A phone ringing in an empty house when no one is there; a darkroom assistant spots a figure in the distant background of a negative; a terrified woman stumbles and drops her car ignition key in the snow; a bike messenger waits for a signature; a student spends hours in the library squinting and cranking a handle as pages of old newspapers on microfilm fly by; a train cuts the distance between two cities; and a fake subway token drops into a coin slot.
All of those could be, and more than likely were, pivotal moments in stories set in earlier times. Technology changes big and little things. Friends don’t argue for hours about the name of an actor in a famous movie—one of them will check the IMDb on a mobile phone. Argument over.
I remember getting my first answering machine. It was fabulous. No sitting around waiting for a call or worse finding out the next day, or the next week, that I’d missed an invitation or an opportunity. For my first outgoing message I used ‘There Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens’ by Asleep at the Wheel. Everyone wanted to be creative with messages. It feels like a millions years ago and those years were filled with rapid changes in technology some, like the fax machine, rose and fell quickly to other innovations.
Those changes have altered storytelling. Fingerprints were critical in mystery fiction. Now, writers must have some grasp of DNA, mitochondrial and individual, in order to create credible police detectives. It’s a great deal harder for a killer to choose an untraceable poison today, than it was back in Agatha Christie’s day because toxicology has become much more sophisticated.
Technology makes information readily available. Some of it is incorrect and some of it is useful. For writers, even the incorrect information can be source material. But the STUFF of our lives today and the STUFF of just yesterday changes the game for storytellers in fascinating ways. I remember going to a ‘spy store’ about 20 years ago. It was a visit out of curiosity and not need. The miniature cameras and tape recorders were mystery story “toys.” Now, there’s an APP, right?
I wonder how science fiction writers feel as reality overtakes futuristic fiction.