The Paleotech Trap

In my current read, a terrific crime novel written in 1990, I can’t help a wry smile creeping onto my face at the quasi-reverential aura which surrounds the shiny new technology of the time — computers running MS-DOS, DNA tests that take weeks to return, and not a cellphone in sight. The phrase “electronic mail” is current, and a hack is a “database violation.”

The same thing is very noticeable in long-running TV series dating from the 1990s such as Friends (1994-2004), which in just a ten-year span saw the characters go from wielding boxy portable landline phones to (dumb) cellphones; Chandler, around season two or three, is an early laptop adopter. Or the even longer-running Midsomer Murders (1997-present), in which the police computers go from using massive and clunky CRT monitors to today’s state-of-the-art tech.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the exponential rate of technological progress dates a story or show terribly fast, giving it a shimmer of history, of a fossilized world. It’s becoming increasingly hard to envisage a modern world without all-pervasive digital technology — and yet, that world is just three decades in our past.

Portraying the present isn’t so much the issue, as audiences accept a story’s temporal context. But accurately setting a film or story in the short- to medium-term future is full of pitfalls. The real-world consequences of Moore’s Law pose a particular problem for Science Fiction writers, whose work can come to seem laughably dated or, worse, wildly inaccurate to their audience in a handful of years: the safest thing today is to place the story so far in the future that Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) applies.

This was a concern when I was writing my first novel, Sutherland’s Rules (2013), but I was fortunate enough to be positing a scheme whose tech still passes muster, though real-time satellite mapping of even small moving objects on land and sea is about to change that, if it hasn’t already. Still, I’m glad I made a particular point of not fetishizing the early smartphones of the day: having got my start in Science Fiction, I knew the risks I ran.

As both a writer and editor, I’m probably hyper-aware of details that wouldn’t bother most people. But as a reader and viewer, I can honestly say I’m forgiving. If the characters and story have me hooked and the author is competent, everything else becomes secondary.

But let’s not fetishize today’s technology. It’ll be history before you know it.

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