I was recently talking to a friend about how I had been working on a story set in the late 1980s, when I was in college. I told her I was trying to get back into the mindset of a person who did not have the internet and instant access to information. She laughed at this. “You’re old enough, you remember those days.”
Of course I do. And because I remember, I have a feeling that there is a way of interacting, a way of thinking and thinking about ourselves that is associated with a purely analog world. No technology or change in lifestyle alters basic human nature, you can read texts as old as the Bible and recognize different types of characters you still see today. Yet the way we live our lives has changed quite a bit, and I am certain there are habits of thought that come with it, that are now so familiar that it is hard to imagine life any other way.
An article in The Millions today discusses writers lamenting some of the narrative possibilities of being cut off from the world without cell phones and instant access to information.
I don’t mean to praise disruption or dismiss the challenges of networked life, and I wouldn’t take a proscriptive stand on “what fiction should do.” I am not, frankly, an enthusiast of cell phones or even landlines, which I have been known to unplug for days at a time, to the annoyance of housemates. I find it ever more disorienting, though, to read novels set in this “nostalgic present,” ambiguously atemporal as if they could take place any time between the 1950s and early-1990s. Or, more disorienting still, set very clearly in the present but without its technological trappings. These avoidances make the art seem less vital, less able to speak to the present, and like a choice more concerned with making things easy on writers than with offering something to readers. I’ve had some surprisingly heated arguments with other writers, making me an unintentional champion of cell phones and search engines in fiction, but what it comes down to is that I don’t see these elements of contemporary life as destructive of narrative possibilities, but as sources for new possibilities. I’ve become something of a collector of fictional moments in which networked life matters.
I agree with this entirely. In fact, I think George Bernard Shaw summed it up when he wrote in The Sanity of Art, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.”
Indeed, Identity Theft relies on technology for its plot line. While it is an entirely modern story, as it deals with catfishing and relationships conducted through online chats and social networks, it is also an old story, a tale of mistaken identity and characters questioning their places in the world.
But the narrative limitations imposed by technology were not what I was talking about to my friend. Each age has its own mind-set, its own set of assumptions and its own ways of being in the world. A lot of it is invisible to us while we are immersed in it, it is only looking back that we can see that Oscar Wilde thought like a Victorian. Much as we can only recognize what is American by traveling abroad and coming face to face with our own assumptions. (Not everyone does it that way.)
I am sure that there were ways that we thought and felt before the iphone was invented that have shifted subtly, assumptions we didn’t know we had. It was not long ago, but it is hard to remember.