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April 11, 2009

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Loss Of Service

Matt Richtel whines:

Technology is rendering obsolete some classic narrative plot devices: missed connections, miscommunications, the inability to reach someone. Such gimmicks don’t pass the smell test when even the most remote destinations have wireless coverage. (It’s Odysseus, can someone look up the way to Ithaca? Use the “no Sirens” route.)

Of what significance is the loss to storytelling if characters from Sherwood Forest to the Gates of Hell can be instantly, if not constantly, connected?

Plenty, and at least part of it is personal. I recently finished my second thriller, or so I thought. When I sent it to several fine writer friends, I received this feedback: the protagonist and his girlfriend can’t spend the whole book unable to get in touch with each other. Not in the cellphone era.

Then Christopher Breen whines:

As you may have heard, areas of San Francisco’s South Bay and coast lost their landline, cell phone, and Internet connectivity because an individual or individuals unknown deliberately sliced four fiber optic cables in San Jose, California. This action (currently termed “vandalism”), in addition to unplugging over 50,000 area residents, caused many businesses to shut down and threatened lives because 911 services were out for the better part of the day…

I had no Internet access. I couldn’t call the office to alert my boss that I was off the grid. And my iPhone was no good with its constant No Service heading regardless of where I drove. I was completely unplugged.

Voilŕ.

Seriously, I’m actually very sensitive to this. Literature depends on communication technologies, from plot to medium. This is what I teach and write and think about all the time.

But it’s ridiculous to whine that you can’t make good stories because folks have cell phones. You might as well complain that you can’t write stories because you can’t use the direct intervention of God or angels or oracles. (GPS + Odyssey jokes aside, those guys actually had a LOT of information at their disposal.)

That’s not a problem for David Simon, or David Chase. In fact, those two TV shows (The Sopranos and The Wire) should be required viewing for anyone looking to write or understand stories that are dependent upon these technologies. The key thing seems to be — just like with the Iliad and the Odyssey — to play with the possibilities of misinformation.

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Comments

Remember the Martin Scorsese movie "After Hours," with Griffin Dunne? The whole premise of the movie would have to be thrown out nowadays: He keeps getting into zany situations because he doesn't have any money and can't get people to let him use their phone. No ATM or BlackBerry in sight.

Posted by: Ehren on April 11, 2009 at 07:34 PM

My favorite movie to talk about in this context is Christopher Nolan's Memento, which came out less than ten years ago. That movie includes no cell phones or personal computers, and the main technology the protagonist uses (a Polaroid camera) isn't being made any more. He walks around with a manila folder containing all the information he knows about his own past, and is completely disarmed when he can't find a pen or paper to write down notes.

Oddly, though, even as this technological moment recedes from us, it only heightens our sense that the character is frozen in time by his accident. Even if you were to give Leonard Shelby a Blackberry, he could never figure out how to use it.

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