The distance of the recent past

By Lorenzo

Recently. I went on a bit of a Criminal Minds (2005- ) binge, watching the first 7 seasons. Still looking for some more profiling action, I then re-watched The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

The film holds up well. But what struck me, re-watching it, was how primitive the technology seemed. In Criminal Minds, it is all contemporary hi-tech–mobile phones, emails, digital screens, internet and database searches and, in the later seasons, tablets.

Those low-tech early 90s

In The Silence of the Lambs, there are no mobile phones, emails or internet. Clunky faxes are used and a “database search” is looking up old newspapers on microfiche. It seemed laughably low-tech. Yet we are talking about a contrast well within my own adulthood.

Low tech

Low tech

Part of the contrast is the “boiling lobster” effect. While, in historical terms, 20-odd years is a mere eye-blink, we have experienced the IT revolution in waves, seeping through society. Seeing 20 years of difference in one hit is naturally much more striking. Particularly when the same activity is being engaged in, 20 years apart–inferring the characteristics and habits of the unknown serial offender from behaviour. Not only the same activity, but an information-heavy activity.

The contrast is striking, and the sense of recent tech “primitiveness” even more striking, though the effect somewhat undermines Alvin Toffler’s famous “Future Shock” thesis. We have adjusted to–nay embraced–I-tech with remarkable ease, even enthusiasm. The recent past of The Silence of the Lambs seemed tech primitive, not restful or preferable. Most of us deal with commercialised I-tech, and commercialisation is about making things attractive, useable, accessible (to varying degrees of success).

Gender shifts

It is not commercialised technology the people generally find confronting or disorienting. The other “distance of the recent past effect” was the role of women in law enforcement. That Jodie Foster‘s FBI agent Clarice Starling has to deal with male presumptions of females as delicate flowers not up to the grit of law enforcement–even if located in the film as part of rural backwardness–is a theme notably absent from Criminal Minds. There, female law enforcement officers are just taken for granted. Bad-ass female law enforcement officers, indeed. This is a general phenomenon–is not Cote de Pablo‘s Ziva David in NCIS the deadliest law enforcement officer in TV? Of course, ex-Mossad assassin is not a common former career for such. (Jim Caviezel‘s John Reese in Person of Interest [2011- ] is more menacing, but not a law enforcement officer.)

Admittedly, this is fiction we are talking of.  Female sheriffs are way more common in police procedurals than in real life. Still, that female-law-enforcement-officers-being-somehow-remarkable is not even a significant theme in Criminal Minds and similar shows increases the “distance of the recent past” effect from re-watching The Silence of the Lambs.

Toffler’s thesis may make more sense in other societies. Western societies and East Asia (or, for that matter, India), even Islam seem to be embracing technology with both hands. It is the last societies where (social) future shock seems more in evidence, particularly in Middle Eastern Islamic societies. But our status vis-a-vis other humans is a much more emotionally-laden thing than our interactions with cool new tech. (Tech and social relations have some interaction, but it is still the social relations which have the far more powerful emotional resonance.)

Fem techs 

One area where there is an amusing interaction between I-tech change and gender roles is how ubiquitous the feisty, genius-smart, female techie has become in TV shows. Prominent examples include Willow in Buffy (1997-2003) (the original?) and Abby in NCIS (2003- ). Criminal Minds (2005- ) has its own Penelope Garcia. Warehouse 13 (2009- ) has ClaudiaArrow (2012- ) has Felicity Smoak.

The smart, tech-savvy female character extends beyond actual techies. The X-Files‘s (1993-2002) Scully was very tech savvy and an actual gun-toting FBI agent–so, however tech savvy, not a techie. Similarly for Stargate‘s (1997-2007) Major (later Colonel) Carter. Who was a genius-smart, bad-ass fighter and later commander (of Atlantis). Amanda Tapping did so well at being the smartest and sexiest person in the room, she moved on to being the esoteric super-scientist lead in Sanctuary (2004-9). Chloe in Smallville (2001-2011) was the tech-smart friend and side-kick, so not really a techie. Amita in Numb3rs (2005-10) was the computer-smart fellow-mathematician girlfriend of child-prodigy mathematician Charlie Epps, so also not an actual techie, however tech-savvy.

