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.

To Be Understood and to Understand

Here’s a task for today. I’m going to share two paragraphs from an essay called “A Cultural Approach to Communication” by James W. Carey. As you go through your day, keep tabs on how you communicate and how others seek to communicate with you. When are you, and others, using transmission? When are you, and others, using ritual?

The transmission view of communication . . . is defined by terms such as “imparting,” “sending,” “transmitting,” or “giving information to others.” It is formed from a metaphor of geography or transportation. In the nineteenth century but to a lesser extent today, the movement of goods or people and the movement of information were seen as essentially identical processes and both were described the the common noun “communication.” The center of this idea of communication is the transmission of signals or messages over distance for the purpose of control. It is a view of communication that derives from one of the most ancient of human dreams: the desire to increase the speed and effect of messages as they travel in space.

The ritual view of communication . . . is old enough . . . for dictionaries to list it under “Archaic.” In a ritual definition, communication is linked to terms such as “sharing,” “participation,” “association,” “fellowship,” and “the possession of a common faith.” This definition exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the terms “commonness,” “community,” and “communication.” A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared belief.

I first heard about these terms (and James W. Carey) in a Tweet thread from Jay Rosen, who introduces some political implications as his thread unfolds. Here’s his first tweet:

I am trying something new today. This thread will introduce you to an academic concept that scholars of media and communication have found useful: the distinction between “transmission” and “ritual’ views of communication. Let’s see if i can bring it alive for you. Ready? 1/— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) February 14, 2019

Regardless of whether or not you share a belief in all the nuances of Rosen’s presentation of the terms, I think it’s an interesting exercise to catalogue the types of communication you both deploy and receive. Afterwards, you may find yourself moving from information to insight to action; you might find yourself making some deliberate changes in your own efforts and in the efforts in which you choose to participate, i.e., how you seek to be understood and how you seek to understand. It’s worth a shot, and if nothing else, new categories help us to see with new eyes, at least for a little while.

Thank you!

I appreciate the fact that so many RW readers have pre-ordered my next book. Though there are many “best seller” lists on Amazon, it’s nice to crack the top 10 in a category more than a month out from our official publication date.

Chewy Dewey

This quotation contains entire universes for educators, of all stripes, working in, and out of, all kinds of schools.

It is possible of course to abuse the office, and to force the activity of the young into channels which express the teacher’s purpose rather than that of the pupils. But the way to avoid this danger is not for the adult to withdraw entirely. The way is, first, for the teacher to be intelligently aware of the capacities, needs, and past experiences of those under instruction, and, secondly, to allow the suggestion made to develop into a plan and project by means of the further suggestions contributed and organized into a whole by the members of the group. The plan, in other words, is a co-operative enterprise, not a dictation. The teacher’s suggestion is not a mold for a cast-iron result but is a starting point to be developed into a plan through contributions from the experience of all engaged in the learning process. The development occurs through reciprocal give-and-take, the teacher taking but not being afraid also to give. The essential point is that the purpose grow and take shape through the process of social intelligence.

~from John Dewey’s Experience and Education via http://www.constructivisttoolkit.com

We Need to Talk <> Make Yourself Clear

Here are two paragraphs from We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter by Celeste Headlee. I’m copying them down for three reasons: first, I want to remember them; second, I want to share them with you in the hopes that you, too, will remember them; and, third, they connect to / extend / justify some of the core messages of Make Yourself Clear. Publishing is often akin to shouting into the void. It’s nice to find echoes (even though they were present before you started).

[Consumers] in the United States return about $14 billion worth of electronics every year. But in 85 percent of those cases, there’s nothing wrong with the merchandise. The consumer just doesn’t understand how to use the device after opening the box. Sometimes weak documentation (such as an indecipherable instruction manual) is to blame; other times the culprit is insufficient “customer education,” the formal term for the casual conversations salespeople have with customers about a product.

p. 11

So much — more than electronics — depends upon those casual conversations. More specifically, so much depends upon our willingness to teach well — i.e., carefully, patiently, humanely — within such moments.

