How Has Technology Changed Storytelling?

November 4, 2013
Hunter S. Thompson

We write frequently about the way in which technology alters and enhances the way we do business, communicate and conduct the countless, banal tasks that make up our daily lives.  Last week I discovered a conversation between prominent contemporary writers on how technology has altered storytelling on the New York Times.

This is a fun piece and doesn’t require that you read in sequence or totality.  There is some great stuff here.  I particularly like Marisha Pessl’s complaint, backed with some good examples of classic novels that would not have worked in today’s tech world.  She states;

The trouble with technology is that it eradicates a character’s ability to be lost, and it’s the state of being in the dark and the journey toward understanding that has given rise to the greatest stories ever written.

Omaha’s own Rainbow Rowell feels that cell phones have hurt plot structures for the same reasons.  Either the absence of cell phones needs to be explained up front so that intrigue can be had in a romantic meeting or missed encounter or, worse, your characters need to be “luddite” technophobes.  My 70 year old mother now texts with carpal tunnel inducing ferocity on her new iPhone.  It would seem that the days of characters who don’t possess modern communication devices are extremely numbered.  However, this can also open up story-telling opportunities and help shade in characters with information you might see on a text message or e-mail.  Frederick Forsythe, who wrote the espionage thriller “The Day of the Jackal” comments that the ‘illegal abstraction of classified information’ is in and of itself transformative and opens doors for the spy thriller genre.  You need only to read the newspaper headlines and check in on Edward Snowden to understand this phenomenon.

Douglas Coupland talks about an idea worth exploring; that there is a moral in the fact that this technology did not simply appear.  “They were created by human beings and, having been made by human beings, can only help bring about manifestations of ourselves which until now haven’t been possible.,”  Heeeaaavvvy right?  That’s a three beer conversation.  A.M. Homes said that she was taught by a writing teacher not to use brand names or products that would date your story.  This is almost unavoidable today as technology changes by the month.  Watching moves from 10 years ago does this to me, especially when the characters are apparently utilizing the modern technology in their lives.  I love the scene in Wall Street when Michael Douglas is on the beach and heaves the ultimate 80’s status symbol over his shoulder, a primitive cell phone that resembles a World War II radio for calling in air support.

I’ve always thought that whether you’re talking about genetic engineering or the weapons industry, our technology has far exceeded where the debate is at on the ethics and existential efficacy of these “advances.”  But I suppose previous generations thought the same thing.  The interesting thing here regarding fiction writers is that they aim to tell truths about the human condition by manufacturing characters and stories.  Basically lying.  Have we made it harder for our storytellers to shine some light on us because of our penchant for innovation?