Emotional Bandwidth

Mitchell Kapor
Tricycle Magazine
c. early 1990’s

A first-rate demonstration of the World Wide Web which shows instantaneous, global access to information about any conceivable subject presents a dizzying realm of connective possibility.

For some, the Net embodies a way to physically wire together human consciousness into All-Embracing Mind, the culmination of human evolution elaborated by the French Jesuit and mystic Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man.

Yet actual experience quickly dashes the promise of reaching Teilhard’s Omega Point of converging consciousness. The wealth of information which lies out there seems poorly organized and largely inaccessible. Much of the conversation of the Net seems inane, confused, or just plain rude and hostile. The frequency of angry outbursts of flame wars suggests failure to communicate rather than an ideal communications medium.

To a technologist, the factor which measures the communication capacity of a medium is its bandwidth. All types of data, whether text, image, sound, or video are sent as coded streams of 1s and 0s, each of which contains one bit of information. The bandwidth of an ordinary phone line (typically 14,400 bits per second) is sufficient to send one or two pages of text almost instantly, but nowhere near enough to make it convenient to send moving images, which contain far more information.

Clearly we have more than enough bandwidth to send endless reams of written correspondence. In this light, problems with human communication on the Net are not so much due to an absolute lack of bandwidth, but to constraints on what I will call emotional bandwidth.

Specialists in human communications have taught us the importance of non-verbal cues such as tone of voice, gesture, and facial expression in framing content. Words alone don’t signal the intent and attitude of the speaker nearly as much as, for example, the arched eyebrows which signal "You’ve got to be kidding."

A conversation is like a dance in which the partners are constantly signaling their intentions to one another. When the partners are in synch the dance flows beautifully. A conversation is mediated by the transmission of subtle emotional cues. I lean forward and gaze intently, as if to say, "I’m interested. Tell me more." Or I make the slightest grimace by scrunching my face together to let you know I’m disgusted by what you’re saying.

We are all experts in the unconscious interpretation of non-verbal meta-information present in all face-to-face encounters and we depend on this expertise to make our conversations meaningful and directed. Strip away the meta-information and the words of a conversation alone are naked, ambiguous and subject to radical misinterpretation. Yet naked words of plain English text, communicated in a single size and style of text and without even italics, underlining, or boldface to add emphasis, are exactly the dominant mode of personal communication on computer networks today.

It’s therefore not surprising that our communication in cyberspace is so frustrating. Short of being a literary genius, there is no way to make words alone do the work of gesture, look, and tone. What’s more, there is no general way to encode gesture, look, and tone in written conversation. One crude approach uses emotions to convey this information. For instance, the sideways smiley face 🙂 is used to mean "just kidding."

The answer may lie in increasing the emotional bandwidth of communication. As telephone systems are upgraded and cable television becomes an access path to the Internet, higher speed connections capable of carrying voice and face will become much more common. An interesting design challenge lies ahead in the creation of new media which combine the precision and nuanced meaning of the carefully constructed text with the richness of face-to-face communication.

Until then, those conversations which involve the most crucial and most subtle alignment, such as those between teacher and student, will best continue to be conducted in the traditional face-to-face manner. As one computer researcher described the limitations of communicating, "In cyberspace, the prana is still pretty thin."

While Buddhists may be excited by the technological capacity to wire human consciousness, from the view of Indra’s net, this is already reality-whether or not we are aware of it. So unless the awareness of interconnectedness can stir compassion, it is of little use. The real design challenge in cyberspace will be to use it as a basis for enlivening compassionate action.