Like many, I recently devoured Netflix’s Stranger Things and loved every kooky moment. As a pubescent monster of the eighties, I felt at home in a world hairy with bicycles, RPGs, Corey Hart, and people smoking cigarettes like it was their civic duty. Those pure passions aside, I’ve still become increasingly interested in the lure of narratives set in the recent past (Stranger Things, The Americans, Paper Girls, The Get Down, etc.) I’ve ingested the thinkpieces and listened to the podcasts, yet I feel most miss the mark for why so much contemporary, popular work is set in the future or recent past.
In short, cellphones and digital social networks make our contemporary moment incredibly uninteresting.
Yes, I hear your immediate complaints and howls, but as someone who has actually written narratives constructed for conflict and tension, know this: no matter how useful, important, and revolutionary a phone crammed into the denim of your tight back pocket may be, it makes for crappy drama. It’s Suck City. For everyone but the user, there’s just nothing interesting about people staring at their phones or screens all day.
Writers in genres everywhere know this and are acting accordingly. What are the options? There’s alternate or futuristic worlds, or there’s a time before these devices were so deeply integrated into our most basic movements and posture. You know, the 80’s, 90’s, and so on. When I began drafting my now-finished novel, one of my first commitments was to a world without cellphones and screen gazing (as well as avoiding readers whose full engagement might consist of, “Why didn’t she just text?”).
My hunch: expect to see more works of “nostalgia” (I see them more as works of narrative convenience). Expect to see deft philosophizing in the Salon and Vox thinkstreams about why we’re drawn to a “simpler time.” Expect little attention to this basic reality: plots have materiality, mechanisms and gears, and much of that is still normalized to face-to-face interaction in time and space, a reality where tension is largely created by the absence of immediate communication and connectivity.
We’ve seen this coming for over a decade now, with glaring examples of how the mere presence of cell phones suck the life out of narratives faster than even televised golf can manage. Have you not seen the 2006 film version of Miami Vice? Other than being a flaccid, moody sunset set piece, there is at least a half an hour of this film dedicated to one obstacle: I can’t get a signal on my phone! Even a decade ago, my immediate response was euthanize me now. Nothing says tension like waiting to see how many bars someone has!
Have we not seen the disaster that was The Departed? Yes, I know males of a certain age are required to fist bump this film, to accept brooding and tired masculinity as both grit and yet another triumph of Scorsese mancraft. Nope. I discovered that my eyes were incapable of rolling any further as the plot hinged on the nail biting shot of… a phone vibrating on a bed. Excuse me, sorry, I meant Leo DiCaprio staring silently at a phone vibrating on a bed. Oh man, will he answer it! I must know! And even these examples have to rely on the technology, while present, not working. Hell, even Don DeLillo sets his most recent novel, Zero K, in complete isolation (a desert compound) for no other reason than to eliminate phones and media.
This handheld technology and endlessly flowing content might make for a lot of great things; it might save lives daily; it might upend power structures and governments; it might reconnect you with your 8th grade besty–but we need to face the dramatic truth: phones, texting, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and left swiping are Xanax for the narrative soul.
We’ve ceased to be interesting to audiences. Sadly, me sitting down and writing this blog does not make for good television! Should that matter to the reality of our moment? If art is, among other things, an opportunity to reflect on our present, what are our conclusions after watching something like Stranger Things? For one, stranger things were definitely more interesting things, especially the diversity of ways in which we used to communicate with each other. It’s also worth remembering what is terrifying about “the upside down”: it’s all the same; it’s endless; and it feels like a web of a world you can never escape from.