Split Screen Fiction

It’s been a reality for some time now that billions of people all around the world spend a great deal of time in constant contact with the people they want to be communicating with, in contrast to the actual living breathing people who happen to be near them. It’s a different sort of socio-geographic reality. Rather than bemoaning the fact that the so-and-so’s “are always on their cellphones”, the contemporary fiction- (and screen-) writer needs to find a way to depict this reality, but how?

In “old-style” video you’d see a split screen when two people were talking on the phone to each other. More recently the movie “Unfriended” showed a multiple split screen as friends were chatting via Skype and iMessaging each other. That came closer, but as I watch my teenage son go about his day he is communicating with many more friends than could be visually depicted via split screen.

In an early metafiction masterpiece that drove people mad, J.R. by William Gaddis presented a myriad of concurrent conversations un-besmirched by the bother of quotation marks or identifying who was speaking at any given moment, and to the readers who managed to immerse themselves in this stream it soon became quite obvious who was talking from the content and the context, but you had to lose yourself quite completely in it to get there. It seemed like the modern world to me.

Every day those of us who live or work in big cities are surrounded by large numbers of strangers all busy with their own lives, connected to their own worlds and their own people. We have to filter out nearly all of it. It can’t be captured or presented in any easy way, because it really is overwhelming to the senses. If we were to trace the paths of everybody on the morning train with us, and not in depth but as superficially as we experience them, the result would be a waxy buildup of transient glimpses, a parade of momentary guest appearances by a cast of millions soon enough.

To the young members of the new Generation Z (I just learned this term – we love our labels) the layered geography of social networking is their ether. They don’t see themselves as detached from the present – on the contrary, their reality is more than what’s right in front of their noses, it’s also what’s in front of the noses of all their constant contacts. Their eyes and ears are extended through the (also heavily filtered) senses of their friends, so that not only are their friends present in their world, but they are also present in all of those other worlds too.

In a fiction that captures some of this you would need to have the protagonists followed by a swarm of ghosts everywhere they go, all chipping in from time to time, and they doing the same right back. No one would be experiencing anything alone. There would be a running commentary, not externally like the “chorus” of ancient drama, but concurrently and omnipresently, remarking and advising, questioning and consulting.

One technology that may emerge at some point (via smart phones) would be the ability to “subscribe” to someone else’s personal life, via live audio, video and/or transcription, so that subscribers would know more than what you deign to text to snapchat  or whatsapp or imessage, but they will be there with you, following along, witnessing step by step, and you with them whenever you felt like checking their feed.

Apple’s Siri , Amazon’s Elexa and  Android’s ‘Ok Google’ are already there, listening to everything going on around you, waiting to hear their magic words. It’s not a stretch to realize they could easily be transferring all of it – not only to the NSA (of course!) but also to your friends, colleagues, bosses, customers, audience, or anyone who may care to tap into your world. It will be more than following on Facebook or Twitter. Call it “iProximity, the Next Best Thing to Being There”.

(This reminds me of a story I once wrote called The Following, where a narrator-in-training stalked a protagonist to try and figure out what the story was going to be)

Anyway, the immersive experience of constant contact presents challenges for fiction, which is more and more being left behind in its depiction of true experience. Just as in television and movies you almost never see people talking over each other, even though we do it all the time, in fiction it’s hard to depict the myriad influences coming and going asynchronously and continually throughout the modern connected person’s day.



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