The plot of Scream is impossible without cordless phones.
The plot of Scream is impossible without cordless phones.

In Children of Men Clive Owen’s character Theo is trying to secure “transfer papers” from his cousin Nigel who seems to be one of the few rich people left in the no-one-can-make-babies-anymore-dystopia. The two older men are sitting at a dining table with a younger boy, presumably Nigel’s son, who seems to be inflicted in some way. He’s pale and stares vacantly at somewhere just past his left hand which is eerily still in between the twitches of fingers that are adorned by delicate wires. He doesn’t respond to others in the room and isn’t eating the food in front of him. After Nigel yells at him to take his pill we notice that they boy isn’t really sick or particularly disturbed, he’s playing a game attached to his hand.

In the original P.D. James book of the same name (highly recommend!) that scene never took place but you do learn more about the last and youngest generation to be born: the Omegas. “No generation has been more studied, more examined, more agonized over, more valued or more indulged….Men and women, the Omegas are a race apart, indulged, propitiated, feared, regarded with a half-superstitious awe. In some countries, so we are told, they are ritually sacrificed in fertility rites resurrected after centuries of superficial civilization.”

As a genre, science fiction and fantasy are prime avenues for sociotechnical critique. In the moments before we know he’s playing a game the audience sees Nigel’s son as Nigel sees him: Disengaged from those around him, the thing that has monopolized his attention is incomprehensible to the point that we are unable to understand why it is so captivating. You can just imagine the countless Dad jokes that happened in parking lots after that movie let out. (“That’s what  you’re like when you’re on the GameBoy!”) In addition to being prime avenues for such critique, many writers explicitly employ the narrative tropes and tools of the genre specifically and consciously to engage in that criticism; “sociological” science fiction is not the end-all-be-all of SF&F, but it’s a major player and it has a very long history. From Heinlein and Asimov to LeGuin and Delaney to Gibson and Atwood, even the most sciency stuff has usually had some form of social component. These aren’t just narrative tools; they’re thinking tools, established ways of working through the implications of something, of setting up thought experiments. When one is used to engaging in varying degrees of worldbuilding, it’s easier to take the existing world and tweak its settings to see what happens.

But as William Gibson – and many others – have pointed out, the world in which we live is now explicitly science fictional in a lot of ways. To the extent that writers in books, movies, and TV used to imagine the future, we’re living in it right now. This has implications for how writers engage in futurism; it also has implications for how writers working with contemporary settings make use of all the different ways in which people make use of digital technology.

Strange, therefore, that so many writers are so goddamn bad at it. Like, really laughably terrible. What gives?

Of course there’s the ubiquitous “enhance”  TV trope where someone stands behind another person seated at a computer and tells them to zoom in to grainy camera footage to find the killer’s face in the reflection of the coffee cup sitting on the table. That stuff always comes off as lazy writing, but it seems like there’s some willful ignorance at work too. When entire shows refuse to acknowledge the existence of smartphones or social media it looks downright bizarre.

Scene from The Killing where the police find a teenager's Super 8 home movie. In 2012.
Scene from The Killing where the police find a teenager’s Super 8 home movie. In 2012.

The Killing, a crime drama set in 2011 Seattle, is full of phone conversations… on flip phones. In one of the few instances where a smartphone is mentioned (again, this is set in Seattle) both on screen characters agree they’ll never buy one because “I’ve seen what they do to my son.” Sometimes these phones can take what look to be low light, high motion HD footage, in other instances their grainy still photos “aren’t enough to go on.”

Also, where were iPhones in Breaking Bad? Why does look like some Geocities site from 1997?

Part of the reason movies and TV do such a poor job is because its difficult to portray social action that flits from Facebook, to text messages, to face-to-face contact and back again. Also, no prop designer wants to spend their limited funds and time on procuring smartphones and designing fake interfaces that steer clear of trademarked corporate brands. Especially if they’re only going to get a grand total of 20 seconds of screen time. Perhaps that’s why a lot of the code you see on TV are copied and pasted from a website’s source code or Wikipedia.

But groundbreaking shows like Sherlock have found ways to portray conversation without an over-the-shoulder shot of a computer screen, and weave text messages with face-to-face conversations in a provocative way. The difficulty here, and something that Sherlock largely gets right, is that smartphones or blogs are neither deus ex machinas nor window dressing. In the aggregate these inventions change social norms and have a big impact on what characters are and are not capable of in a scene, but they don’t necessarily have to drive the plot or become non-existent. They just are.

Horror movies seem to have it uniquely bad. You can’t make a character vulnerable if friends or the police are a phone call away. Writing around cell phones can be as simple and rote as “I don’t have signal in this abandoned mental hospital” to more complex narratives where the technological devices themselves are implicated in the suspense (i.e. The Ring, Scream, V/H/S, or Grave Encounters). But like science fiction and fantasy, horror movies are all about “what ifs” and paying close attention to the ways human relationships are mediated, controlled, and afforded. Just like the video game in Children of Men, horror movie writers rely on the expected technological literacy of their audience. The author can play with the expected capabilities of a technology, the recognizability of the device on screen, and/or the social norms associated with the object on screen to elicit surprise, fear, or foreboding.

The first and last time a TV show understood how digital images work.

Some of this is probably the newness of this kind of technologically mediated interaction and experience of reality. Sometimes the imagination of creative people leaps forward, but often the practical aspects of it lag; imagining the future can sometimes be a great deal easier than dealing with the present simply because one is freed of the pressure to get it right and just have fun worldbuilding. Writers might use smartphones and write their stuff on laptops and tablets and collaborate via the internet and social media, but writers learn how to write in part from other writers, and a lot of the writing out there just doesn’t deal with this stuff. There is, as yet, no well-established toolkit, though we all know how to deal with phones and letters in the simplest of terms. But phones and letters don’t require the dramatic adjustments in a writer’s understanding of how interaction works now. It’s not that they’re completely new, and there are things to build on, but for a writer working from an already limited toolkit, they’re just new enough.

But also, as Sarah’s written before, some of it is sheer laziness and/or an assumption that this stuff is neither terribly important nor terribly interesting. As fiction writer Toby Litt put it in an essay on “The Reader and Technology”:

I don’t want to overemphasize this. You could imagine a similar anxiety over how the telephone would undermine fiction. Perhaps it is just a matter of acceleration. But I don’t think I am alone in already being weary of characters who make their great discoveries whilst sitting in front of a computer screen. If for example a character, by diligent online research and persistent emailing, finds out one day – after a ping in their inbox – who their father really is, isn’t that a story hardly worth telling? Watching someone at a computer is dull. Watching someone play even the most exciting computer game is dull. You, reading this now, are not something any writer would want to write about for more than a sentence.

Dude. Dude.

So what to do about this? The problem – or aspects of the problem – isn’t all that hard to diagnose, but with a problem that’s still taking form and manifesting in ways that we can see, a solution is a little harder to come by. Probably the best thing that can be said is that, again, there are media out there that are getting it right, or at least getting it closer to right than most other people. If writers write what they know – often what they see others doing – the toolkit will naturally expand on its own, and what we’ll see will be a process of growth in how stories are told, which is a natural thing that’s occurred many times in the long, long past. Some of it will also simply come from the next generation of creative types, who have far more familiarity with the day-to-day realities of this kind of experience than older generations of writers. Storytelling is always evolving, and what we’re seeing right now is a new stage in that evolution.

Until then, we’ll just have to endure some really, really poorly done technology.

Sarah and David have breached the system, are hacking code, and enhancing photos on twitter at @dynamicsymmetry and @da_banks.