Cellphones and Science Fiction

I was doing an interview this morning about the movie “Back to the Future II” and its predictions about 2015.  There were some hits and some misses in that 1989 movie--and you’ll undoubtedly hear more about that as 2015 approaches.  But perhaps the most glaring miss was the appearance of a phone booth as part of the 2015 plot.

The interviewer asked me: How could the writers have missed ubiquitous cellphones, such an obvious element of the future?

Good question, and one I had already considered—because I’d published a near-future science fiction novel called Forbidden Sequence back in 1987, and I’d pretty much missed cellphones as well.  Yet they’d been around since 1983, and Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko made them talismanic in the 1987 movie “Wall Street”.

So by 1989, the trend was unmistakeable.  My most prized possession at the time was a Motorola MicroTAC phone--the first portable phone that wasn’t the size and shape of a man’s shoe.   Well, it wasn’t exactly my possession.  It cost about $3000--over $5000 in today’s dollars--and was on loan from Motorola since I was the technology writer for Newsweek.   The mobile phone I could actually afford in 1989 was mounted in the armrest of my car and had a shoe-box sized transmitter in the trunk.

So I should have had cellphones on my horizon in 1987, and, Hollywood being Hollywood, the writers of Back to the Future II probably actually owned them in 1989.  I suspect the reason we repressed mobile phones is that they really change narrative. Much of traditional dramatic plotting back then revolved around one character knowing something crucial and trying desperately to inform the others.

At that moment in history, introducing mobile phones to the storyline would have made plotting much more difficult.  Within a few years, of course, mobile devices began to appear in stories and films and now constant and ubiquitous communication is the basic assumption.

And younger writers learn to use mobile devices as plot devices in themselves--see the final episode of season two of HBO’s “Girls”, where the entire soap opera finale with Hannah and Adam is dramatized through FaceTime.

It’s a great moment when Hannah accidentally turns on FaceTime and realizes that Adam has an iPhone.  Even in the middle of an enormous emotional crisis, she blurts: “You have an iPhone?!”  It’s an accurate reflection of how devices, increasingly, define us.  As is always the case, technology may have taken away one kind of plotting trick but has given us plenty of new alternatives.