Is Technology Ruining Storytelling?

Modern day storytelling means incorporating mobiles and the internet. But we’re still figuring out how to present this on TV and film without it looking clunky.

“I’ll see you again in 25 years,” said Laura Palmer as ‘Twin Peaks’ ended. The mystery was never fully solved, so David Lynch, co-creator of the iconic TV series, made headlines last year when he announced that we will indeed be seeing Laura again. A new season of ‘Twin Peaks’ is now in the works, just in time for Laura’s prediction in the Black Lodge to come true.

While keen for a resolution to the cliffhanger ending, fans of the original ‘Twin Peaks’ show are cautious. Getting more of the show they love is tempting, but will it be the same? For one thing, the original ‘Twin Peaks’ was filmed in 1989-1990, without a mobile phone or computer in sight. Occasionally the characters pick up a landline, and the sheriff has a car phone, but that’s it. If the sequel is to be set in the present day, Lynch will have to figure out how to incorporate modern technology in the hunt for Killer Bob.

Lynch may choose to declare Twin Peaks a deadzone for mobile signals and be done with it, but most current-day stories have to incorporate the fact that most people have a mini computer in their pockets at all times. Some authors, as Robert Lanham wrote in ‘The Awl‘, find the problem so frustrating they avoid it altogether, setting their tales firmly in the pre-mobile era: “Unless I write ‘and then his Galaxy 4’s battery died’ no one can ever get lost, forget an important fact, meet a partner outside of a dating site, or do anything that doesn’t eventually have them picking up a phone.”.

But does this really have to be a problem? First of all, the rise of technology opens up a whole range of new plot devices: phones break, batteries run down, GPS sends you to the wrong place, and when location-tracking works it may reveal your location to the wrong person. There are plenty of stories where relaying messages via mobile phone speeds things along nicely, or technology creates new and intriguing ways of solving problems. American crime drama ‘Numb3rs’ ran for six seasons based on the idea that complex mathematics and advanced computing could solve problems that originally seemed impossible.

Still, one problem remains: technology can look clunky on screen. Having someone run numbers on a computer or look for information on the internet can look a bit boring on TV. ‘Numb3rs’ used animated graphics to illustrate technology concepts, plus lots of metaphors as the maths boffin explained the science to the rest of the crime-solvers. The new incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is probably the best example to date of how to display text messaging on TV: on ‘Sherlock’, the text is thrown up on the screen next to the person reading it.

The ‘Sherlock’ approach to texting means there’s no need to slow things down by moving back and forth between the mobile phone and the reaction of the person reading, wrote John Brownlee in ‘The Atlantic’: “Not only does the technique combine the action of receiving a text with the reaction of a character in the same frame, but because this approach separates the content of a message from the software used to send or receive it, it’s a more future-proof technique than showing, say, a close-up of an iPhone screen would be.”

In ‘Sherlock’, the seamless incorporation of texting means it becomes a way of accelerating the story, arguably in a way that creates new plot twists the original Sherlock Holmes books didn’t have. It’s enough to give ‘Twin Peaks’ fans hope that it’s at least possible to modernise a beloved tale. In the hands of talented and creative people, new inventions such as technology will translate into fresh ideas: “Art and science (or technology) are often imagined to be totally separate, but this is not, and never has been, true,” author Naomi Alderman wrote in ‘The Guardian‘. “Art is affected by the technology of art, because artists love to experiment, and every new development is a new tool.”.