High-Bandwidth Communication

Yesterday I wrote about the “transmission” and “ritual” views of communication. Today, I’m still thinking about communication, but from a different angle. Here’s a quotation from Naval Ravikant, CEO and Co-founder of Angel List and, in my summation, philosopher-of-the-moment for the entrepreneurial set.

Nothing is going to replace in-person, human warmth and communication. When two humans are in a room next to each other, they communicate at a much higher bandwidth through all kinds of subtle, physical signals than they do over video. And even that’s much greater than over audio. This hidden, high-bandwidth human communication is only possible in person.

But you don’t need that all the time. When you’re sitting at your desk, you know what to do, and you just have work to crank it out, but your boss walks by, you’re suddenly going to have this high-bandwidth communication whether you like it or not. It’s going to suck a lot of energy out of you. Or maybe you’re not feeling super productive today, and you’d rather work on Saturday. You don’t get that choice. Yeah, you can not show up, and you might have a flexible work environment, but there’s still the social pressure of, “My desk is sitting empty while everybody else’s in the office.”


I like the expression “high-bandwidth communication” (HBC) because, on the one hand, it helps me understand what is both exhilarating and exhausting about working in an office or school setting. Face-to-face communication both gives a lot and takes a lot.

On the other hand, Naval’s quote helps me to realize that participating in HBC, or asking others to do so, is often a personal choice. As such, it should be made by considering its affordances and limitations. Before siphoning off someone’s bandwidth, you might ask yourself, is this the best possible way to have this conversation? Is this the only possible way? Should I save that kind of conversation for a different topic, or does this conversation require HBC?

On the other other hand, lots of HBC is also an institutional choice — to set up a work environment to either encourage HBC or discourage it, to allow it to be self modulating or non-stop, to put buffers between it or to allow it to flow freely. If you’re the boss, you might think about whether you actively designed the communication plumbing in your organization or if you allowed it to develop willy nilly. (Not that there’s anything bad with willy nilly: desire paths or desire lines exist for a reason!)

Finally, on the other other other hand, Naval’s naming and amplification of HBC makes me want to do it better, makes me want to work harder to be fully present when I have the opportunity to converse with someone in the same room, face-to-face, with the highest possible frequency and the highest possible bandwidth.

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