Reflections on Colloquial “Bandwidth”: What Does It Mean for Us?
“I just don’t have the bandwidth to go to that meeting tonight,” I said to a friend/colleague at the end of another hectic week. After commiserating, my friend noted that the term “bandwidth” is being used a lot these days to describe our everyday condition. “A few years ago,” she said, “everyone talked about taking things ‘offline.’ Now, everyone talks about ‘bandwidth.’” What does the change in use of terms tell us about shifts in our thinking and concerns, and what do we really mean by “bandwidth”?
Thinking back, the phrase to “take it offline” became widely used at a time when we were realizing that electronic communications could not be counted on to remain private. E-mails could be accidentally, or purposely, forwarded to the wrong people. And with the onset of information overload, it was becoming clear that not every communication needed to be shared with everyone. For trainers, “let’s take that offline,” became a new way to respond to topics that threatened to sidetrack a workshop into subjects that were not relevant to the learning goals.
Today, I rarely use or hear “take it offline.” But I use and hear the term “bandwidth” often—it offers a pithy way to say a lot of things in one word. And everyone seems to know exactly what it means. But do we really mean the same thing and, if we do, what does that tell us about the challenges we need to deal with as individuals and as a society?
When I use the term “bandwidth” in everyday speech, I’m generally referring to a combination of interrelated resources, all of which are in short supply:
- My time, which is never enough for work, family, friends, civic responsibilities, exercise, learning, creativity, re-creation, relaxation…
- My energy, which never stretches far enough to do all the things I need and want to do
- My focus, which wanes along with my energy, and which I need in order to
- Absorb and retain the growing body of knowledge and information necessary in everyday life
- Reflect on all that knowledge and information so I understand the implications and inter-relationships, and can make effective use of the new possibilities.
When I say I don’t have enough bandwidth, I’m talking about all of the above. And I think most other people are, too. Today, the technologies available, and the possibilities they offer, seem to be driving people to not just a hectic—but a frantic—pace. We all feel the need to do as much as we can to keep up. And that need to “do” is driving out the very solution that can help us manage our lives in the world today: the time for reflection, when we make sense of what’s going on, see the patterns, begin to understand how to prioritize our “doing,” and develop plans to get where we actually WANT to go.
If you use the term “bandwidth” in this colloquial way, what are you saying about the demands on your life when you use it, and what solutions have you found to solve the problem(s) it describes?