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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