We have had mobile phones for almost fifty years, social media in some capacity for the last twenty, and the iPhone for thirteen. For most, day-to-day life is so bound together by technology that it is hard to discern the difference between the world we live in online and the one we physically inhabit. We spend hours a day trawling through social media; we witness the lives of people we know, those we don’t, those we wish we did. We arrange events, meetings, catch ups through our phones or social media. We ring one another – often overcoming insurmountable distances with the push of a button. It is safe to say the fabric of our lives is woven with the red light of a notification, the green bubble of a message sent, and the yellow ghost of an image already disappearing.
Yet, somehow Literature – the greatest collected record of our histories – frequently lacks reference to this part of our world. How many books have you read which use a fifth of their volume to dwell upon phone calls, or texts, or Instagram posts just as you might spend a fifth of your day browsing? (three hours of a fifteen-hour day is not a lot for the average Instagram user) How many recent novels have displayed character relationships through instant messages? In short; very few. Commonly literature has been used as a means of representing the world. Yes, fiction is not factual and does not provide an honest account of our material world, but that does not mean that it lacks a key element of truth. The truth of the human experience – our uniting factor – the ability we have as a species to think, to feel, to respond. Our universal sense of being permeates through literature and allows for an essence of timelessness. It is rare that a book is so trapped in its own reality that it becomes unapproachable for modern audiences, just as a science fiction novel is not so outlandish that it is incomprehensible to the audience of its present.
Paradoxically, technology – a thing created to further the sharing of our experiences – is seen as a distancing force in literature. This distancing is two-fold: the inclusion of technology distances plot from plausibility, and subjects from readers. This primary issue stems from the instantaneously gratifying nature of technology. Many plots would be ruined if a character could have just sent an explanatory text. Imagine if a modern Juliet had been able to text Romeo to let him know she only feigning death. No dual suicide, no tragedy, no point. If a writer introduced technology in their book a reader would be justified in asking: “but why didn’t they just…?”, whenever an issue arose. Consequently, not only does technology not play a crucial role in novels, it often does not play a part at all. The secondary problem is almost more directly linked to a novel’s success or failure. In a letter to Paul Auster, J.M Coetzee (author of Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians) wrote that the inclusion of phone calls and messages was the death of the “interpersonal signs and signals, verbal and non-verbal, voluntary and involuntary”; in essence, dialogue. Social media in real life forms a barrier to understanding; tone is lost, intention is clouded. When this is then reformulated through the secondary lens of literature we become so devoid of flow and understanding that little humanity can remain . Most readers seek the personal relationships created by intimate conversations or the character shaping seen through what is told or shown, what is left out or absent. But if we are only given an online interaction our ability to perceive truth from fallacy – whether intended or not – is hindered. If technology were to be in literature it would reflect the technology we find in life; a system to which we never have complete access. Our frame of reference is shifted beyond that which literature can make comprehendible.
There is one final reason I can think of that the most intrinsic part of 21st-century life is missing from modern literature; it would be excruciatingly boring to read. Why would you want to read pages of written out texts? Or be privy to a one-sided phone call? Who wishes for the suspense and excitement of an unravelling mystery to be marred by a quick check to see when a person was last active on Facebook? Or where they were last located on SnapMaps? By remaining aloof to technology, literature forms an escape from what can only be described as too much reality.