Fem tech

Goth tech

Dr Temperance Brennan in Bones (2005- ) is a squint (technical expert) rather than a techie. And while IQ-wise she is the smartest person in the room, her Asperger‘s regularly makes her engagingly emotionally clueless. Though, in its own way, that is also operating against gender stereotypes. Lydia in Teen Wolf (2011- ) is also the smartest person in the room, but she is vast-reading and good-reasoning smart, not a techie as such.

The feisty techies have a range of roles with major characters.  Willow was Buffy’s BFF. In NCIS, Jethro Gibbs and Abby have a very father-daughter relationship–part of the fun of the Gibbs character is that he seems to be such a strait-laced ex-Marine Gunnery Sergeant, yet is completely fine with Abby’s in-your-face Gothiness. In Criminal Minds, Penelope and Derek Morgan have a flirt-outrageously pseudo-sibling friendship. In Warehouse 13, Claudia has a delinquent-daughter relationship with Artie and later a pseudo-sibling relationship, even  fag hag connection, with Steve Jinks. In Arrow, Felicity starts off as Oliver Queen‘s employee and then becomes tech side-kick.

As an aside, the phenomenon of TV series not only have quite long runs but increasing their ratings over time (as happened with NCIS, for example), may also be a consequence of I-tech. Nowadays, one can simply “catch up” with a series by buying or borrowing the DVDs, or downloading it. So one can be up-to-date with the story arcs and get all the nuances, as the new episodes air, even if you come late to a series.

The other advantage of watching via-DVD, especially for genre fans, is that you don’t have to put up with the TV station screwing up the sequence of episodes. (Which Oz TV channels seem to do with truly remarkable regularity.)

We live in an age of ordinary wonders and the distance of the recent past effect is very much part of that.

7 Comments

  1. David Jackmanson
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    In the book of either Silence of the Lambs or Red Dragon, Thomas Harris uses a fax as an example of super-duper up-to-the-minute technology that only powerful national agencies like the FBI have access to, which has always amused me.

  2. Tim Quilty
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    You’re never going to see someone unable to find a payphone as a plot device again. Now they have to have their mobile stolen or run out of battery to put them out of communication.

  3. slybrarian
    Posted October 31, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    It’s kind of weird, really, but I can barely stand cop shows or really most any other TV from the 90s because of some of this. I just end up constantly thinking, “why don’t they just call – oh wait,” and “Google would find that in two – right, nevermind.” It trips up my thought process. Scifi and historical dramas like Boardwalk Empire or the Tudors don’t give me the same problem. I think it’s because they don’t look like anything from when I was alive.

    Of course, the gender issues you point out can be just as bad, even in relatively progressive shows, to say nothing of how I cringe every time a gay person appears on pretty much anything before 2000.

  4. Helen
    Posted October 31, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    The ‘distance of the recent past’ is nothing new. Researching the history of the Murray River I came across a newspaper article with the headline ‘Ye Olden Dayes’. It was written in 1911 and was referring to an event that had happened in 1879 – just 32 years earlier. The speed of change was significant then as now, and Australia, including rural Australia, has always been a fast uptaker of new technology. See http://www.environment.gov.au/resource/linking-nation-australias-transport-and-communications-1788-1970-10.

  5. Mark
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Early 90’s??? Dr Lecter will be after you next. The film was made in 1990’s but follows the book quite faithfully with reference to the technology of the early 80’s, the years the book was set in.

  6. Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] In which case, they probably should not have had a picture of President Bush I in one of the government offices.

    Besides, I also remember the early 80s, so the point still holds.

  7. Posted November 27, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    It’s kind of weird, really, but I can barely stand cop shows or really most any other TV from the 90s because of some of this. I just end up constantly thinking, “why don’t they just call – oh wait,” and “Google would find that in two – right, nevermind.” It trips up my thought process. Scifi and historical dramas like Boardwalk Empire or the Tudors don’t give me the same problem. I think it’s because they don’t look like anything from when I was alive.

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