The New York Times has a round-up of writers discussing how the Internet has changed writing. Margaret Atwood discusses its effect on plot devices. So does Rainbow Powell, who complains that there is “nothing worse for plots than cell phones”:
Once your characters have one, there’s no reason for them to get lost or stranded. Or miss each other at the top of the Empire State Building. If you want anything like that to happen, you either have to explain upfront what happened to the phones or you have to make at least one character some sort of manic pixie Luddite who doesn’t carry one.
A number of the writers, in fact, touch on the problem of characters being lost. Marisha Pessl: “The trouble with technology is that it eradicates a character’s ability to be lost, and it’s the state of being in the dark and the journey toward understanding that has given rise to the greatest stories ever written.” Pessell writes that novelist must “dig deeper inside our wired world to find the mystery, the darkness and dislocation. The good news is that the core realities of our world have not changed: People are still impossible and strange. They hide things from others and from themselves.”
True enough, people are indeed “still impossible and strange,” but I wonder if technology makes it easier, not harder, to get at this search for our strange selves since so many activities using technology–selfies, Facebook posts, tweets, Googling–are so clearly an expression of our anxiety regarding our identity. As Walker Percy put it in Lost in the Cosmos, we live in a “deranged age–more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”
Whether or not deranged is the right word for it, technology is, in many ways, a great foil to searching characters. Our ability to know where we are with a touch of the screen, to answer any question with a simple Google search, offers, it seems to me, an almost ready-made contrast to our sometimes utter lack of self-knowledge. But I’m not a novelist, so, I guess, what do I know?
There are other interesting remarks in this piece, so read the whole thing if you’re interested in this sort of question, though I tend to agree with Emily Giffin that technology does not, cannot, really, change the essence of stories:
Technology and gadgetry inevitably filter into my stories, but I don’t believe that such advances, even those that usher in huge cultural shifts, fundamentally change how a story is conceived and constructed. Sure, new technology can provide tools to move a plot along or reveal distinct aspects of a character’s personality in unique ways…But those are just cosmetic changes and really no different from, say, describing a character’s preferences in fashion or food or exercise regimens. The priorities for the writer remain the same today as they did yesterday—to create compelling characters and an entertaining plot—and how much technology impacts those things is completely at the writer’s discretion, since he or she will always have sole control over the story.