Writing plugged-in characters

a woman in a VR headset
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I hate to admit it, but I’m very online. I spend way too much time on my phone, and sometimes I have to remind myself to go out and touch some grass.

But I don’t give my characters phones, generally. It’s just not nearly as interesting to write about someone who scrolls all day. Sure, the things I’m interacting with online are interesting, but I’m not physically engaged, so it would be a lot less vivid to write about.

But lately I’ve read a lot of books that decide to lean in to the idea of being plugged in. What if we were on our phones even more? What if our phones were in our brains? What if everyone, at all times, had the information of their entire culture at their fingertips, could call anyone, could look up anything? Would we get used to it and be able to keep it in the background while we engaged with the real world? Or would we become sucked into the virtual world and unable to escape?

That’s the question science fiction authors have to answer. Either we all take a collective step back from our phones . . . or we implant them in our bodies. Because we can hardly get more attached to them than we currently are.

Currently I’ve been reading the Planetfall series of novels, which I find absolutely fascinating. Everything’s horrifically dystopian, especially in book 2, After Atlas, which takes place on Earth. Everyone has a chip in their head which can display things in their visual field, respond to verbal commands, or engage them in a virtual reality world. It’s got enough artificial intelligence to be able to follow what you want and communicate with you like a person.

Sounds fun, right? Except nobody has any right to privacy, so once the characters need to do something illegal, they’re faced with having to hide it from their own brain. Oh, and if your chip is taken over by the bad guys, they can pretty much control you. You can’t make a call, can’t send an email, can’t go outside the route they told you to, or they’ll know. Not so easy to ditch as a phone!

It changes things when you have all the information in the world at your fingertips. A character in the book is riding in a car, sees someone in a neighboring car, and wonders where he’s going. Immediately the virtual assistant reads the other person’s profile and tells him. The character reflects that not knowing things had used to be part of the fun.

Still, it’s handy to him as a detective to be able to get people’s names and occupations in a visual overlay on meeting them. Think how many fewer social embarrassments I’d have if everyone had floating name tags on! And it saves time in the narration; we’re told the names and basic details and the dialogue can get straight down to business.

Another book I’ve been reading (I think I am in the middle of seven books right now; I know and I’m sorry), The Red Scholar’s Wake, takes things even further. Since people can project places holographically, sometimes you’re not even interacting in real space at all. In a room of people, half of them are only projections, the food’s not real, and you might simultaneously be having a conversation with a third party.

I find it hard to imagine being able to do so many things at once. Phones have trained us into a greater degree of multitasking than I was capable of before (as well as totally destroying my attention span) but surely there’s a limit of what brains could adapt to. If I had icons floating in my visual field at all times, I am pretty sure I would go mad. No thank you.

That said, I love in Murderbot how people can just send each other a text with their thoughts. Sneaky communication would be a really handy ability to have.

When I think of the directions I would like technology to go, I don’t think I would like a brain chip, even if it worked well.1 But as a writer, there are only two rules: the rule of plausibility and the rule of cool. The former says, “If it’s believable that technology could do that, go for it!” I’m afraid this stuff actually sounds very plausible to me; I think a lot of people would want their phones even closer. Already it’s hard for me to put my phone down and get in the shower.

The latter is more difficult. It’s one thing to say a certain technology would be cool in theory. It’s another to have it work well with the story you’re telling. It takes a lot of skill to weave in a character’s interaction with their cybernetic gadgets without derailing your plot and descriptions.

Virtual reality is a solution for some of this. Upgrading the technology can actually make things more vivid, not less. Instead of making a phone memo like I would have to, the hero of After Atlas goes to his virtual office and makes his notes on a virtual whiteboard, knowing everything he writes gets tidily deposited in his case file for his boss. Now we are in a place and the place gets described. That’s fun!

Science note, however: brain chips can do a full virtual-reality experience. So far, the virtual reality we’ve invented only does sight and sound, with a limited amount of body tracking. If you want to write a vivid world with all five to seven senses, you’ll need to invent something a little cooler, and it will almost certainly have to plug directly into your nervous system. Would that be cool or terrifying? If you die in the game, will you die in real life? You, the author, get to decide!

Another important question is how your character feels about their lens, brain chip, ear pod, or whatever. Are they an early adopter who’s been using gadgets naturally since childhood? Or are they a luddite, proud to interact with their personal tech as little as possible? If something happened to it, what would they do? Roll with it, or freak out? Can the brain even function on its own, after that much time assisted by a device? These are questions that can tell you everything about a character—and provide all the fish-out-of-water scenes you could ask for.

What’s your favorite book with a plugged-in character? How much does it feature in the book?

1 so far the technology is not at the level anybody should have put into them; please do not trust Elon Musk on this

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