This one came to me while I was watching an episode of Burn Notice (please hold your applause until the end of the post), where Michael, Fiona, Sam and Jesse have realized they have a piece of unspeakably important information in their hands. And maybe a decade ago, I would have found their dilemma compelling.
But today? In a few minutes, they could post it to Tumblr, Posterous, WordPress, 4chan and – just for the hell of it – Plenty of Fish, with plenty of time left over for Michael and Fiona to agonize over their relationship, for Sam and Fiona to explore their rivalry for Michael’s attention (I suspect they each had emotionally distant parents), and for Michael and Jesse to finally acknowledge the sexual tension between them.
It’s possible I’m overreaching. That may have to be a two-parter.
My point is this: time was when a screenwriter’s greatest enemies were the studio system, writer’s block and, well, other screenwriters. But now writers working in the action/adventure/suspense/blowing-stuff-up genre also have to contrive ways to deprive a character of connectivity.
So to the action movie clichés of which wire to cut and cars slamming into fruit carts, you can soon add batteries running low, cell phone jammers, and “Why did I choose AT&T?”
This isn't a new problem. Writers of the original Star Trek series had to deal with it too. "Subspace radio" had to be faster than a starship (or else it was pointless) while still not instantaneous (or else Kirk wouldn't really be a decision maker).
We're noticing more because the technology is more consumer-level. Those "stranded motorist" flicks of my childhood are all dated. Who would go up to the scary house on the hill when you've got your cell phone (and nobody has a land-line any more)?
Thanks for this, Tim. I think the difference between what I'm talking about and, say, ST:TOS is that digital communications is ripping down limits that writers have relied on, whereas Roddenberry and his writers got to define a lot of those limits themselves. (It helps that Star Trek technology not only wasn't consumer-level, but wasn't anybody-else-level, either.)
It was entirely up to them whether communications were instantaneous or not, and entirely up to them how long it would take to cross the galaxy, just as more recent show creations build in limitations that allow them some dramatic purchase: it took a while for Galactica's FTL to spool up, and dying Cylons couldn't upload their consciousnesses to a resurrection ship past a certain distance.
That said, I think I see the parallel you're tetting at. When science fiction writers are imagining advanced technologies, they also have to imagine vulnerabilities or weaknesses in those technologies that can leave room for stories to unfold. And when suspense writers are presented with advanced technologies – ones their readers and viewers encounter every day – they have to dream up vulnerabilities, too. The particular challenge for suspense writers is that they're constrained (at least in theory, although a lot of them cheat) by the tech we have now.
Thanks again for the thoughtful comment!