I’ll Be Out in Cyberspace*

OnlineMeetingsIt’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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alafair Burke, Arthur Conan Doyle, C.J. Box, Kerry Greenwood, Maj Sjöwall, Michael Connelly, Per Wahlöö, Rebecca Bradley

20 responses to “I’ll Be Out in Cyberspace*

  1. Very interesting post! It’s always hard to work out how the speed of change varies over the years. We feel as though we are in a period of really dramatic change, but did every generation think that? I do feel that if you read a crime story from 15-20 years ago it seems quaintly old-fashioned because people aren’t looking things up on google and using their phones for everything….

    • Thanks, Moira :-). You make a really interesting point, too, about the speed of change. Does the pace seem faster because we’re living through it? Or is it really faster and more dramatic? And if it is, why is the pace as fast as it is? As you say, stories from just 20 years ago now seem dated (who uses a fax on regular basis any more?). And yet at the time, that technology was cutting-edge.

  2. Johnny Ojanpera

    Great post, Margot! I think that inflection is the biggest loss in text only communication. My teen still calls me to let me know her plans, and only texts when I do. I think we will all continue to adapt as we always have, and I agree that there is nothing better than face to face communication. I will be utilizing a very old technology this week -snail mail. Check your mailbox on Thursday or Friday. 🙂

    • Johnny – Oh, now I’m intrigued! I’ll be watching my snail mail! And thanks for the kind words. I think you’re absolutely right that there’s nothing quite like the non-verbals and the inflection that are so much a part of face-to-face communication. They really enrich the words. I don’t blame you for preferring ‘phone conversations when you communicate with your daughter. You can tell a lot just by the sound of her voice.

  3. Good points. It feels weird to read a book set back in the old days. Newspapers and telephones are a dieing breed.

    • Scott – It is interesting to see what’s happening to our newspapers. They’re all going online or in podcasts. People don’t get the morning or evening paper as they did. And you’re right; lots of people text or email much, much more than they call.

  4. Col

    I find the pace of new technology and change quite scary TBH. I think I take comfort from stability and familiarity. I definitely don’t like too much technology in my reading

    • There’s definitely something to be said for stability and familiarity, Col. It often takes people time to get used to something new, even if that something new is positive. And yet, with a pace that’s too rapid, it’s often hard to keep up. And as far as technology in books goes, it’s hard for authors to keep up!

  5. Kay

    What an interesting look at the changes that technology has made in all our lives and in crime fiction. The privacy issue is one that concerns me – both for our own info and also for the safety of the younger ones. I must say that I have been glad that my own daughter is well beyond her teens. There have always been scary people out there, but with the changes have come the ability for awful people to have access they never had before, and in their own homes, hiding there. Ick! And it seems hard to explain to younger people or any people sometimes the danger is of sharing too much too publicly. You never know who is reading or watching. OK, now I’m scaring myself. LOL

    Good luck to all you authors for trying to keep up!

    • Kay – Thanks for the kind words. And it is really scary thinking about how little privacy we potentially have any more (and even less if you yield up all of the information that sites such as Facebook want you to give up). Like your daughter, mine is beyond her teens, so I don’t worry for her on that score so much. But I do feel for parents who want their children to be safe, but at the same time want them to learn to use technology, as they will need it.
      Keeping up with it all as an author is a challenge, that’s for sure!

  6. Interesting post! I’m always intrigued by how some people seem to lose their social inhibitions when they go online, often beyond the point of rudeness and into aggression and bullying. And yet I’m sure these same people would never behave like that face-to-face. I always get the feeling that they somehow don’t feel that the person at the other end is ‘real’ because they’ve never met them. It’s a worrying feature, and it seems to happen as much amongst adults as children. Fortunately, bookish people are always beautifully behaved though… 😉

    • FictionFan – Couldn’t agree more about bookish people 🙂 – Unless of course they’re crime writers, in which case you should see how they treat some of their characters!! 😉 – In all seriousness, though, you have a really well-taken point about the way people behave online as opposed to the way they might behave in person. There seems to be this loss of inhibition, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a study showed that it’s because the troll/attacker/other badly-behaved person doesn’t see the other person as real. It’s one of the negative consequences of online communication, and it is worrying as well as intriguing.

