I recently read Alan Jacobs’ book, Breaking Bread With the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind. Who does not want a tranquil mind? I recommend it (both the book and the tranquility). But I was particularly taken with Jacobs’ metaphor of bandwidth as a measure of the perspective of our lives. Specifically, he wonders if young people – cocooned in their internet playlists and current fads – have not much narrowed their bandwidths. Sounds paradoxical doesn’t it – shouldn’t more bandwidth mean more information, knowledge, perspective?
One might look at it this way. When we boomers were young (oh, so long ago), we were universally exposed to what our parents and grandparents listened to, watched, talked about. There was only one television in our house (in the family room), one radio (in the kitchen), and one phone (in the center of everything to prevent any kind of privacy). And the children were not in charge. So, we watched and listened to things our parents chose. And when there was nothing else to watch or listen to, we read a book or eavesdropped on the adults. Thus, I knew the tunes and lyrics of all the popular songs from the forties, watched any number of old TV shows and movies, and used the kind of language they approved of while talking on the phone. When I was at my grandparents’ house, I watched Lawrence Welk and listened to my grandfather play old hymns on his upright piano. Forced to attend church and Sunday School, I picked up the 17th century language of the King James Bible and got to know the organ music of Bach. Desperate for something to read in the days before Kindle, I picked up whatever old stuff was in the house. All of those things became my points of reference. I don’t think I was any different in this regard from other members of my generation – and probably all previous generations. So, as Jacobs posits, our bandwidth stretched well into the past. He says this wider bandwidth gave us a greater personal density – a term Jacobs said he got from Thomas Pynchon.
For the most part, younger people today have their own computers, smart phones, televisions. Statistics tell me families seldom sit down to meals together and seldom even gather around the same television show. They can insert their ear pods and not have to listen to old music, old television, old people. Their world is narrower. Not that I wouldn’t have loved to have their options when I was fifteen. And yet.
Jacobs’ argument makes sense to me. Churches (at least main-line churches) and classical music concerts (when we could still have concerts) have become oceans of white hair. Young people are, presumably, home listening to self-selected podcasts or reading the latest graphic novel. Not only does that mean that they know less about the past, but it may have some effect on their attention span. When you cannot change the channel or find another book, you have little choice but to stick to it. Unless you are exposed to Bach and the beauty of King James English at an early age, will you easily appreciate it as you grow older? And there is something else about the past that the present and future don’t have – it’s over; we can see how things turned out. We can (maybe) learn lessons, or at least intuit when we are repeating prior mistakes.
It is not just the young I worry about in this regard. I don’t listen to commercial radio because the music sounds like noise to me. And I now have a choice. I can listen to whatever I want on my MP3 player or computer and will never develop an appreciation for Lady Gaga and grunge rock. I can get almost any book I want from our wonderful library system; as a result, I read books I like and have never opened a graphic novel. So, my bandwidth extends far into the past, but not far into the future. And the internet wants to help me with this by suggesting books based on my past reading, movies like the one I just watched, people like me that I might like to be “friends” with.
By the way, this problem is not entirely new. T. S. Eliot identified it in 1928 (“Second Thoughts on Humanism“) in relation to the fact that there were enough books marketed in his day that “there never was a time, I believe, when those who read at all, read so many more books by living authors than by dead authors; there never was a time so completely parochial, so shut off from the past.” If old Tom were still alive, he might be pining for those days.
I have no solution to this, but I am not sorry that I had the exposure I got when I was young. Left to myself, I would have read Nancy Drew books and watched cartoons – perhaps branching out as I got older and bored of the same fare, but how would I have known what was out there? And, of course, the extreme divisions in this country are surely a symptom of this. If you aren’t forced to hear all perspectives, how broad is your bandwidth? I wonder.