Presentism and Temporal Bandwidth
Near the beginning of Martin Rowson's graphic adaptation of The Communist Manifesto, there's a picture of a big sign reading, as does the sign over the gates of Hell in Dante's Inferno, lasciate ogne speranza voi ch'intrate-"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." Rowson has that sign fronting an edifice labeled "All History Hitherto." That neatly sums up a common current attitude: all history hitherto is at best a sewer of racism, sexism, homophobia, and general social injustice, at worst an abattoir which no reasonable person would even want to peek at.
It's not hard to spot the trend: a writer tells us to stop reading Robinson Crusoe because it's a document of racist, sexist colonialism; a librarian grieves at the space books by dead white men occupy on the shelves of her library; a professor of architecture rejoices at the "liberation" offered by the burning of Notre-Dame de Paris; a reader can't bear to be in the very presence of a classic novel featuring a vivid streak of anti-Semitism ("I don't want anyone like that in my house").
There is an increasing sense not just that the past is sadly in error, is superannuated and irrelevant and full of foul ideas that we're well rid of, but that it actually defiles us-its presence makes us unclean.
This business of defilement is both interesting in itself and important for the story I have to tell. I'm going to argue here that the sense of defilement is to a great degree evoked first by information overload-a sense that we are always receiving more sheer data than we know how to evaluate-and a more general feeling of social acceleration-the perception that the world is not only changing but changing faster and faster. What those closely related experiences tend to require from us is a rough-and-ready kind of informational triage.
Triage-it's a French word meaning to separate and sort-is what nurses and doctors on the battlefield do: during and after a battle, as wounded soldiers flow in, the limited resources of a medical unit are sorely tested. The medical staff must learn to make instantaneous judgments: this person needs treatment now, that one can wait a little while, a third one will have to wait longer, preferably somewhere other than the medical tent. To the wounded soldiers, this system will often seem peremptory and harsh, uncompassionate, and perhaps even cruel; but it's absolutely necessary for the nurses and doctors to be ruthlessly brisk. They cannot afford for one soldier to die while they're comforting one whose injuries don't threaten his life.
Navigating daily life in the internet age is a lot like doing battlefield triage. Given that what cultural critic Matthew Crawford calls the "attentional commons" is constantly noisy-there are days we can't even put gas in our cars without being assaulted by advertisements blared at ear-rattling volume-we also learn to be ruthless in deciding how to deploy our attention. We only have so much of it, and often the decision of whether or not to "pay" it must be made in an instant. To avoid madness we must learn to reject appeals to our time, and reject them without hesitation or pity.
But to this problem of informational overload we have to add another: what the sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls "social acceleration." It's a familiar experience. People were starting to feel that the social pedal was thrust to the metal even fifty years ago. Consider, as an example, "Slow Tuesday Night," a story by the American science fiction writer R. A. Lafferty. Lafferty imagines that some future researchers will discover the "Abebaios block," a feature of our brains that slows down our decision making. Once the block is removed our mentation accelerates, as do our social connections. So Lafferty begins his story by describing a panhandler who proposes marriage to "Ildefonsa Impala, the most beautiful woman in the city":
"Oh, I don't believe so, Basil," she said. "I marry you pretty often, but tonight I don't seem to have any plans at all. You may make me a gift on your first or second, however. I always like that."
But when they had parted she asked herself: "But whom will I marry tonight?"
The panhandler was Basil Bagelbaker, who would be the richest man in the world within an hour and a half.
(Lafferty always writes in this campy style. He's truly weird.) What's especially important about the world of "Slow Tuesday Night" is that its wild acceleration of experiences that for us unfold with tortoiselike slowness-marriages, divorces, the amassing and losing of fortunes-results in a strangely static world. Lafferty depicts just another Tuesday night, slower than some, maybe, but not essentially different than any other evening. Thus another exchange, at the story's end, between the two characters we met at the outset:
A sleepy panhandler met Ildefonsa Impala on the way. "Preserve us this morning, Ildy," he said, "and will you marry me the coming night?"
"Likely I will, Basil," she told him. "Did you marry Judy during the night past?"
"I'm not sure."
All this was imagined decades before the internet caused us to live something resembling it. And if the claim that Lafferty's world prefigures ours strikes you as an exaggeration, I would ask you, dear reader, to remember the next-to-last thing that social media taught you to be outraged about. I bet you can remember only the last one. Every night on the internet is "Slow Tuesday Night."
Hartmut Rosa points out-in rather less eccentric language than Lafferty's-that our everyday experience of this acceleration has a weirdly contradictory character. On the one hand, we feel that "everything is moving so fast"-as one philosopher puts it, "Speed is the god of our era"-but often we also simultaneously feel trapped in our social structure and life pattern, imprisoned, deprived of meaningful choice. Think of the college student who takes classes to prepare her for a job that might not exist in a decade-but who feels that she has to take some classes that will look good to prospective employers. To her, there doesn't seem any escape from the need for professional self-presentation; but there also don't seem to be any reliable means to know what form that self-presentation should take. You can't stop playing the game, but its rules keep changing without warning.
It's worth noting that Francis Fukuyama wrote his notorious book about "the end of history"-arguing that we had reached "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government"-in 1992, just as the internet age was kicking into high gear: everything is moving so fast . . . but history has ended. In this way, Rosa contends, we find ourselves in a state of "frenetic standstill," constantly in motion but going nowhere. Much like Ildefonsa Impala and Basil Bagelbaker.
