Essay: Literature and Technology
Every year, we use Short Story Month as an opportunity to dive deep into questions of craft. This year, we take a close look at how contemporary literature tackles technology. We discuss fiction that uses Instagram, selfies, text messages, and robots in order to help convey emotion, reflection, and meaning.
“So many futuristic tales ask this: where do we draw the line between ourselves and what we have created? If this is what it means to be a machine, what does it mean to be a person?”
The case could easily be made that literature and technology are opposites. Great literature is a celebration of our very humanity. It chronicles our subjectivity, our ugliness, our desires, and our fears. It is a record of critical thought and of lived experience. Technology on the other hand, is rote. It is comprised of mechanical parts, of code, of signals. It is pure functionality, devoid of thought.
No wonder we are so fascinated with it.
In fact, we’re obsessed. From Taylor Swift videos to Black Mirror to the Bladerunner sequel—there’s a wealth of contemporary media that interrogates our relationship with technology. Fiction is no exception. In the slush pile alone, we’ve seen many stories in the form of emails, several pieces featuring robots, a lot of fiction about drones, and one very special story that (somehow) analyzed complex trauma through emojis.
Here, we examine the ways in which technology is incorporated in contemporary stories and novels as a mirror that casts a different light on our own experience and a foil that shows us the best and worst of ourselves. Whether it’s the simple use of a text message or an encounter with AI, the use of technology in fiction often provides characters with an opportunity for self-reflection.
I must admit that I’ve always found the selfie to be a strange and tragic form. In them, we look like bewildered creatures, staring into the lens, studying ourselves.
This conceit can be incredibly useful in fiction. It’s often very difficult to have a first-person narrator talk about themselves without it feeling contrived. Technology provides an easy solution to this problem. In Tom Perrotta’s recent novel Mrs. Fletcher, Eve, a middle-aged woman explores her own (sexual) identity after her only son leaves for college. In this passage, she examines the selfies she took after a new haircut:
They were really good—not just the haircut and the clothes, but the look on her face, and even the way she was standing with her hand on her hip, and her head canted at the perfect, self-possessed angle. Everything felt right and true, just the way she wanted it.
There I am, she thought.
Imagine this same scene with Eve looking in a mirror, and it feels more than a little contrived. This sort of (literal) self-reflection would be very hard to achieve without the help of the selfie—a form which asks us to study ourselves from all angles. In the final line, “There I am,” Eve is reaffirming her own identity through this image. The cover for the book itself features a drawing of a woman in bed, looking at her phone, the light from its screen illuminating half her face.