Could characters such as Hamlet, Anna Karenina and Mr Darcy ever have been written about in an age of social networking? It's hard to imagine so, when yearning, chance and moments of intense connection are such an important part of narrative drama. If a character is stuck in front of a computer most of the time, there's only so much fun you can have with them, and a host of contemporary writers are admitting that they struggle to address the digital era in fiction.
The Pulitzer Prize finalist David Gates bemoaned the fact in an exchange with the novelist Jonathan Lethem, which was published in the journal PEN America saying, "I probably spend more time e-mailing and reading online than I do having non-virtual human contact... If my characters were like that, would their lives be eventful enough to write about?" Lethem replied that he specifically made the characters in his latest book, Chronic City, Luddites who have just discovered eBay, using a dial-up modem, in order to solve "the problem of writing something that would 'date'".
For every technical challenge, however, there's an author ready to meet it, and the past year has seen the publication of a flurry of books determined to engage with the way technology has changed our lives. Last autumn saw the publication of a novel called Richard Yates by the 27-year-old American writer Tao Lin. It begins with an online instant-messaging conversation between a man calling himself Haley Joel Osment and a teenage girl calling herself Dakota Fanning, and goes on to incorporate internet chats, e-mails and text messages.
The novel aims to communicate boredom, lack of intimacy and flatness of experience, and ends up doing so too well: the reader becomes as uninterested and disaffected as Lin's characters. Even if they are intended to lack substance, to show how the internet depersonalises us, it doesn't make for a moving read.
Gary Shteyngart's latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story (out in paperback this month), is more successful in combining a sense of alienation with vivid emotions and humour, although who knows how his speculation about the future of technology and fashion will date? Set about 15 or 20 years in the future, it charts the relationship between 40-year-old Lenny, who's getting to grips with new technology in order to keep his job at a company that promises to supply eternal life, and an up-to-the-second teenager Eunice.
While Eunice keeps up with fashion, wearing transparent trousers, ranking the hotness of those around her with her "äppärät" (a tiny digital device), Lenny still reads books and craves connection. ("What is that, an iPhone?" a character sneers when Lenny pulls out his clunky old äppärät.) The characters have backgrounds, desires, fears and confusion: they live in a world that treats them either as children or as objects, but there's still a human spark buried in both of them.
Jennifer Egan is slightly more optimistic about the future than Shteyngart in her latest novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the American National Book Critics Circle prize this month. The book begins in the present day and ends a generation into the future, when children as young as three months old have become the new target market for music downloading, with easy-to-use handsets called Starfish designed specially for them.
However, unlike the cruel, anxious, shallow world Shteyngart's Eunice and Lenny inhabit, the emotional landscape of the book's future is much the same as today's. Egan's characters - new parents - have banned their daughter from using a handset until she reaches five, although one of them exploits his own friends on social networking sites to promote a singer for cash.
Unlike Shteyngart's foul-mouthed, hard-edged teenagers, young people in Egan's world have embraced a new conservatism, shunning tattoos and piercings, and use no curses stronger than "shucks" and "golly". While texting, streaming and internet use is ubiquitous, it doesn't seem to have changed people's ability to think and feel.
Novelists have long tried to predict where technology might take us. And even if they didn't get the details entirely right, they can still offer powerful insights into the possibilities. Take Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. We don't yet hop into helicopters as if they were taxis, and children don't spend their formative years undergoing social conditioning in government-run nurseries, but his idea that what would threaten our humanity would be lack of attention span, information overload, sheep-like conformity and consequence-free hedonism rings true today.
But for all his prescience, even Huxley didn't predict the internet and its social effects. For an early glimpse of cyberspace, the author to turn to is William Gibson, whose breakthrough novel Neuromancer (1984) is set in a world where everyone is linked to a global computer network, and can appear virtually as avatars. Even Gibson just used this as a backdrop to a thriller, though, rather than pondering how it would change the way we think and communicate.
Exploring where new technologies will lead is crucial in helping us decide how we want to live now. Cory Doctorow's 2010 novel For The Win, for example, which follows children in the future who play computer games in sweatshops until they unite against their bosses, is intended to encourage readers to use the internet as a force that can link users up for social action. It may be easier to sidestep the internet in fiction, as Gates says, but it's a good thing that some authors are tackling it head-on.