One more related, though unique point:

Computers can relay information in milliseconds, but human beings cannot and should not attempt to mimic this efficiency. Most of the time, it’s the tangents and offhand remarks that reveal the most about someone. It may take five minutes for your friend to relay a simple story about a trip to the grocery store, but it’s the pauses and the smiles and the bursts of laughter that make the story memorable. If you can’t pay attention long enough to listen to the whole thing, you’ll miss all of that.

p. 25

We call this the messy / clear paradox. It’s the recent idea that has most changed my approach to teaching, listening, and parenting.

Marketing Manifesto: 9 Planks Make a Stage

The first “book” I ever sold was a workbook for teachers to help them figure out how to leverage the tools available to them when the Internet was taking off and schools were starting to explore its presence in the lives of students and teachers. So, without intending it, almost from the day I started teaching, I’ve been thinking about and reporting on the best levers available to move learning forward in schools. I’ve been a curious teacher.

But I was not a good marketer for that first book. Or, rather, I was not a marketer — at all. The book came out, and I did nothing. I didn’t sell it. I didn’t talk about it beyond a small circle. I didn’t give speeches about it. Nothing.

For the next book, Everything But Teaching, I did a little bit more than nothing. I launched a blog (this blog) and published a few articles pointing back to the book and the blog. In the book itself, I mentioned the blog and the articles. If that feels a bit like a web, or a knot, then that’s exactly what I was aiming for. I had a vague sense that the book could become the beginning of a relationship with readers and organizations and schools. So I did my best to ensure that, as much as possible, there were threads for people to grab onto and tie themselves to if they wanted to stay connected to my work — work that, by this point, I knew I wanted to keep doing for a very long time. My “branding concept” was simple. I’m going to keep turning over rocks, I’m going to keep thinking and writing, I’m going to keep talking to interesting people and asking questions and writing down what I notice — to try to help people, schools, and organizations amplify learning.

By and large, the plan worked. Slowly. Slowly, I started to hear from readers. Slowly, I built some new relationships that were mutually beneficial. Slowly, I gained a sense of myself as a writer and thinker and even as someone who had built a small business around these activities. I recommend slowly as a pace.

With Blending Leadership, my third book, I got lucky. I started working with Reshan Richards and we became writing partners. He was building a business at the time, so he was several steps ahead of me when it came to marketing and entrepreneurialism and selling. We built a nice website, continued to blog, published more articles in more places, built up our Twitter presence, taught a course based on the book, spoke at a handful of conferences and events, and consulted at a few schools and organizations. Looking back, we earned the same rewards that I did with Everything But Teaching, but the web/knot is more organized, the scale is greater, and the effects have been exciting, surprising, and humbling.

With book four, Make Yourself Clear, I’m much more comfortable with marketing than I was when I started out as a writer. In fact, I like it and I’m even passionate about it. With one very strong caveat…

Marketing only works for me if I define it and practice it in the right way. So for me (and for Reshan) marketing has to be a story, and in particular, the story of how we’ve tried to connect our work to the work of others.

Here are our basic principles, which we refine constantly:

  1. Marketing is the story of the people and organizations that we meet as a result of our work.
  2. It’s creative and connective.
  3. It’s a work in translation, because connecting ideas requires translation, adaptation.
  4. It serves our work, but it is not self serving.
  5. It tries to be additive and generous, which means it is not empty or spammy or greedy or mindlessly repetitive. If you pay attention to our marketing, we hope you will be enriched in some way / have something new to share or do.
  6. It is not strategic so much as it is accretive; successful marketing tells us where to turn, what to do, how to proceed — next.
  7. It is built on permission and partnerships: Can we share ___ with you? Do you want to work on ___ together? Could we be better at ___ if we work together?
  8. It aims to be helpful and is only as assertive as it needs to be.
  9. It assumes that our work has given us a few planks of a stage; marketing, as we try to practice it, is the act of inviting others onto that stage.

We hope you will join us.