Monday, August 27, 2012

People use technology

This weekend, I happened to read a bad book (hereby referred to as Meh) . Among the many things that made it very disappointing, there was the small matter of the "contemporary" feel. Or rather, the lack thereof. This Israeli novel was published in 2010, and its late-teens characters stand in line to use a public phone (and not because their cell-phones have mysteriously died).

There were a lot of other factual problems with Meh that frustrated me even more, but this minor detail seemed particularly jarring. How can it be that these characters, who are supposed to be my contemporaries, do not have cell-phones? How can it be that these characters do not ever refer to the internet in their conversations? How is it possible that the author thought that readers would not feel this?

An interesting post over at The Book Lantern raises similar concerns:
It’s 2012. People hardly ever use regular mail anymore, and a great part of our daily interactions happens online. Whether we like it or not, the ways we communicate are changing and, more importantly, those interactions shape us as much as we shape them.
It's becoming a serious problem, especially in books about young adults. Meh is a great example, in which the characters' styles and interests and level of technological savviness seemed more in line with the author's generation than the one he appeared to be writing about (though to be fair, he never really specified...). So many young adult books fall into this category. Many books that feature teens only show them calling each other in the evenings... but that doesn't really happen anymore, does it? There's text messaging, there's online chat, there's Twitter, there's Facebook... And I'm not saying every single young adult uses all of these outlets all the time, but while you'll authors will give you a young adult watching TV or reading a book, nobody will ever mention if this same character went online.

I think there are two reasons for that. The first is that by naming a currently popular form of social media, the author is immediately and officially dating his/her book. Social media is an ever-changing spectrum. If I read a book that references MySpace, I chuckle. In five years, Facebook may be a mere blip on the social media timeline as well... what author wants to take the risk that their book too will become outdated well before its time?

I feel like maybe the other reason authors avoid inserting technology into their stories is a little more complicated (and speculative on my part). I can only imagine how hard it must be to keep up with online trends the older you get. I myself am still a young adult, and I can hardly keep track of the various sites and online outlets that have cropped up in recent years. It is, perhaps, a safer choice to avoid discussing technology at all, as an adult author trying to write an authentically young book. But I am not certain if it is wiser.

Not every book, not every character is the same. Some people spend their entire lives on the internet, others spend only the bare minimum. Some spend the entire day texting and utilizing their smartphones, others still use old flip-phones. There is no clear consensus. But authors have to begin integrating technology into their stories. The internet as a whole is here to stay, even if various social media sites, forums, and blogging platforms have gone the way of the dinosaur within a few short years. People use the internet for more than just the occasional Google search. The internet is a natural part of our modern society. People have laptops and cell-phones and tablets and game consuls - people use technology. Fictional characters should catch up quickly.


  1. You know, I had these same sorts of thoughts while watching a tv show last night (Misfits). It has modern British teens in it but one of them who listened to a lot of music kept playing songs that I was listening to about 15 years ago. I figure that the writers on the show are probably about my age (mid 30s) and these are the songs they love. But would today's teenager really be listening exclusively to this stuff? Probably not. I loved the soundtrack of the episode but it made it slightly less believable.

  2. I think this is a big problem for authors. I've just finshed a book (The War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen) which was amazingly accurate at capturing social media use. It included skype, twitter, facebook and texting, but although it was only published a month ago some of the references felt dated. I think this is why so many are placing their characters in a fantasy world - it is the only way they can avoid these issues.


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