Bandwidth Is On My Side — Ruminations on Time and Capacity in the Modern era

8–25–2006: I was just mulling over Mr. Lightfoot’s recent post — the one entitled A Brief Lesson in Electromechanical Engineering. I like posts like that. If a picture is worth a thousand words, that post is worth 18,000 (’cause it has 18 pictures). Anyway, in the post, he shows sets of pictures representing “tube,” “solid state,” and “digital.” The whole thing kind of got my wheels spinning, and I just wanted to offer sort of an extended reaction to it here. I don’t think I have any exciting revelations, or any specific agenda in doing so, really. Just a few thoughts …

For one … I’m in love with the word bandwidth at the moment, though I’m afraid it’s already grown too clicheic to use as a metaphor — which bums me out a little bit since it’s so perfect in describing our daily lives. It’s so easy to imagine people as systems when you really start to groove with it.I’ll get back to that in a moment. For now, I wanted to mention thatI suppose this whole phenom is nothing new. Surely, one could trace this sort of thing back through time, documenting cases of people describing themselves as components in terms of the then-present state of the art. Let’s go way back and build up to now, shall we?

We start off early, when the state of the art was pretty much wood, and we get Shakespeare describing himself as a tree:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Progress several centuries and we find Emily Dickinson, the “mad woman in the attic,” describing herself as a gun:

My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun -
In Corners — till a Day
The Owner passed — identified -
And carried Me away — 
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -

Well, perhaps that’s not entirely fitting, as she seems to be simply taking a gun’s point of view there. But, let’s fastforward to the end of the pre-digital age. We might cite, for example, Bruce Springsteen describing himself as a car:

Wendy let me in I wanna be your friend
I want to guard your dreams and visions
Just wrap your legs ‘round these velvet rims
and strap your hands across my engines.

But, those were rather isolated examples and provide nothing more than perhaps a trivial curiosity. Today, it’s different; technology isn’t just something we might choose to reference while waxing poetic. We’re IN it. Increasingly since perhaps the mid-90s, many have certainly thought of themselves, at least metaphorically, as computer systems. And, it’s getting more pronounced as time passes, as we familiarize ourselves as a culture with the emergent lexicon.

Right now, for example, almost everyone is at least familiar with the term “RAM” (though relatively few likely think of it as an acronym for Random Access Memory). That’s typical of the times, I suppose — knowing the acronym but not the underlying source. It’s the same for modem (modulator-demodulator), laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), radar (radio detection and ranging), etc. (Admission:I had to look up that last example.) But, back to my train of thought … In our increasingly busy and wired lives, we inevitably realize that there exists a threshold to the activity of which we’re individually capable. And that threshhold has changed over time (exponentially, really, when you factor in our longer lifespans). As individuals, we’re now able to involve ourselves in more disparate and numerable pursuits than ever before realized by average people — really pushing our human RAM into the redline.

Because technology is to thank (or to blame, depending on how you see it) for all of this, society naturally reaches out to the related terms of art in order to express themselves. “Sorry, my friend, I’d like to help out, but I just don’t have the bandwidth right now.” You’ve all heard that, right? What I’m identifying (surely not for the first time) is a kind of reverse-anthropomorphism. Instead of ascribing objects or animals with human characteristics, we’re increasingly speaking of ourselves using fat-pipe terminology.

And, it only makes perfect sense:

  • Hard drive — one’s brain
  • CPU — also could be one’s brain, or possibly one’s heart
  • Bandwidth — newer substitute for RAM, which meant one’s capacity for functioning, one’s attention span, etc.

One could go on and on, of course, expanding this similarly to that dumb old joke that describes one’s nether regions as being designed by a dumb engineer because they consist of a recreation center positioned too close to a waste facility. I’m not interested in that whole exercise, actually (filling out an endless list of tech components and their human counterparts or attributes). However, the terms “bandwidth” and “RAM” do seem particularly effective to me as apt metaphors. They’re a vast improvement over whatever people must have said prior to the digital age. I suspect we said things like, “I just don’t have the time for anything else in my life.” Ergo, Bandwidth = Time (well, sort of).

But Bandwidth is so much better than Time. Time was a one-dimensional, linear concept; it lacked that certain silvery shininess that serves to reflect the complexity of our daily lives. Bandwidth, on the other hand, implies a rich kind of palimpsest, replete with the whole weight of modern being (in the ontological sense). It’s like a balance sheet representing everything you can grock at a given moment in time, but also taking your past and projected future into account, considering your ambitions regarding self-happiness, your family, your love life, your hobbies — the whole kwan, you know?

So, I’ll terminate this completely pointless subroutine with a query. And, if you Easterners hear a faint, hollow knocking sound when I ask it, please know that it’s only Thoreau rolling in his grave. But … How’s your bandwidth, man?

About the Author: Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog called “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He’s also contributes to various publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at]