengagement, but still allow for enough time for learning.

Here are some options for your Rebuild:

After having completed both your audit and experimentation, it is time to start slowly rebuilding your routines for media consumption. In order to do so, I suggest using the “Informed Citizen” test. This is by no means perfect, but it is at least a useful starting point in your rebuild process. It is as follows:

1)      What kind of information or stories do I need to know about/not need to know about to remain an informed citizen?

2)      What are the most credible three sources of news to help me remain informed which a reasonable person would also corroborate? It is critical here that you are honest with yourself about this. Show effort to engage credible sources that you may not have used in the past. Feel free to use more than three credible sources, but note that this will have an impact on your bandwidth (unless you leverage a news curator as noted below).

3)      Who are three credible people I can look to of distinctly different perspectives to help me sort through issues, particularly the most complex issues? This is not an easy exercise either, but those who show good judgement and fairness in their assessments of the news without resorting to hyperbole are good places to start. It is also a great goal to put yourself in such a position that others see you as that credible person they look to for critical perspective.

This test should be flexible enough to allow you to adjust it for your particular interests and passions, but also allow you to strive toward being an informed citizen if honestly followed.

In answering question one, it is important to recognize blind spots, particularly those which may pertain to vulnerable people. The overwhelming majority of us want to help and empower those who need support for various reasons, but if we do not intentionally make ourselves aware of their challenges, it is unfortunately easy to miss. We will not be perfect, but it is a crucial consideration.

One strategy to help address questions two and three is the use of a credible media curator/aggregator. It will take some time to find the right tool for you, so trying out a few different options would be useful (review this list, and consider this tool). No curator/aggregator is perfect (there can be unintended biases among other things), so it is important to reassess the pros and cons of each approach in a reasonable time period (30-90 days is a good rule of thumb).

Create Mental Models for Direct Engagement

For those moments where you have conversations happening in front of you (physically or on social media), it is important to start understanding when engagement may be wise. This will also require some experimentation over time, but here are some guidelines to consider in your experimentation:

1)      Learning Over Winning: even if your point is demonstrably valid, it rarely does any good to go into a discussion in-person or online with the goal of “winning”. If you choose to engage, engage with the intention of learning: for yourself and your interlocutors. Humility in engagement is an important value, and it helps mitigate issues of bandwidth.

2)      Importance of Engagement: sometimes what people say or do will get on our nerves and it is tempting to jump in on this basis. However, before doing so, just ask what value both you and your interlocutor(s) will get from this engagement. If it is likely that the particular context will lead to futility, it may be best to: find another time to engage on that issue, engage lightly (“you may like this book/article that I read about this issue”), or just let it go since your finite energies are better used elsewhere.

3)      Consider the Broader Context (credibility, influence and state of mind of the participants): sometimes there are those participating in the discourse who have no intention of seeking productive discussion. Discerning who lacks credibility in terms of their intention to engage in good faith is probably one of the best tools one can have to engage. It is also important to extend this to someone who may generally have credibility, but may be so invested in a particular view that engagement in that scenario is likely futile. For the latter case, future follow-up could be a good idea.

The next time you decide to read something on your Facebook or Twitter feed, or are about to put CNN on in the background, consider how it affects your bandwidth. Effective people need to know their limits. Intentionally wrestling the bandwidth challenge is one way to not only bring your effectiveness to the next level, but also that of the people around you. It is critical for our public discourse that we as citizens all take this step.