Something is very wrong with the English language. People have started asking me if I have the “bandwidth” to work on new projects. What am I, a modem?

This is part of a broader trend of viewing human beings as machines. When we need a break, we go offline. When we achieve something new, we level up. In a corporate context, you may even hear people talking about interfacing with each other. And tech CEOs are writing user guides to themselves.

In the early days of computing, it was the humans who called the shots, arrogantly imposing our own terminology on the machines we created. We gave them desktops like those in our offices, and we conceptualised their information in terms of files and documents neatly contained within folders. Sometimes we even put those folders into filing cabinets. We created archives and trash cans and recycling bins.

Windows 98 screenshot
Image source: GUIdebook

Now, the process is taking place in reverse. The language of computing is flowing back into human life. Maybe it’s a step towards the computerisation of humanity, something that Elon Musk thinks is a good idea.

It’s not just about annoying jargon either—it’s about how we conceptualise ourselves. I hear people using computing metaphors to talk about themselves and their bodies—the “brain as hard drive” metaphor seems particularly popular, even though most psychologists emphatically reject it.

Language is important, and we have a choice in shaping how it evolves. We can’t control the words that other people use, but we can control the words we use ourselves, and in doing so, we shape how we think of ourselves.

So if you’re excited by the idea of human beings “optimising” themselves and becoming more like machines, then by all means use computing metaphors for your own life.

But I have no interest in levelling up and upgrading myself to become more like a machine. Just trying to be a good human is enough for me. So it’s probably best not to ask me if I have the bandwidth to interface with you. If you do, you might just find I’m offline.

6 Comments

  1. Con 13 July 2020 at 4:27 pm

    I agree with you but they might respect my workload and back off if I use their language!

    Reply
    1. Andrew Blackman - Site Author 1 August 2020 at 6:41 pm

      Noooo!!! Don’t give in, Con! They’ll just look for ways to upgrade your bandwidth 😉

      Reply
  2. Jennifer Grahame 13 July 2020 at 7:49 pm

    Hi Andrew,
    Most of this stuff goes straight over my head so I am leaving all the bandwidth to you youngsters.
    My concern right now is the fact that we looked forward to retirement for so long and now we can’t do anything with it. So I am off to St. Thomas (in my head) to stir up some trouble for somebody. Hope you will read about it someday.
    Jen

    Reply
    1. Andrew Blackman - Site Author 1 August 2020 at 6:43 pm

      I am very glad to hear that, Jen – both that this bandwidth nonsense goes over your head and that you are getting ready to stir up some trouble. I’d love to read about it!

      Reply
  3. buriedinprint 30 July 2020 at 7:42 pm

    Hah. This has the feel of being very directed while simultaneously seeming to be a comment to the world at large. I’ve never used this phrase, but my partner works in the tech world, and what happens with language there…well, yes. Talk about problems with connectivity. *mimes robotic yawn*

    Reply
    1. Andrew Blackman - Site Author 1 August 2020 at 6:47 pm

      I wish it were directed – I could cope with one person talking about bandwidth, but it seems to be spreading like a certain coronavirus I could mention. I guess I’ve been doing too much work for tech companies lately…

      Reply

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