Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Still on the subject of social media...

I was watching Brief Encounter whilst ironing the other day - can you imagine a more prosaic opening? - and it occurred to me how much the world has changed.  In fact, how the story simply wouldn't work today.

Celia Johnson goes into town to change her book at Boots, do a bit of shopping, take in a movie.  Nowadays she'd have downloaded to her Kindle, bought online, thrown on a blu-ray.

Assuming she'd have left the house, chances are she'd drive, cocooned in her metal box on wheels.  But let's assume she takes the train; little chance of grit in the eye from a diesel or electric.  In today's story it would probably be a mugging for her phone which brings the lovers together.

Oh, hold on, with today's property prices she'd probably be holding down a job to help pay the mortgage, which does explain why she's out of the house a bit more.

Trevor Howard skip his afternoon of work - here's where a mobile would make his life easier, in fact - although today's focus on regulation and governance may land him in front of the General Medical Council (yes, I know, it's slightly off the topic of social media unless you take into consideration how easy it is to complain online and how the social strata has been eroded so complaints against Dr Harvey by the 'little people' left waiting would nowadays be taken more seriously).

Nowadays they'd be a devious love affair by text and email.  (Can you imagine Trevor Howard texting photos of his... no, don't go there).  Then there was just pining and waiting for the next rendezvous.

At the end Trevor Howard goes off to Africa at the drop of a trilby, their last moments ruined by chattering acquaintance Dolly Messiter, a hard and fast line drawn under their love affair with lots of stiff upper lips and getting-on-with-its.  Nowadays they'd have carried on texting from their separate train carriages.  And why stop there - the affair could have dribbled on ad infinitum, across continents...

What's my point?  Well, the job of the storyteller is to get your characters over hurdles towards - although, not always successfully - their goal.  One of those hurdles, so far beyond a cliche it's a truism, is communication and access to information.  What up to, oh, about ten years ago was a default, a fact of life - when you're out of the house you're out of communication range - is now no longer true.  And it has a huge impact on story.  Think of Frodo's journey if he had constant and continual wifi, or if Winston Smith had an iPhone.  So ubiquitous is the interweb that authors now need to create reasons for being out of contact - with a variety of marks out of ten for contrivance.

But possibly because we are now in contact 24/7 we value contact even less.  People don't value that which is free.  Whilst the tweeds and motor cars in Brief Encounter look old fashioned, so does the decency of human contact.  When people meet it looks like it matters.

But perhaps I'm just reading too much into how the world was, that the grass was always greener in black and white; after all, Sartre never played Angry Birds and as he so rightly pointed out, hell is other people.    This may not be a case of 'Damn you, Zuckerberg, what have you done to the human race?'; perhaps Facebook et al have simply allowed the human race to display its true colours.  Perhaps it's the (supposed) decency of the past that's more of an artificial construct than, say, the world wide web.  Now, there's a thought... 

PS - Trevor Howard seduces Celia Johnson with a little speech about lung conditions, so does Brief Encounter count as hard sci-fi?  Probably not...

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