It’s no secret that technology keeps moving forward, making it increasingly easier to keep in contact with people from all over the world. And it’s happened at amazing speed too. Here are a few facts to put this all in a bit of perspective. People have of course been writing messages, notes and letters for as long as there’s been writing, really. But for many thousands of years, two things hampered this kind of contact. First, lots of people weren’t literate, and there are many cultures that don’t have a written language. Second, there were logistical and geographical issues to take into account, so letters could take a very long time to reach their recipients. Local communication by note and letter was easier (and you see a lot of that in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories), but it still left much to be desired.
The first transatlantic cable was sent in 1844, and the first telephone call was made in 1876. And within the next few decades, telephone and cable contact became more and more integral to people’s everyday communication. And you see it in crime fiction too. Agatha Christie fans can tell you about a number of cases that rely on cables for information (Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air is just one small example). And of course, we can all cite dozens of classic and Golden Age crime fiction stories where telephone calls are important parts of the plot, whether as alibis, clues or something else. And if you think about it, that’s just a matter of about sixty years (for the telephone). It was really the first long-distance synchronous communication, and it was revolutionary.
What happened next is possibly even more revolutionary: computer communication. Online communication actually began with a very small group of people in the 1970’s (the first email was sent in 1971), but for most consumers, email didn’t become a fact of regular life until the late 1980s/early 1990s. Still, that was only about 60 or 70 years after the telephone became an important part of daily life. And it made a huge difference too. If you’ve read Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, for instance, you know that the victim in that case is identified as Roseanna McGraw through a series of transatlantic telephone calls. They take time, the connection is terrible, and there are other technical problems too. Imagine if there’d been email then. I know that there simply wasn’t at the time that novel was written, and of course including it would have made the novel not credible. But it’s interesting to think of what the story might have been like.
In the last 30 years or so, global communication has once again been tranformed and arguably transformative. Today, email, texts and social media commentary link people from all over the world in a matter of microseconds. And we see that all over crime fiction. I’ll just give a few examples. There are Facebook posts that figure into Michael Connelly’s The Fifth Witness. Another social media site, Campus Juice, is an important factor in Alafair Burke’s 212. Texts feature in C.J. Box’s Below Zero. And the list could go on. And today’s Internet allows for all sort of sophistication too. How often do you see videos, lots of them uploaded from telephones, posted on blogs and other sites? And if you’ve ever done an online workshop, course or seminar, you know that Internet communication has had a powerful impact on education. As a somewhat personal aside, a hat tip goes to the way Australia has led the way in distance learning. I could give you lots of dates and academic references, but I’ll spare you…
These developments have come at an astonishing speed. They’ve also had of course some very negative consequences. Both in crime fiction and in real life, there are all sorts of stories of online predators. Perhaps a little less dangerous but no less upsetting are the stories of online ‘trolls.’ There’s another negative consequence too, that sometimes gets less attention, but is important. As we communicate more and more via technology, what’s happening to our in-person communication? There are studies (again, I’m sparing you the details) that suggest that young people who spend too much time using online technology do have difficulty with in-person social skills (e.g. appropriate eye contact, listening skills and the like). And even more studies support the vital importance of in-person contact. There are also plenty of crime novels that portray characters like this (for a witty but at times painfully real example, check Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. There’s a small group of computer wizards and gamers Chapman calls Nerds, Inc. that personify this phenomenon).
And there’s the question of just how intrusive online communication is. Do we really want to know what people had for breakfast? Where they partied last night? And more to the point, do we want others to know what we ate, where we went, or whom we see? Today’s communication has meant a need to re-think privacy and how to maintain it.
There’s another issue, too. Even with videos and pictures, asynchronous communication has its drawbacks. It’s hard to gauge people’s non-verbal language that way, and it can take longer for ideas to develop. And that’s to say nothing of the social and emotional benefits that come with real-time, face-to-face interaction.
Enter one of the most recent technological developments: communication applications such as Skype, Zoom and Google Hangout. With those applications, people from all over the world can have a live conversation. These applications are used for employment interviews, meetings, and simply keeping in contact with faraway friends and loved ones. Just to give you one example, every month, UK crime novelist Rebecca Bradley facilitates an online meeting of the Crime Book Club, which has members from several different countries. Yes, this is in part a plug for that great group. It meets the third Wednesday of every month at 8pm GMT, and everyone’s welcome. But this is more than just a plug. The Crime Book Club is a really clear example of what a tremendous impact technology has had on communication. And all of this in 175 years! Amazing!
So what’s coming next? And what will the implications be? Now that young people can communicate with family and friends via live video applications, will this improve social skills? Is physical proximity really necessary for that? Will family bonds be stronger (because of the ease of keeping in contact) or will they erode (because of time spent online with other people)? And what about privacy? I don’t have the answers, but my impression is that it’ll be a bit of a proverbial mixed bag. Let me put it this way: I am flattered, honoured and always amazed by the friendships I’ve made with people from all of the populated continents. And it’s all because of online technology. I wouldn’t be without online capability. But nothing is the same as meeting people in person. I wonder how close technology can get to that.
ps. Talking of Rebecca Bradley, you’ll want to visit her excellent blog. It’s a rich resource for crime fiction readers and writers. And you’ll want to check out her debut novel Shallow Waters. It’s a very solid police procedural/suspense thriller featuring DI Hannah Robbins of the Nottingham CID (I love the fact that this one takes place in a part of the UK that isn’t as common in crime fiction).
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Black-Eyed Peas’ Now Generation.