What Is the Bozo Bit?
When I interact with someone who consistently says things that are wrong, dangerous, or just less than helpful, I sometimes choose to “flip the bozo bit” and ignore everything this person says or does. The term originated in the context of a team working together, but can also be applied more widely, as I choose to do in this article.
What Is a Compression Scheme?
Overly simplified, Compression schemes are used to encode information in a format that takes up less storage space or network bandwidth. There are two basic kinds of compression scheme:
Lossless schemes compress the information in a way that allows you to get back a bit-for-bit identical copy of what you started with. That is, no information is lost. Examples of lossless compression schemes are zip, gzip, and the PNG image format.
Lossy schemes compress the information in a way that throws out some less important information in order to achieve better compression. Examples of lossy compression schemes are JPEG and MPEG-2.
How Do They Go Together?
Flipping the bozo bit is considered an anti-pattern, something that seems like a good idea, but that turns out to be bad in the long run. I know this, and yet I still do it.
Because flipping the bozo bit is a compression scheme. If I’ve decided that I can safely ignore everything someone says because it has a low probability of being useful or helpful, it saves me time. I don’t have to read or listen carefully; I don’t have to spend time evaluating their input; I can do other things with my time.
However, it is a lossy compression scheme. When I choose to ignore everything that someone says, then I’m throwing away the good with the bad. Even if 99% of what they say is useless, there might still be value in that 1% that would have a dramatic impact on my life.
Perhaps someone is always wrong on one topic, but has good insight on another topic. If I flip the bozo bit too broadly, by ignoring everything they say on every subject, I might miss a lot of good information on a topic they actually know something about.
Even if the information provided by the person is not helpful, I can learn something about human nature and interaction by engaging with the person and understanding where they’re coming from and why they think the way they do. What I learn can help me when I interact with other people.
I find that I sometimes flip the bozo bit for reasons other than the quality of the contribution provided. I might flip it for reasons of communication style, or physical appearance, or other peripheral reasons. This results in even more loss of information.
More importantly, when I flip the bozo bit on someone, I start treating them as less of a person. By ignoring them, I am communicating that I don’t consider them valuable or worth my time. That’s not who I aspire to be.
Sometimes it might be necessary to achieve the compression that is provided by the bozo bit. Some people are too toxic to engage with.
But flipping the bozo bit should be a last resort after careful consideration. It is important to recognize the tradeoffs involved, and know that there is a risk of hurting another person and of losing some valuable ideas, information, and insight.