  7. Margot: Very interesting. In my work world I am surprised by what people say to each other electronically. For a time it was emails. Now it is texts. Many people lose the filter of time that was required when people wrote or typed or printed something on paper and then had to put it in an envelope or go to the fax machine. I have altered many business letters between what I dictated and what I sent by the chance to reflect on the contents. Especially with texts people enter the message on the screen and push send and think later. These messages are increasingly useful in cross-examination. I used to ask why would you send that text. I no longer bother. I know the answer. It is invariably I was not thinking just reacting.

    • Bill – Thanks for your thoughts on this. I think you have a very well-taken point about how the instant nature of texts, comments and even emails can impact their tone. I’d guess a lot of people don’t stop to really reflect on what they’re saying and how it may be interpreted when they’re texting. So that filter not being in place, people come out with the first (sometimes irrational or worse) thought that comes to their minds. And I would imagine that those messages are very useful when you’re cross-examining. You have clear evidence of what people communicated, whether they were thinking clearly at the time or not…

  8. Kathy D.

    This is fascinating. I didn’t know about the discoveries in the 1800s in communication. I had a dearly departed friend who work at a big company sending Telexes in the 1970s — and that was an innovation.
    Today’s methods of communication are incredible and wonderful — and how would I learn so much about crime fiction, the news, health, etc., and how would I have “met” such wonderful bloggers and been part of excellent discussions with people near and far — without the Internet. It is wonderful.
    But as you say there are pitfalls. Too much is put up online, sometimes
    without people’s permission. Comments are made, sometimes by trolls, often anonymously, which are very hurtful and sometimes harmful.
    Two women who work on producing non-sexist video games and who are campaigning against the misognyistic violence in them have gotten death and sexual assault threats online — so bad, that they have gone to the police. A woman who was in a video put up online about sexual harassment in the streets received the same treatment by some people. And since it’s done anonymously, the culprits are hard to find.
    And also, sometimes predators pretend to befriend young teens, and sometimes disasters can happen — so the young have to be protected somehow.
    Also, in an eerie example of lack of privacy in emails, I was emailing a friend who writes on women’s health care. Right after we emailed one day, an Amazon ad for her book appeared in my email inbox! I asked her if she had an arrangement with Amazon to have an automatic ad go out in email after she communicated with someone, and she said NO. She and I both
    thought it was an invasion of privacy.
    And this is small potatoes.
    There should be both freedom of expression combined with responsible usage of the Internet, with protections against death threats and other attacks, and for teens and children. Free speech doesn’t include death and other threats.

    • Kathy – It’s amazing to me how quickly communication has changed. As you say, telexes were what people used in the 1970’s and early 80s. Today we can collaborate on documents – from our ‘phones. Back in October, I wanted to attend a meeting of the Crime Book Club, but I was on a ‘road trip.’ So…I simply accessed WiFi at the airport where I was and joined the meeting. And there were participants from several different countries there. There’s no way that could’ve happened even 15 years ago.
      As you say though, there are drawbacks. There is lack of privacy, and there is danger People do need to be safe, and sometimes even when you do behave safely, things can happen. As you say, freedom of expression should not include threats.

  9. Kathy D.

    And I realize I help on an ezine from home on my computer, and so does everyone else working on every level of the operation, from writing to editing, proofreading and design. Everyone works from home. There are no face-to-face work sessions. And people phone for group discussions or work online.
    Twenty years ago people had to physically work on the pages, pasting, doing corrections by hand, pasting them in, etc. And a messenger took it to the printer. Nowadays, it all goes by pdf files.
    So, we can all stay home during a snowstorm.

    • Kathy – I have the same experience with some freelance work I do. No need to put it all together manually or even to meet in person. The Internet and today’s word processing software is all we need. When we do have to discuss projects, there’s meeting software and the telephone. It certainly is better than fighting snow. Or traffic.

  10. This is very interesting, Margot. I think all the latest developments are great, although there are many of them that I don’t use. But for my crime fiction, I prefer less emphasis on technology.

    • Tracy – I don’t use even half the technology that’s out there, to be honest with you. I’m happy when I can even keep up with it! But I think some of it is absolutely astonishing. It’s harder to capture that in a novel though, so I don’t blame you for preferring less emphasis on technology in your crime fiction.

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