The super-cool Robin Sloan has a super-cool newsletter – only occasional, alas, but Robin has many irons in the fire these days. He even makes olive oil. But anyway, in the most recent edition of the newsletter, he makes in passing a fascinating point:

There’s something happening in fiction now, and to a degree in film and TV too: the time in which stories are set is scootching back, with writers fleeing to the safety of 1994 or 1987 or much earlier. Why? Because we didn’t have smart phones then. We didn’t have social media. The world didn’t have this shimmering overlay of internet which is, in a very practical way, hard to write about. Writers of novels and teleplays have well-developed tools for the depiction of drama in real space. Drama that plays out through our little pocket-sized screens is just as rich – but how do we show it? We’re now seeing film and TV figure this out in real-time. Novels have been (oddly?) less successful. Because digital action relies on so many Brands™, it feels risky and/or distasteful to send your narrative too deep into that realm. Who wants to be the person who called it wrong and wrote the Great MySpace Novel? (Actually, the Great MySpace Novel would be amazing. But see, that’s not now anymore! MySpace has stabilized into historical artifact. We can look at it; describe it; maybe even understand it. That’s not the case with the systems we’re using right now. We’re lost inside of them.)

Remember the first episode of Sherlock? Came out eight – yes, eight – years ago, and one of the most-discussed elements of the first episode was its use of texting. Sherlock texted and received texts all the time, and the content of those texts was regularly displayed our TV screens. For a thoughtful take on how the series did this, see this video essay on “Visual Writing in Sherlock” – visual writing that is by no means confined to the display of texting. I believe there’s general agreement that the makers of the series not only got this right but also used it to great dramatic, and sometimes comic, effect.

I don’t want to take Robin’s point too far, but I’m taken by the suggestion that a particular technology only becomes available for artistic representation when artists and audience are not “lost inside of it.” In this context it might be worth noting that Sherlock’s representation of texting happened right after the first widespread availability of smartphones, and therefore right after people began regularly interacting with the phones in non-textual ways (especially through photos and video). Sherlock‘s representation of visual writing is, then, what BlackBerry use looks like when you have an iPhone.

You know what else appeared in 2010? The Social Network – a movie about Facebook that showed up just when people were dismissing Facebook as uncool and turning instead to Twitter – and then to Instagram (which was also released in 2010, though it didn’t become huge right away).

One more artifact from that same year: Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story, much of which is told through emails.

So: what technologies are going to dominate the books and movies and TV shows of 2020?

Text Patterns

May 7, 2018


  1. Wow – what an astute observation! I'll note that my favorite TV series ever has been The Americans, which is indeed able to sustain so much more dramatic tension and allow its characters to be involved in so many more operations over the years than would be possible in a world of smartphones, yes, but also ubiquitous security cameras, facial recognition software, DNA forensics, massive searchable databases, etc.

    I've always had a jones for films, books and TV series set in WWII. Part of that is the inherent moral and emotional stakes of the conflict. But in light of the comment above I wonder if there's more to it. The WWII era is sort of this fulcrum point era for me – it feels incredibly exotic and yet its the earliest time period in which I suspect that I could adjust and live without debilitating cognitive stress were I time-warped to the moment. The lives of early 1940s American and British people are radically different from my own life, and yet not so radically different that I couldn't conceive of living such a life. No internet, sure but they had radio to give them all the world's news within 24 hours. No cheap jet travel sure but they had cheap trains and expensive airplanes which made it least kind of possible to think about travelling and seeing a bit of the world if you weren't ultra-wealthy or ultra nomadic. No advanced medicine sure but at least they had antibiotics and morphine so you wouldn't die if you got a deep scratch or endure excruciating pain if you had to have your gall bladder removed.

    And given the (gulp) true observation that Reagan's inauguration is temporally closer to the end of WWII than to the present day, I wonder if my kids – all elementary school aged – will someday feel the same about the 1980s or 1990s. "They had computers! And e-mail! And jet travel! It's not like ancient history. But daaamaaaamn – it must have been weird to live back then without smartphones and personal errand drones and implanted mood-adjustment devices! And a common man couldn't even dream of taking a trip to Mars…"

  2. As Stephen suggests, a bigger challenge for the novelist than depicting smartphone communication is dealing with the loss of dramatic tension, and particularly dramatic irony, that comes with the instantaneous communication of the smartphone age. A lot of the interesting stuff that traditionally happens in novels tends to happen when characters don't know what other characters are doing or have done. Nineteenth century novelists were quick to add epistolary communication to their works, but a lot of that involved letters that were mislaid or misdirected or that crossed in the mail. With everyone having their phone within reach all the time, digital communications are just too damn quick and too damn reliable to allow space for dramatic tension to grow. I would guess that might be the bigger reason that novelists are increasingly likely to set their stories in the time before smartphones rather than in the here-and-now. You get a lot more narrative options.

  3. There's plenty of space for dramatic tension between what is represented in an electronic communication and what is actually going on. A whole etiquette has arisen to deal with the fact that your desired (or not so desired) romantic partner is only a few thumb swipes away, while in politics folks are making sad careers parsing tweets. I think that if filmmakers and audiences cared more about what was going on inside of characters than about dramatic incident we would see more artful incorporation of texting and the like into dramatic works. Eric Rohmer movies are full of verbal and non-verbal communication that manages to deepen the mystery of the characters motivations and thereby heighten the dramatic tension. It doesn't matter whether Rohmer's characters have instantaneous access to information because the information requires thoughtful interpretation to sort out who is wanting what, and sometimes the characters do not even know what is happening until it has happened. Now if you'll excuse me I need to go buy advance tickets to Avengers 7: The Tesseract Implosion.

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