You can readily see, I suspect, how information overload and social acceleration work together to create a paralyzing feedback loop, pressing us to practice continually the triage I spoke of earlier, forcing our judgments about what to pay attention to, what to think about, to become ever more peremptory and irreversible. (That's one of the reasons why social media's attitude toward sinners-the unclean, the defiling-is simply to expel them from the community, so they don't need to be thought about any further.) And all this has the further effect of locking us into the present moment. There's no time to think about anything else than the Now, and the not-Now increasingly takes on the character of an unwelcome and, in its otherness, even befouling imposition.
And even if you're not inclined to feel defiled by the past, you're probably unlikely to have it presented to you-you'll have to seek it out. In a recent interview, the screenwriter and showrunner Tony Tost offered the theory that "the reason so many younger Americans have apparently no awareness of singers/movies/TV shows/writers from before their teenage years is because their parents (my generation) have been overindulgent in letting them only access culture that's directly marketed to their age group." The nearly universal availability of streaming video makes this decision, or non-decision, easier to make. "For a lot of families there's no reason to trot out the old cultural chestnuts because the newest freshest thing is right at their fingertips." Tost continues,
So it's no wonder younger folks don't have any cultural memory or taste for aesthetic adventure. In pre-school their parents played the most recent kids' music in the car for them instead of the older music the parents actually wanted to listen to. And at home the kids only watched kid-centric YouTube channels or superhero or Pixar movies instead of suffering through dad's weird favorite old movies. So when the kids hit elementary school, they only have ears and eyes for whatever was being marketed to their age group that year. The same thing carried forth to junior high, high school, and beyond. So at what point would they have discovered who Akira Kurosawa or Billie Holiday or even Robert Redford might be? Every step of their development they've been trapped in the pre-packaged bubble of the new.
"The pre-packaged bubble of the new" is a potent phrase. William James famously commented that "the baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion," but this is the character of experience for everyone whose temporal bandwidth is narrowed to this instant. How can we escape, or even meaningfully reckon with, the blooming, the buzzing, the confusion?
But what do I mean by "temporal bandwidth"?
If you were inclined to write a defense of studying the past, there are any number of ways you might go about it. Indeed, just as you can easily find online countless persons denouncing Òall history hitherto,Ó you can also find online countless persons denouncing this present age as woefully, shamefully ignorant of the past. Often you can identify these persons by their deployment of a famous zinger that no one is sure who coined: ÒThose who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.Ó
In a well-known passage from Milan Kundera's 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, one character says that "the first step in liquidating a people . . . is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was." This is true, powerfully true, vitally true. I could write a book about it and feel that I had done something of value. There's also this, from the preface that the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote to his translation of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides: "For the principle and proper work of history [is] to instruct and enable men, by the knowledge of actions past, to bear themselves prudently in the present and providentially towards the future." I cannot express too strongly how passionately I agree with this commendation of attending to the past.
However, these insights, though powerful, are not what this book is about. I will not try to convince you that a knowledge of history will protect you from the propaganda of tyrants, or sharpen your political judgment, or even help you to identify fake quotes online-though I believe that a knowledge of history will indeed produce all those good things. I am going to try to convince you that the deeper your understanding of the past, the greater personal density you will accumulate.
I take that phrase from one of the most infuriatingly complex and inaccessible of twentieth-century novels, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Fortunately, you don't have to read the novel to grasp the essential point that one of its characters makes. That character is a German engineer named Kurt Mondaugen, and his profession perhaps explains the curiously technical language he uses to express his core insight. Here is the passage in which we learn about "Mondaugen's Law":
"Personal density," Kurt Mondaugen in his PeenemŸnde office not too many steps away from here, enunciating the Law which will one day bear his name, "is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth."
"Temporal bandwidth" is the width of your present, your now. . . . The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are. It may get to where you're having trouble remembering what you were doing five minutes ago. . . .
We might add, in light of our earlier discussion of social acceleration, that insofar as that acceleration traps us in the moment, the more weightless we become. We lack the density to stay put even in the mildest breeze from our news feeds. Temporal bandwidth helps give us the requisite density: it addresses our condition of "frenetic standstill" by simultaneously slowing us down and giving us more freedom of movement. It is a balm for agitated souls.
In other words, this is a self-help book.
I don't mean that as a joke. The whole idea of self-help has a bad name among intelligent people, for two major reasons. First, what we call "self-help" is often a kind of self-soothing, a collection of banal reassurances that you might need to adjust a few things but you don't really have to make major changes. That "Archaic Torso of Apollo" was surely exaggerating, then, when it told the poet Rilke "You must change your life." Second, much self-help operates according to a listicle model of help: These Ten Tricks Will Change Your Life! Which might work if you didn't have enormously powerful social and technological forces pushing you in directions you don't get to choose. And if you weren't so light, so lacking in density, that you can't retain your place when the winds start blowing, even if you want to.
The German sociologist Gerd-GŸnter Voss has outlined the development, over many centuries, of three forms of the "conduct of life." The first is the traditional: in this model your life takes the form that the lives of people in your culture and class have always taken, at least for as long as anyone remembers. The key values in the traditional conduct of life are "security and regularity." The second model is the strategic: people who follow this model have clear goals in mind (first, to get into an elite university; later, to become a radiologist or own their own company or retire at fifty) and form a detailed strategic plan to achieve those goals. But, Voss suggests, those two, while still present in various parts of the world, are increasingly being displaced by a third model for the conduct of life: the situational.