“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Characters, even the most memorable ones, are creatures of their place and time. Time is an inescapable aspect of character, giving it weight, dimension, and volume like a physical property. As people are born, live their lives and die, so is the fate of fictional characters. While the expiry date condemns most fictional characters to the literary graveyard, a few manage to achieve a kind of immortality. This literary elite roll call of characters is handed onto future generations. But as this is such a rare event, we should be asking how and why that happens at all. As Lewis Carroll implies in the opening quote, people, like novels are period pieces, who understand themselves in a way that has little relevance to the contemporary world shaped by new and different forces.
As the cartoon suggests, an essential quality defining a character in a novel (or life) is the way they are products of the technology of their time. Their technology has shaped their view of the world and how they see themselves and others.
In crime fiction, the office of a private eye might contain a Remington typewriter, a hat and umbrella tree, a Bakelite rotary phone and a couple of metal file cabinets with neat rows of paper folders. The private eye’s Secretary takes short hand or transcribes her boss’s dictation.
Investigations are centered in the analogue world where people are followed, watched, and there are face-to-face meetings, confrontations, discussions and arguments. We can read the classic fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet with pleasure by the simple act of accepting that we enter a world of very different artifacts, objects, and technology. This conceit works because inside that world everyone is working, living, stealing, killing, lying, and running on the same technical infrastructure. None of them have a significant technological advantage over the other. It is then a war of wits, shoe leather, discipline, and one or two lucky breaks that makes the difference in a private eye’s fate.
I have described a world that pre-dates the age of big data, computers, GPS systems, Google, Facebook, Twitter, tracking programs recording computer keystrokes and website searches, CCTV cameras, and computer forensic experts. This technology provides the context in which we live, move and die; it is how we perceive what is meaningful in the age we live in.
Let’s take the example of a murder. If the police or private eye discover a murder victim who had no email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Skype accounts, and who had no text-messages, no smart phone, and whose sole possession was a black and white TV, radio and cassette player, they might wonder if this person was a time traveler from the past. Certainly it would seem odd; a character who chose in 2014 to divorce himself from the digital world would be a fish out of water. His murder would appear more freakish to the new generation because he chose find happiness in a life totally removed the digital world. That seems incomprehensible to many young people (a hypothesis that needs testing).
It is easy for the older generation to devalue communication channels such as texting and tweeting. Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and author of many books including “How the Mind Works” and “The Better Angels of Our Nature” http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2014/05/what-could-be-more-interesting-than-how-the-mind-works/ has a good response to this tendency to criticize the new channels:
“So I am wary of the “young people suck” school of social criticism. I have no patience for the idea that because texting and tweeting force one to be brief, we’re going to lose the ability to express ourselves in full sentences and paragraphs. This simply misunderstands the way that human language works. All of us command a variety of registers and speech styles, which we narrowcast to different forums. We speak differently to our loved ones than we do when we are lecturing, and still differently when we are approaching a stranger. And so, too, we have a style that is appropriate for texting and instant messaging that does not necessarily infect the way we communicate in other forums.”
A non-connected character stands a chance to gain a reader’s interest if she is a technology lover, who wonders how such a character can exist outside her digital zone and call themselves content and happy; and satisfies the Luddite, who sees her own possibilities in following a life (minus the unhappy ending) like such a character, drawing inspiration and courage from the example. It would be a character both sides of the digital divide would enjoy but for different reasons. That’s what makes for a good character—he or she plays across the narrower bands of class, education, and status lines.
Unfriending or blocking someone online and offline are two different social spaces, protocols, repercussions, and reactions.
As readers we follow the lives of characters moving about inside fictional worlds that are significantly different from our own life. The strength of the characters and their story can (and do) allow the reader to enjoy the human aspect of the experience that transcends primitive information retrieval and storage systems, and rudimentary communication systems which makes their culture very different from our own.
Readers now expect their characters to be influenced, affected by, and in reaction to the things that happen in the digital world.
The technological distance between 2014 and 1974 is only forty years. In many ways the forces that shape lives have changed considerably over this brief period. Part of the fallout is that more people have vastly more information about each other. Meet someone new and want to find out who they are? In the analogue world it might take a long time to find out information about someone. Today, we Google them and in a few minutes have a profile.
All of us have become private investigators with access to far more information than any governments had at their disposal 50 years ago. The lives, possessions and luxury life style of the .1% are no longer secret. Inequality and the gap between those who own the system and those who work for the system has created digital interest, with the online communities channeling statistics, reviewing books, discussing causes, priorities, policies and propaganda. A worldwide audience has a conversation that goes on twenty-four hours a day and leaves that conversation online for others to read and participate in.
Our ideas about secrecy and privacy come to have very different meaning and importance depending on the technology environment.
Are the old classics relevant to the new generation and those who will have more advanced technology in the next 50 years? Will they enjoy Richard Stark’s Parker novels like The Score, or James Crumely’s The Long Good Kiss or James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Cain’s title begs for a cartoon with the ten year old asking: Was his email account down? The issue isn’t limited to crime fiction. The classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry of Values by Robert M. Pirsig written in the early 1970s assumes a technological platform that has long since vanished. A son and father on a road trip, discussing the meaning of life; they lacked a digital connection. In the novel, there were just the two of them on the road and the stars above their heads at night. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?
We are at a crossroad (some would argue we are always at a crossroad). There are those who read these novels, learn from them, share them with others, and increase their understanding of others (call this the empathy bonus). But there is no doubt that the characters in such books experience life in a quite different fashion from contemporary people.
