Can you imagine a future without smartphones? Don’t worry, every sci-fi author and filmmaker has already done it for you. The 20th century brought us many, many visions of the 21st century, from Metropolis to Blade Runner to Total Recall to 2046. But none of them, not a single one on book or film, predicted a ubiquitous palm-sized device that would connect everyone to everyone else in so many remarkable ways. Nowhere in any piece of 20th-century fiction did any character ever send a text.
That’s a pretty glaring omission. That would be like Mark Twain looking into the 20th century and not seeing, say, cars.
Science fiction means never having to say you’re sorry. Watching the new Star Trek movie last summer, part of me unconsciously wondered if the future would now be more up to date. Would Kirk and Spock text each other photos or anything else? Sure, I know they can bang on their little upside-down Vs on their chests and chat whenever they like. But we can do the equivalent of that now, and we don’t. We text. We send photos. Sometimes that just makes sense. I have a friend who insists on calling people on the phone because when he wants to communicate something, he wants the other person’s full attention. I finally told him, look, just because I have something to tell someone doesn’t mean I need that person’s full attention. I don’t mind being someone’s secondary or even tertiary focus.
I suspect that Kirk and Spock may feel that way occasionally, or if not them, Scotty or Uhuru. A scene we should have seen by now: “Bones, did you tell Chekov?” “Ehhh, I texted him.” Now, I realize that films and novels tend to present the kind of high-stakes drama that might not leave time for texting. But I think we know that the absence of smartphones in newer sci-fi is related to the absence of smartphones in Harry Potter and Twilight and most superhero films. Many storytellers even in our current century can’t quite deal with the change. They’ve worked hard to set up the rules for their world of magic and they don’t want to include a magic that they don’t quite know the rules for. That’s why smartphones can and do appear far more often on “realistic” shows and movies, especially sitcoms/comedies, which rely on taking the world at face value.
Yet it’s a shame about smartphones’ absence in fantasy/sci-fi, because of course smartphones are about more than texting. Their camera function has profoundly changed our behavior. Now that anyone can film us at any time, how likely is it that we’re going to publicly behave in ways that we wouldn’t want filmed? We’re more accountable and more wary all at once.
We’re also nerdier. Twenty years ago, I was one of those rare birds who brought a book to bank queues, checkout lines. I smiled every time I saw someone like me – well, when I could be bothered to look up. The truth was that I was terrified of boredom, and I had to admit I had a problem. Now everyone has that problem and no one has to admit it. You could also make a case that these little buttons on phones have privileged people with smaller fingers, people who never had to make a living lifting and carrying things with their hands. This century is a nerd’s world now, but you don’t get that vibe from too many Philip K. Dick stories.
Smartphones are instant portable gateways to the internet, and by extension, the rest of the world. That statement may be obvious, but it’s also obviously not reflected in much science fiction or even regular fiction. The nature of the internet-enabled smartphone changes us, reshuffles our priorities. There’s no more worrying about what can be googled within a minute. We’ve got maps, weather, a calculator, a compass, youtube, twitter, all within easy arm’s reach at any time. Am I to believe that the good people of the Federation sent out the Enterprise without wifi?
The wonder and the allure of the smartphone goes beyond what I’ve described so far. As critics have written, the key is that “it’s always on and it’s always on you.” For many people now, given the choice of reading something IRL (in real life) or on a phone or tablet, it just seems cooler to read it on this bright hard glowing thing. (And you wonder why gold is the most valuable metal. Oh wait, no you don’t.) By now, we’ve all had the experience of sitting down to dinner with a teenager, asking for phones to be put away, and noticing as the teenager fingers their phone like a nicotine junkie caressing a cigarette that they swear they’ll never smoke. The phone is the precioussssssss. It’s nearly fantastical. It’s just not in stories with fantastical elements.
Given all this, perhaps you’re saying, well smartphoney-pants, if this is such a problem for you (me), why don’t you write your own sci-fi story with such devices? Well, thanks for bringing that up. I have written the first draft (90,000 words!) of such a story. (That’s hardly the main plot of it, of course.) But my story is set about 150 years from now, and by then I postulate that phones will be rings (how’s that for precious?) projecting holograms in front of our faces. My envisioned future is more symmetrical than the previous millennium: instead of everyone wearing one ring on their left hand, everyone wears a wedding (or other) ring on the left ringfinger, with the “phone” ring on the right ringfinger (perfect for thumb scrolling). Yeah, in my future, people (would) look back on 2014 and think, wow, how did everyone get by so asymmetrically?
Sitting here in 2014, we ought to ask about why it’s taking us so long to properly look forward.