The width of now


“Human character changed on or about December 2010,” writes Edward Mendelson in “In the Depths of the Digital Age,” when “everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone.”

For the first time, practically anyone could be found and intruded upon, not only at some fixed address at home or at work, but everywhere and at all times. Before this, everyone could expect, in the ordinary course of the day, some time at least in which to be left alone, unobserved, unsustained and unburdened by public or familial roles. That era now came to an end.

The self exploded as the social world imploded. The fuse had been burning for a long time, of course.

Mendelson continues:

In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), an engineer named Kurt Mondaugen enunciates a law of human existence: “Personal density … is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.” The narrator explains: “’Temporal bandwidth’ is the width of your present, your now. … The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.”

The genius of Mondaugen’s Law is its understanding that the unmeasurable moral aspects of life are as subject to necessity as are the measurable physical ones . . . You cannot reduce your engagement with the past and future without diminishing yourself, without becoming “more tenuous.”

The term “personal density” brings me back, yet again, to an observation the playwright Richard Foreman made, just before the arrival of the smartphone: “I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self — evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the ‘instantly available.'”

The intensification of communication, and the attendant flow of information, aids in the development of personal density, of inner density, but only up to a point. Then the effect reverses. One is so overwhelmed by the necessity of communication — a necessity that may well be felt as a form of pleasure — that there is no longer any time for the synthesis or consolidation needed to build density. Little adheres, less coheres. Personal density at this point becomes inversely proportional to informational density. The only way to deal with the expansion of informational bandwidth is to constrict one’s temporal bandwidth — to narrow the “Now.” We are not unbounded; tradeoffs must be made.

Image: Andrew Gustar.