The Tragedy of Technology and How We Can Do Better

This may not be the “I hate technology” piece you were expecting.

I don’t hate technology, but I do hate what it’s doing to entertainment.

Does this sound familiar? You’re watching a crime drama and the main character’s phone rings, signaling a murder to a weary detective. You can likely predict every step that follows. An actor talks dumbly into the phone with a brief explication for their partner. Evidence or a break in the case? Looks like another reason to watch someone else call or text. If I wanted to watch someone on a phone, I could just hang out with teenagers where there’s free Wi-Fi. I expect more from television and movies.

Characters and their smartphones – it’s already a tired trope. Every phone call or text is the same, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a drama, comedy, or mystery. In modern entertainment, the phone is used as a transition device; it moves the story, but it leaves out the audience. I think it’s a lazy way to entertain, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Maybe worse than that, though, it’s distracting. I always wind up thinking about the actor having to pretend to hear someone on the other end. And trust me, no one on TV today is Bob Newhart talking on the phone.

Shows That Make Tech Work

There are some shows that leverage technology so that it actually works inside the fiction. We don’t feel left out of the conversation; there’s no crime lab or sobbing sister we must imagine talking to the main character at the other end of the line. Think about PBS’s Sherlock. It’s already got a lot going for it – a dynamic Sherlock, a perfect Watson, and great writing. But consider how it includes the audience in its use of technology – we see excerpts from Watson’s blog, we’re allowed access to clever messages that contribute to the story, and who can forget Irene Adler’s text notification? Phones and devices aren’t transitions for the story, they’re part of the story.

Another show that gets it right is BBC’s Orphan Black. It may be a bit guilty of the charges I laid out earlier, but phones, computers, and other devices are crucial to the plot. Despite this reliance, the story doesn’t need them to tell the tale. Instead, technology is used for character development. Phone cases and ring tones are insight into the characters. I guess when one woman plays at least nine characters, every little bit helps. The original clone phones from season one? Without the show laying it out for us, we can guess those must have been a contribution from Alison – who else has the finances to buy a bunch of smartphones, and who else would buy them in pink?

Here’s the thing – technology isn’t going away. A TV show, YouTube video, or movie where someone doesn’t have a device of some sort would be strange, almost anachronistic. I just hope those writing the shows get better at using technology to further the story – or not; there are plenty of times when it makes sense that no one is checking their phones. In the case of both Sherlock and Orphan Black, the creators have written the story so that technology isn’t the same tired trope. I hope that’s a transition other movies and shows will follow.

Tech as the Story

But there is a further step. Consider Jordan Peele’s game-changer, Get Out. If you haven’t seen it, I’m not going to ruin it here, but I do think you should stop reading this right now and watch it. Unlike other films where the protagonists are young adults, the main characters aren’t obsessed with their phones.  Sure, they have smartphones, but their smartphones don’t take up TIME in the story. They do, however, take up space – important cultural space.

First, someone mysteriously keeps unplugging the main character’s cell phone. If you’ve seen the movie, consider how unplugging his phone is a tidy metaphor for what could’ve happened to Chris.

But Peele doesn’t leave it there. When he uses smartphones in this movie, he is bringing the last few decades of publicized smartphone footage with him. Consider how certain people in this film get woke by that smartphone camera’s flash, and consider how that same device is causing the rest of us to wake up to a truth that’s been invisible to many for many years.

Don’t Hate on Tech

Nearly every parent I know is concerned about their kid’s device, and those without kids seem equally concerned. As a predictor of the future, it makes sense that we are careful with how kids use their smartphones and iPads. Most of what I hear about our interactions with technology, and smartphones in particular, is extremely negative. We have a tendency to “back in my day” kids, but, because this is like nothing that has happened in our culture before, there seems to be an extra ounce of angst.

It’s easy to gloss over the good and focus on the bad, but, from what I’ve seen, there’s lots to like. My teen daughter understands the world better because of her device – she follows politics and finds ways to make homemade lip balm. She still reads and plays sports and gets excited about Target trips.

