Friday, October 2, 2020

Kindness and Bandwidth

A friend lectured me, at length, on a topic any twelve year old would understand. I waited for her to finish, and then asked, innocently, "Did you really imagine I didn't know that?"

Her breathing halted briefly and her eyes refocused. I'd surprised her - in other words, prompted her to reframe. She hadn't even considered this. I watched as she surveyed the extra work I was proposing - a strictly optional side-task of 1. "Pausing to gauge what this guy presumably knows", 2. "Modifying my speech to factor in that consideration".

This brain-raking was a good sign. Many people would have just stared blankly, as if I'd spoken nonsense. Why in the world would my being who I am have any impact on their saying what they say? What sort of controlling nutjob would demand such a thing?

But she got it, and was exploring the possibility. It would require an extra cycle of cognitive bandwidth, above/beyond what's required to just let it all flow. Having taken a couple seconds to work it out, she sneered vaguely and waved her hand. Too much work. Request denied.

Some people - the ones who stare vacantly at such a proposition - don't have bandwidth to spare. Speaking absorbs 100%. For them, there's no choice. Speaking to someone - filtering and altering communication to offer custom content for the unique person before them based on prior knowledge, intuition, and body language - won't and can't happen. It's like asking an ant to sing.

Such people can still learn to consider and self-filter before speaking - applying all their limited mental resources to that job - and then, as a separate job, talk. Sequence, not parallel. But once the gusher starts, they're reading their lines, and couldn't possibly read and write at the same time. They don't have sufficient bandwidth.

I really can't blame them. I don't understand how any of us manage to edit/filter as we output. It must be an awfully complex process. But one thing's for certain: it's an extra load. A separate job. An optional bandwidth cycle. A higher-level task running in parallel with a basic action which is, itself, difficult!

Empathy requires extra cognitive bandwidth. Situational awareness requires extra cognitive bandwidth. Politeness requires extra cognitive bandwidth. Kindness requires extra cognitive bandwidth.

We know this intuitively, and mistakenly assume that many people are unwilling to make the extra effort. A conscious refusal. But it's likely that simply going about their daily affairs absorbs all bandwidth. They have no spare cycles available.

There's a problem with that theory, however. Highly intelligent people, with ample cognitive resources, often fail to be empathic, situationally aware, polite, or kind. And it's rarely deliberate. They are normally gobsmacked if you point out the lapse. They may not be trying particularly hard to be Good, but they never realized they were acting like selfish jerks.
"Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence."
—Napoleon Bonaparte
It’s not necessarily a moral failing. There's another explanation: they throw away their extra bandwidth on hopped-up mental drama.

Many people - especially intelligent ones - spend their lives in endless rumination over that awful thing their mother said, reliving some decisive moment with their boss, or lost in reverie over "The Kind Of Person I Am" or "Where I See Myself in Ten Years". They're entirely absorbed in perennial recalculation of the ways the world has mistreated or disappointed them, and - this is the biggie - the eternal forensic analysis of what's wrong with the present moment.

There's no productive end point with such vague and futile calculation. No pot of gold at the ever-receding end of the dismal rainbow. It's an infinite loop. If you ask a computer to compute Pi, it would devote all resources to the task until the processor burns out, or uses up all the energy in the universe. Meanwhile there will be insufficient spare bandwidth to compute even 2 + 2.

I once observed that
Human beings spend their lives in conflict with imaginary people: mentally rearguing old arguments, worrying about faceless attackers and detractors, reliving bygone humiliations, and generally using our imaginations to make our lives a living hell.
Such mental activity (which is the underpinning of depression) red-lines our engines. There's no remaining bandwidth, regardless of total capacity. The world's most powerful bulldozer can't budge a tennis ball if the engine's already fully screaming.

Whenever something appears to be either lacking or excessive, you must always try flipping perspective. As I wrote here:
If a wine tastes overly tannic, that means it's either 1. overly tannic, or 2. lacking in everything else (so the tannins stick out).

All good things in this world stem from the heartbreakingly noble and inspiring measure of applying discretionary bandwidth to nonpersonal considerations.

All good things in this world stem from the heartbreakingly noble and inspiring measure of applying discretionary bandwidth to nonpersonal considerations.

All good things in this world stem from the heartbreakingly noble and inspiring measure of applying discretionary bandwidth to nonpersonal considerations.

When we see people failing to do so, we think poorly of them. They are evidently selfish and mean-spirited. But, no. They mostly just lack bandwidth - either because they have low capacity to begin with, or they're squandering their own expense! These sorry slobs are eternally self-locked into obsessive brooding rumination and thirsty frustration; i.e. Hell. So their thoughtless behavior, dismaying though it is, is only a relatively minor problem. And you can't expect damaged people to self-repair to accommodate you.

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