Mind the gap between stimulus and response

The Monitor's language columnist has mixed feelings about the way the telecommunications industry talks about 'human latency.'

If you're a lover of language, isn't it a great feeling to discover a new term that fits an idea that you've been carrying around in your head, needing a word for?

Well, yes, but I have to admit to mixed feelings about my verbal discovery of the week. It does fit the concept pretty well – but in a way that's less than flattering to humanity.

The term, in case the suspense is killing you, is human latency. It's a buzzword that refers to the gap in communications as a human being responds to new information. If someone calls you on the phone and tells you something that leaves you gasping for breath and groping for words, that gap is an example, albeit an extreme one, of human latency.

The other party may hear you hyperventilating, or may hear stunned silence and wonder whether you've dropped the phone or whether the line has gone dead or whether the call has been dropped. Eventually you'll get a grip and manage to say something, if only, "I'm sorry, I'll have to call you back."

From a telecommunication engineer's perspective, "communication" has gone well in this situation. The caller punched in your number, you heard the ring or felt the buzz in your pocket, and you responded.

From an engineering perspective, human latency is just so much inefficiency to be squeezed out of the system. But what I like about human latency is that it gives a name to the mental processing that is a built-in demand of new information technologies.

Some technologies really do save time and effort. But others make demands on our time if we are going to use them effectively. If we're going to have all that "content" on our devices, for instance, we're going to have to take time to "consume" it, somehow, somewhere. You may be OK watching "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" on your iPhone on the subway. But do you really want your boss reading your pet proposal on her BlackBerry at stoplights while she's driving her kids around?

Latency is rooted in the Latin latere, meaning "to lie concealed." By the 1880s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, latency was being used to refer to the gap between stimulus and response. Latency time goes back to the early 1950s with reference to computers in those days when computations often took so long they ran overnight.

Computers are much faster today, of course, and so it's the humans that are now the bottleneck in the system. Hence the buzz about squeezing "human latency" out of our communications.

But it's in that gap between stimulus and response that some of our wisest actions begin. The ability to pause and reflect, to step back from the emotions of the moment, is key to responding to difficult situations and gaining self-mastery. And it's part of what makes being human something to be proud of rather than something to apologize for.

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