We shop online. We socialize with one another over large distances, fall in love, out of love, feud, form alliances, vent anger and hate—all online, from the safety of their home, office, car, Starbucks or Siam-Paragon shopping mall. Most young people spend as much time (if not substantially more) online as they do in their offline world. People hang out online the way in once did at the local pub. A character’s personality, desires, motives and goals are as much defined by his or her relationship with others online as in the old analogue world. We think we know others in the digital world and they know us? But what do we really know about each other from our computer screen, iPad, or iPhone? Pinker might argue there are different styles of knowing. To some extend that is true. We all know some people much better than others even in the analogue world.
But the medium of the messages, its style, is also a clue to its limitations. The digital world is a substitute for face-to-face conversations. Your choice of medium will be a trade off in the quality of collecting and analyzing information. In the analogue world, you can see a person’s facial expressions, their hands making a gesture, their posture as they sit, talk, stand, walk across a room, or observe their eyes during a moment of silence when all kinds of information about mood, attention, veracity, and openness/resistance is revealed outside of formal language. Emotional icons are a poor substitute. The judgments we make in the analogue world are both restrictive—what you see is all that you get—and expansive—they include smells, sounds, touch and taste.
Many readers hunger for a reading experience that not only explores the technological impact on the lives of fictional characters. A novel recreates the risks, dangers, and opportunities such innovations bring, ones that disrupt like a knife blade cutting through skin and soft tissue and ones that change the ways we think about ourselves and each other.
News feeds produce a huge volume of information about the global migration of people across geographical boundaries. The Rohingya fleeing Burma on old unseaworthy boats to escape persecution and murder under the eye of local authorities. Africans escaping again by boat to Europe. Hispanic people cross into America for a better life. Cambodians and Burmese cross the border into Thailand for a new, better life. We don’t get a true sense of the proportion of such people and their problems in our cozy digital social networks. The one justification for writing a novel is to make such people ‘real’ and ‘tangible’ and ‘individual’. How do such people fit into our hybrid analogue-digitally divided lives? That’s the question you should be asking a novelist?
The physical world continues to draw our attention and when we read these stories we rarely ask how much longer until the digital world distracts us from the analogue migration patterns of our species. As the locus of the real action moves into ‘hyperreality’, blurring what is ‘real’ along with what we are paying attention to, we may be losing our ability to distinguish digital migrations from physical ones.
We can easily make a list of our favorite analogue world authors, where the technological perspective is pre-1982 (IBM PC goes to mass market). Writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Georges Simenon, James Crumley, Richard Stark, and many others who are widely read, discussed and admired fall into that category.
The Bakelite phone generation, as a result of the scope and nature of their technology, have (to our modern eyes) severe limits on how they can find out things about other people, how they go about looking, where they search, and what they do when they find what they are looking for. We see them as handicapped in a way that we are not.
The people in the pre-1982 novels had no devices others than telephones to communicate with each other. Most of the inter reaction is face to face. How primitive the new generation might be tempted to conclude.
We expect a character from a contemporary author to mirror the reality of the modern world and that means an accounting of his or her connections to the digital world. Readers expect to find hybrid characters with a foot in both worlds. These connections are essential to understanding a person’s identity. The separation of what they believe, know, or understand from the two worlds is blended in a way that it can’t be untangled. Person and device blurred into one. The device augments, enhances the character, makes him feel smarter, more knowledgeable, capable and in control. Like drugs or alcohol, in the digital world the information flow becomes an addictive river where people wish to bathe for hours. Such people start their morning and finish their day checking their timelines, email accounts, and browsing for the latest breaking news.
People who have crawled into the digital world are readers looking for stories about how others have used this crawl space, their problems, ups and downs, and the way they handle relationships in the online and offline worlds.
The final chapter about character remains as open ended as technology. But there seems no going back to the time of the classics, not in crime or literary fiction. As future readers, if an author is to purchase a piece of their fragmented attention, he will need a story that transcends time and technology. That’s a tall order and no one can say what will survive. Readers in different times have wanted the same experience: a literary mirror, a compass, a shield and a sword to go forth and wage the battles in their daily life. And to understand the meaning of those battles, the victories and the defeats.
Characters in books will need to adjust what they pay attention to and who pays attention to them. Authors who ignore the evolution of human relationships and identity building will be writing about a lost past. There will always be a market for nostalgia and idealized fictional characters. As there will be those suffer from the delusion that such characters whose lives never touched the digital world are meaningful to the new generation of readers. Those of us who reached adulthood long before our world was rewired for broadband width communication remember that earlier off the grid analogue world we grew up in. We also know that this world is behind us. And the new generation of readers will expect, what we expected, characters we could identify with; not characters that would judge us or look down on us, our way of life and values.
What will this new generation of readers expect from fiction authors? In my view, we will enter fictional worlds where characters’ emotional reactions, intentions, preoccupation shift between the analogue and digital experience. Young readers will have many more people they call ‘friends’ than prior generations. Most of these friends, they will have never met outside a computer screen but that won’t lessen their feeling of connectedness and intimacy. Friendships in the analogue world will have a different time scale and priority. Books will chart the connection between characters inside the two worlds. Technology disrupts not only jobs and industries; it disrupts the nature of our identity. Authors, in the future, will discover ways to tell the stories about people whose identities are the product of information and communication linking two different worlds of thought, experience, ideas, values and relationships.