Reading the Perks of Being a Wallflower was a blast from the past. The book takes place in 1991, before cell phones and computers. The characters make each other mixtapes and call each other on their family's landlines. It's easy to write around fashion and design fads, but technology has become its own beast. Constantly changing technology makes films and TV outdated instantly in a matter of years. (Anyone still use the T-mobile sidekick from The Devil Wears Prada?)
How the heck are you supposed to write a contemporary YA novel then?
You can't keep up with technology, especially with the 2-year lag time it can take books to get published. Think where we were 5 years ago. The iPhone just came out. The Motorola Razr and Myspace were huge. Think where we were 3 years ago. Nobody had iPads or Instagram. Teens are the most tech-savvy, so they'll notice any obsolete technology. Here are some Dos and Don'ts I try to follow when incorporating technology in my writing:
1) Don't get specific: Staying general will buy your book some time before the technology becomes obsolete. While specific products may change, the product categories will be around for a while.
- If your characters are on a cell phone, don't say what kind it is. Just say they are using a phone. Don't even specify how they use it. For instance, "flip open" and "clap shut" imply flip phones, which are so mid-2000s.
- Don't elaborate on what type of computer your character uses. Desktop PCs are on their way out, and over time, even laptops will fade away in favor of tablets.
- For social networks, Facebook seems like it's here to stay, and it's so ingrained into our social lives that it's hard to ignore. However, just say that your characters are on Facebook, and if they must be on the site, only have them do basic, broad tasks like looking up people. Don't mention any nitty-gritty features or Facebook language because that is constantly changing, e.g. profiles are now timelines, fans are now likes.
- Avoid mentioning specific web sites or web properties like Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, even Words with Friends. Your characters can see something someone wrote online or posted online, but it's best to not mention where they saw it and what exactly they saw. Let your reader fill in those gaps him/herself.
- I would avoid referencing DVDs, and even Netflix. Home entertainment is changing so rapidly. All you need to say is that she's watching a movie at home. Nobody cares about the specifics.
- Technology may move fast, but not for everyone. Some people still use dial-up and a desktop computer. Approximately 85% of Americans have a cell phone, but that means that 15% still do not.
3) Don't feel the need to rely heavily on technology: Yes, kids today are hooked to their gadgets.
4) Don't let technology take over your story: This is the most important rule. Technology is forever changing, but emotions and conflicts are not. People read books for the characters and the story, not for the technological accuracy. Don't obsess over how to incorporate technology into your story. The Perks of Being a Wallflower takes place in 1991, but that didn't stop me from enjoying it. The characters in that book felt real and relatable, even if they didn't have cell phones. Holden Caulfield is still a wildly popular character, even though he never had a Facebook profile. Readers aren't going to throw your book out if your protagonist doesn't have a smartphone.
What are your rules of thumb for including technology in your writing?