From the smartphones that hotline-bling in our back pockets to the laptops aglow with Facebook updates, technology takes up every corner of our lives. How are we supposed to Netflix and chill with so many other screens vying for our attention?
Maybe that’s why our favorite TV shows tend to steer clear of such modern trappings. We love watching people do things we ourselves wouldn’t. (See: building a drug empire, fighting dragons, living without Facebook.) From the recently departed Mad Men and Downton Abbey to the wildly popular Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, TV shows devoid of Twitter, Tinder and Taylor Swift videos have a strange allure.
Look at Mad Men, which takes place in a world where driving a lawn mower is exciting and computers are so new and scary that they drive a character to cut off one of his nipples. Watching sexy people misbehave, without the shackles of a spouse checking in via text, is damn near irresistible. A modern-day Don Draper would most likely be some pot-bellied guy who spends his nights browsing Ashley Madison and dodging Whats-App messages from his second wife.
Downton Abbey offers a similar reprieve, albeit without Jon Hamm’s immaculate chest hair. The Abbey set is far too busy worrying about sinking ocean liners, Spanish influenza and deathbed marriages to consider fantasy-baseball stats or Missy Elliott’s first music video in seven years. And the poor Earl of Grantham could have saved his family from ruin if he’d only had an app to organize his finances, but what fun would that be?
Of particular note is The Walking Dead, which presents an intriguing premise: not its zombie apocalypse, a plot we’ve been mining since the 1960s, but its placement in a time that looks a lot like ours except for its total lack of devices. Its characters, former iPhone junkies just like us, have to learn to live off the grid. (Also, with zombies.) They could avoid so many deaths and inexplicable resurrections if they had Facebook, Twitter or Yelp, where the survivors could post status updates or review weapons. More than the breakdown of modern society, it’s the show’s underlying question—Is it better to have tweeted and lost than never to have tweeted at all?—that keeps us coming back.
The average American spends 11 hours a day looking at some sort of screen. When we’re gawking at the TV, we prefer shows that don’t remind us of all the other screens we could be gawking at.
The absence of tech in shows isn’t just a fantasy for viewers; it’s an important logistical workaround for storytellers too. As myriad writers and directors know, the unlimited amount of knowledge at our fingertips eliminates a lot of the fruitful problems you would normally find in fiction. The wrong-turn premise of the most basic plot line doesn’t happen in the age of Google Maps. Even the smartest TV shows of recent history have had to rely on spotty signals or missing phones to throw more obstacles at their protagonists. (See: The X-Files, on which cell phones always crap out when it’s convenient for the writers, or The Sopranos, on which one prominent character dies because he forgets his phone and doesn’t receive the call warning him of approaching hit men.) Broad City memorably mocks our digital addiction in a season one episode: Abbi loses her phone in a club, spurring a frantic citywide search, because how are you supposed to get laid without your phone? No, seriously—I don’t know.
This brings up another explanation for TV’s digital detox. The average American is conscious for 16 to 18 hours a day and spends 11 of those hours looking at some sort of screen. When we’re gawking at the TV, we prefer shows that don’t remind us of all the other screens we could be gawking at.
A notable exception is the USA Network newcomer Mr. Robot. It obliterates the tech-on-TV problem by aiming its focus squarely at technology and how we interact with it. It doesn’t just give us tech-geek details—it revels in them. Every facet of its characters’ lives is tethered to technology, every minute detail susceptible to the prying eyes of anyone with internet access. Data courses through the show’s veins like so much blood rendered in ones and zeros.
It’s a modern folie à deux, us and our technology. That we escape from media and technology by watching media on technology would make Camus laugh. There’s something enticing about the prospect of an unplugged life: You don’t want to permanently banish technology, because you love it, but its absence feels exotic. Through TV we can imagine ourselves donning luxurious furs and slaying white walkers; when the credits roll, we can jump online to post our outrage at the (supposed) death of our favorite character. But in the same way that the Glenns and Jon Snows of the world will never really die, we’ll never really leave technology behind. We can delve into the delirium of life without our devices, but we always, inevitably, return.