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From Harper’s Magazine:

From Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, which was published last month by Penguin Press.

Navigating life in the internet age is a lot like doing battlefield triage. There are days we can’t even put gas in our cars without being assaulted by advertisements blared at ear-rattling volume. And so we 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 for our time, and reject them without hesitation or pity.

Add to this problem of information overload what the sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls “social acceleration,” the widespread belief that “the ‘tempo of life’ has increased, and with it stress, hecticness, and lack of time.” Rosa points out that our everyday experience of this acceleration has a weirdly contradictory character. On the one hand, we feel that everything is moving so fast, but we simultaneously feel trapped in our social structures and patterns of life, imprisoned, deprived of meaningful choice. Think of the college student who takes classes to prepare for a job that might not exist in a decade. To her, there doesn’t seem any escaping the need for professional self-presentation; but there also doesn’t seem to be any reliable means of knowing what form that self-presentation should take. You can’t stop playing the game, but its rules keep changing. There’s no time to think about anything other than the Now, and the not-Now increasingly takes on the character of an unwelcome and, in its otherness, even befouling imposition.

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 experience of everyone whose temporal bandwidth is narrowed to this instant.

What do I mean by “temporal bandwidth”? I take that phrase from one of the most infuriatingly complex and inaccessible 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:

“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.

Increasing our temporal bandwidth helps us address the condition of frenetic standstill by slowing us down and at the same time giving us more freedom of movement. It is a balm for agitated souls.

Link to the rest at Harper’s Magazine

1 thought on “No Time But the Present”

  1. Navigating life in the internet age is a lot like doing battlefield triage.

    Except for the gas pump, I don’t encounter the internet age unless I go looking for it.
    Don’t want to be connected? OK. Don’t connect.
    Want less connection? OK. Connect less.
    I have an amazing driveway. Every morning the Wall Street Journal appears neatly wrapped in two plastic bags.
    And I have learned to read for hours on my amazing Kindle without any internet connection.
    It’s a choice.

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