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Ashamed of our own smartphones: What the current forbidden topics of fiction tell us about ourselves

The Department of Communication and Media Studies at Corvinus University of Budapest organized a national English language competition for university students to write essay-style blog posts. The winning papers answer the question: What do university students who study in Hungary think about the effects of technology and media on our daily lives? With pleasure, we present you the first-prize winning work by João Antonio Guerra*.

Now there are mattresses everywhere, that was what my friend texted me yesterday. And it’s your fault!, she added, followed by a string of laughing emojis.

A couple of days earlier, she had texted me asking how my stay in Budapest was going, to which I answered it was good. I could even speak a little bit of Hungarian already. Brazil vagyok, portugálul beszélek, those are among the things I taught her through Facebook’s Messenger. Also, Viszontlátásra, albeit being a big word, merely means Bye. Later in the conversation I was told about how her work was going, and the general state of things in Rio de Janeiro, where both of us grew up. However, what is most important is that, here and there during our conversation, my friend sprinkled some minor complaints about her lower back pain.

It might be the mattress, I told her, You should maybe pick up a new one.

Yesterday, when she texted me Now there are mattresses everywhere, she meant of course ads for mattresses, popping up whenever she scrolled her Instagram or her Facebook feed, because the device picked up, from the conversation we had had, that my friend was in need of a new mattress.

They’re spying on us!, she then jokingly texted me.

And I am now thinking about how my friend is not entirely incorrect.

As a matter of fact, that text (They’re spying on us!), as simple as it might have been, brought before my eyes a myriad of spy movies. In spy movies, cellphones are commonly used as an easy means of actually spying on people, that is, of secretly recording video and audio or tracking its owner’s location, for example. In a nutshell, cellphone usage’s representation is more often than not rather distant from what anyone would call our actual cellphone usage.

If one were to look for instances of our day-to-day use of cellphones in movies (and I mean any movies, not only spy movies this time), they would discover that representations of how cellphones are really used are hard to come by in mainstream media.

Although most of our day is comprised of us using social media, for example, social media use is something kept in the background. In a scene, a character might be in their room on a rainy night, mindlessly scrolling their Twitter feed as it pours outside, but as viewers we already expect something else to happen, that is, we are already waiting for the moment in which that character’s mindless scrolling shall be interrupted so that the rest of the movie can then continue. In our actual lives, mindless scrolling Twitter might be the entire content of a rainy night, but moviegoers do not simply accept their actual lives represented on the big screen – something else has to be added to it. Either the lights shall go out and there will be strange noises coming from deep in the house, or a family member will be heard calling that character from another room, just to mention two possibilities. Anyway, what is the most important thing is that the phone must be dropped.

In 2018, video essayist Evan Puschak watched the 8 most lucrative American movies of that same year, specifically looking for instances where smartphones were shown. Puschak counted 16 smartphones, and then specified how they were used in scene: 5 phone calls, 2 video calls, 4 instances of spy stuff, 1 example of phones as a news source, 1 example of the phone used as a camera, 2 instances where we can see phones are used but it is unimportant for us to know what is actually being done to them, and 1 scene in Deadpool 2 where a reference to the movie Say Anything is made, but with a smartphone taking the place of the original boombox. One can then conclude that moviegoers would prefer that their smartphone usage was left hidden away from themselves in the movies they consume. And what maybe is the most astonishing thing from Puschak’s findings is the absolute absence of social media among the highest grossing films of 2018.

Of course, the same inclination to hide away our own habits can be seen in different kinds of media, not only movies. American science-fiction author Samuel R. Delany, who often writes about his craft on his Facebook profile, once sparked a discussion about the presence of smartphones in contemporary fiction. It was discussed to what extent a story is truly contemporary, if there is no mention of smartphones or social media in it. Delany even got to mention that, at times when he reads contemporary fiction, the total absence of such elements brings up the suspicion that the story is set sometime before their invention, most probably in the final decades of the last century. Today, wrote Delany, the forbidden topics of fiction are not sex and money so much as a certain level of day-to-day technology.

It surely seems as though several contemporary stories, supposedly set in our present time, are devoid of so many elements which together form contemporary life as we know it, that we therefore get the feeling that they’re actually set much further back in time, or even in a sort of parallel reality.

Much praise has been given to how both the Star Wars and the Alien franchises have built what is called an analogic future, that is, an idea of distant future in which all technology coheres with the technological expectations of the pre-Internet era. However, it must be pointed out that our current fiction, be it written or filmed, is being produced following strict guidelines we have established ourselves. It isn’t our technological expectations the ones to blame, though, but our expectation when it comes to our idea of productivity, or yet our idea of wasted time. The menial online activities we sink most of our time on, from mindlessly scrolling our social media feeds to constantly swapping from one social media to another in search of notifications, and including both chatting and ghosting people – those are all deemed unworthy of representations in fiction, and are therefore hidden away.

Needless to say, there are examples of fiction works that don’t shy away from representing a more true to life usage of smartphones and social media. In Puschak’s video essay, Bo Burnham’s movie Eight Grade is mentioned. Overall, Burnham has proved himself to be someone who likes to deal with the ratio between our daily online and offline activities. In Brazil, author Natalia Timerman has recently published a novel called Copo Vazio (Empty Cup, yet to be translated to English), which at its core is a novel about ghosting, and the plot of the book includes online activities such as stalking people, creating fake accounts, and playing games.

Doubtlessly, there must be a good deal of other examples of fiction that aims to do something similar.

I hope this article is being spied on.


João Antonio Guerra is Brazilian, born in Rio de Janeiro. He's a fiction writer, translator, proofreader, and language teacher. Currently, he's working towards his Master's in Cultural Anthropology at Eötvös Loránd University, but his academic background is in Literature and Language Studies. Technology, as a theme, has always been dear to his research, readings and writings.

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