Like movies and TV, though, we can do better. We don’t have to rely on our phones to tell our story – whether we are 14 or 42. Use it to get woke, and fall asleep reading.

 

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The Fairy Tale of March

March Madness

Because regular season NCAA Basketball games account for such a small percentage of the overall sports market, it’s at least curious that the NCAA Basketball Tournament is widely regarded as the most popular sporting event of the year.

As a sports marketing event, the NCAA Division 1 Men’s basketball tournament is in the Major Leagues, alongside the Super Bowl, the World Cup and the Olympics. When the 68 team fields for the NCAA Basketball Championship were announced on March 12th this year, it marked the commencement of two-week long event known as March Madness.

Part of the success of the tournament, which began getting widespread television coverage in 1982, resulted from the unexpected national championship runs of teams like North Carolina State. In 1983, NC State won the National Championship against extraordinary odds. It was around that time that NC State, and teams like them, began to be widely referred to as “Cinderella” teams.

The Appropriation of a Fairy Tale

Why Cinderella? Why have sports commentators insisted for more than thirty years on describing and hyping the NCAA Basketball tournament by appropriating a princess fairy tale?

For starters, both are “rags-to-riches” stories. For many basketball players, the Big Dance is the best – and sometimes last – opportunity to “debut” their skills to the scouts in the stands. There is a similar desperation in the tale of Cinderella, who has one chance to shine and claim her dream. Unlikely as it seems, she does it. She gets a new job and a really big house. Likewise, if they’re skilled and fortunate enough, so do the ballers.

It’s also true both are stories of great passion. If you haven’t watched the NCAA Tourney, you haven’t felt the NCAA Tourney. With the possible exception of the World Cup, there is no sporting event that produces more passion from both its participants and its audience. There’s certainly no event that brings human beings to tears of joy and heartache as frequently and insistently as the Big Dance does.

Basketballs and Dancing Balls

If you aren’t familiar with some of the Cinderella-myth language commonly used around the tournament, here is a rough idea. If yours is one of the fortunate teams to make the tournament, you have been granted an “invitation” to “The Big Dance.”

“March Madness” designates the temporal enthusiasm that weds the tournament to Spring and is mostly a marketing pitch for the sales of beer and food, but the tournament itself is called “The Big Dance” about as frequently as it is called the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

“The Big Dance” is a kind of nickname for the “Royal Ball” that Cinderella teams are invited to each Spring. And because Cinderella is a “debutant” myth, a word frequently used to describe teams as well as individual players, if you do well enough at “The Big Dance” to make it to the quarterfinals, you reach the “Sweet Sixteen.”

The “Sweet Sixteen” party, like the debutant party of social circles that introduces a young woman into datable society, springs from the “coming of age” or “coming out” tales like Cinderella. Maybe it’s because the “Sweet Sixteen” round is the halfway mark of the tournament that it gets so much attention, but this round is referenced more than any other point in the two-week long affair. Such is the power of language and myth. Teams are very often satisfied to have reached the “Sweet Sixteen.”

There are countless other phrases turned in honor of this most famous of fairy tales. Over the years, I have heard “stroke of midnight,” “teams on their dance card, “dropped the slipper,” “fairy godmother” and “fairy godfather,” and “turned into a pumpkin” to describe what’s happening on a basketball court.

More Grace Than Madness

The graceful, synchronized movement of a basketball team in a room with a ball suspended in the air is the stuff of fairy tales. It’s also the stuff of Junior Proms. It’s a story that’s familiar to us, and it’s one we retell because we need it. It takes us back, girls and boys, women and men, to that brief flare of our own lives during which we transcended the world’s expectations of us.

So, when a Cinderella team from the east goes from anonymity to office pool fame in one night, just before midnight, we get it. We get the move from sports to romance, from basketball to myth. It is a leap, to be sure, but a slam dunk of an experience for all of us who invest in it each year, to all of us who fill out our brackets and wait to see if our hearts break or soar.