Otherwise you could end up like Donald Trump
It’s a standard, rueful observation about modern life – usually in connection with the endless bombardment of political news – that events that happened a couple of years ago, even a couple of months ago, feel as though they happened a lifetime ago. That’s strange, when you think about it, because the other standard, rueful observation about modern life is that everything (including the news) moves too fast. But if the two and a half years since the 2016 Brexit referendum feel like a lifetime ago, surely that’s a case of the world moving too slowly, not too fast?
It can’t be both – which is why I appreciate the efforts of the American literary scholar Alan Jacobs to raise the profile of a concept that makes more sense of our situation: “temporal bandwidth”. This originates in Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon, in which a character defines it as “the width of your present – the more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona”. The problem is less the speed of things than the narrowness of our focus on the present: “Anything that happened more than a week or so ago is consigned to the dustbin of history,” writes Jacobs, who suspects our temporal bandwidth has worn unprecedentedly, perhaps dangerously, thin.