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Peter Cochrane's Blog: The power of analogy - or not

Just how should we frame complex situations, arguments and solutions?

Written on BA217 flying London to Washington and dispatched to silicon.com from my hotel via a low cost wi-fi service

For almost all of my professional life I have been trying to communicate complex concepts to individuals and audiences not versed in science, mathematics, technology and engineering. The most powerful, but definitely imperfect, method is through analogy with commonly understood experiences.

So among my continual challenges is the need to convey the need for speed. What the heck does 100Kbps or 1Mbps mean and why is it of interest and even important is a typical question. This I usually demonstrate and answer in various ways including:

The time to download a medium-sized VHS quality movie:
@1,000Mbps takes ~ 3 seconds
@100Mbps takes ~ 30 seconds
@10Mbps takes ~ 5 minutes
@1Mbps takes ~ 50 minutes

Alternatively, the time to download an average novel of around 1Mb:

@1,000Mbps takes ~ 0.001 seconds
@100Mbps takes ~ 0.01 seconds
@10Mbps takes ~ 0.1 seconds
@1Mbps takes ~ 1 second

But in my search for something more basic I came up with an alternative that I would like to try on you the readership as you represent a very wide spread of capability and understanding.

If a:
Walker @ 5km/h is equivalent to a phone call @ 0.056Mbps
Car @50km/h is equivalent to broadband @0.56Mbps
Plane @500km/h is equivalent to broadband @5.6Mbps
Missile @5,000km/h is equivalent to broadband @56Mbps
Rocket @50,000km/h is equivalent to broadband @560Mbps

The obvious question is to ask if we want to live in a society working at a walking pace or something faster, and how that might relate to GDP. Most people seem to have figured out GDP is related to speed of movement of both atoms and bits. For the most part, all of us also contemplate the cost and potential damage to the environment.

But of course, here is where the analogy breaks down.

The number and the speed of bits is in no way related to all of our practical experiences in the world of atoms. And this turns out to be really difficult to frame in a convincing manner for lay people.

Bit rate is really negligible in environmental damage and $$$ cost, and in this respect is unique. This turns out to be the hardest aspect to communicate, and one I have been unable to find a satisfactory analogy for.

Suggestions please, on a postcard.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.