Image by Song Zhen
When the smartphone brings messages, alerts, and notifications that invite instant responses—and induces anxiety if those messages fail to arrive—everyone’s sense of time changes, and attention that used to be focused more or less distantly on, say, tomorrow’s mail is concentrated in the present moment. 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; that unmeasurable necessity, in Wittgenstein’s phrase about ethics, is “a condition of the world, like logic.” You cannot reduce your engagement with the past and future without diminishing yourself, without becoming “more tenuous.”
Judy Wajcman, in Pressed for Time, identifies the “acceleration of life in digital capitalism” not as something radically new but as an extension of earlier technological changes. “Temporal disorganization” has always put different kinds of pressure on different social groups, and the culture of digital interruption places different kinds of stress on the interrupted (employees, children) and the intruders (managers, parents) leaving both unhappy, like Hegel’s mutually constrained slaves and masters.
Computers and smartphones bring to daily life some of the qualities of another artifact of the digital era: the video game in which a player sustains an anxious state of vigilance against sudden unpredictable intrusions that must be dealt with instantly at the risk of virtual death. This too has its benefits: drivers who grew up playing video games are reportedly quicker than others to respond to sudden danger, more capable of staying alive.
Dante, always our contemporary, portrays the circle of the Neutrals, those who used their lives neither for good nor for evil, as a crowd following a banner around the upper circle of Hell, stung by wasps and hornets. Today the Neutrals each follow a screen they hold before them, stung by buzzing notifications. In popular culture, the zombie apocalypse is now the favored fantasy of disaster in horror movies set in the near future because it has already been prefigured in reality: the undead lurch through the streets, each staring blankly at a screen.