Deus ex Digital

Lately I’ve become conscious of how technology alters storytelling. Those of us old enough to remember carrying coins to call home from pay phones, taking film to be processed, or pulling the car over to the side of the road to study a map, can’t help but feel the impact of technology in a visceral sense.

I remember getting my first answering machine (my outgoing message included a snatch of Asleep at the Wheel’s recording of ‘There Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens’) and realizing that I’d never ‘miss’ a call again.

Of course I soon discovered that I’d also get messages intended for someone else, someone I was never able to find. Most were benign, but I felt terrible when I came home to a string of messages from a hospice nurse pleading for the wrong person to “come now to say goodbye, because time was short.” Now, between caller I.D., mobile phones, phone/address listings on the Internet, email, and the rest, I would have found him one way or another.

A few years ago, after years of getting occasional phone calls intended for the jazz musician Cliff Korman (no relation) I received a fancy envelope addressed to him. I went on the Internet, found the right music site, sent him an email about the embossed invitation, and then forwarded it to his snail mail address. He turned out to be a nice man.

So many of the elements that contributed to vintage stories—including classic Agatha Christie mysteries—are gone. Party phone lines (great for overhearing your neighbors conversations), banker’s hours, paper canceled checks, carbon paper, typewriter ribbons, black & white televisions with limited channels (in New York: 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 & 13), mail order catalogs, pen pals, bankbooks, address books, desk blotters, notions departments in department stores, and missed phone calls. It’s much harder to go off the grid when the grid is omnipresent and creating a false identity is now a technical problem with technical solutions.

What would Agatha do?

Some of my old skills are obsolete. We had a 16mm film projector when I was growing up (great for screening ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ on my birthday), so I learned to how to use it and how to splice broken film together. I also learned how to embroider & hem, write thank-you notes, and how to use ‘white out.’ While some of my childhood has come back into fashion, including knitting and vinyl records, other parts of it—like rules against girls wearing pants to school—are long gone.

The existence of technology, the speed of communications, and access to information, has changed what can happen in stories and how it happens. Sometimes storytellers must suspend technology—isolate a community with a blackout or grant superpowers to a character—in order to shake technology’s hold. Sometimes subverting technology works, but technology can also move a story along. A tech whiz character is the genius, guru, or wise man today. Maybe a new Miss Marple would be an expert with a search engine?

My mother's iPhone. She'll be 89 in 2 weeks and she is connected!

My mother’s iPhone. She’ll be 89 in 2 weeks and she is connected!


  1. Oh…I’m usually so interested in what’s new, I never notice what’s now obsolete, or if I do, I shrug it off as merely a different kind of technology. But you’re right, technology has a huge impact on mystery/thriller stories as well.

    And yet…I still love watching re-runs of the old Hercule Poirot mysteries!

    • Candy Korman

      I LOVE those old Hercule Poirot mysteries and I return to them over and over again. It is amusing to see how he solves mysteries using the technology of his time. I’ve been rereading Agatha Christie books——both Hercule and Miss Marple books——and they are “of a certain time & place. The human emotions, the motivations for murder, the fears & desires are all the same, but the technology changes the mechanics of the stories.

      I’ve been wondering about how I can use cyber-bullying in a mystery. It seems like the contemporary version of Agatha’s poison pen letters. Do you think it could be the basis for a good story?

  2. I like the idea of modern poison pen letters, but…don’t they have to be anonymous? Oh wait…cyber bullies are anonymous. 😀
    Go for it!