Thursday, July 02, 2009

Time vs. Bandwidth

Over the past months I've noticed a disturbing trend in business conversations and meetings I'm involved with. And that is the substitution of the word "bandwidth" for "time." If you're not familiar with it, instead of saying "Farnsworth doesn't have the time to do the report and the daily stats," you'll hear "Farnsworth doesn't have the bandwidth for both the report and the daily stats."

Many people have called for this usage to stop, and as someone who loves the precision of words I basically agree. If we're just substituting one word for another with no change in meaning, then we should stop.

But perhaps there's something more going on here. Time is a very fluid concept, and all of us regularly over- or under- estimate how much we have available. So Farnsworth may say he doesn't have time to do the report and the daily stats, but deep down we're sure that he probably does.

I remember a famous analogy of time management. Imagine a box (unit of time) full of cannon balls (big jobs). Is the box full? No, because you can fit baseballs in the spaces between the cannon balls. Is it full now? No, because you can fit marbles in the gaps between the baseballs and the cannon balls. Is it full now? No, because you can fit BBs into the spaces left over, and then grains of sand into those left over spaces, and so on. So while the time may be finite, an almost infinite number of tasks can be fitted into it (as the analogy goes).

"Bandwidth," though, implies a precise number. Imagine a cable (unit of time) that can accommodate five gigabytes per second. How many files (tasks) can you upload per second? 5GB's worth. So you could do five 1GB files, or ten 100MB files, or 1,000 10MB files -- or any combination of file sizes you can think of. As long as the total doesn't exceed 5GB. Because it doesn't matter how much you want that additional data to go through the system. If it exceeds the bandwidth of the cable, it won't happen. Period.

So if the use of this term were to represent a fundamental shift in the way we thought about time, then I'm all for it. Because with the box of cannonball model, it's easy to dump the report and daily stats on Farnsworth. He'll just have to figure out a way to fit it all in. Under the cable model, though, the argument's over. 8GB of tasks won't go through a 5GB cable. We'll need to find someone else to do the stats.

And to me, that represents a much more humane way to go.

It still feels like jargon to me, and you won't hear me substituting "bandwidth" for "time," but if Farnsworth ends up not having to do the daily stats -- well, I might change my mind.

- Ralph

Day 87 of the WJMA Podwatch.

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