“The Art of Immersion” by Frank Rose: How technology is changing the art of storytelling

This text is a final paper I wrote as part of my masters degree in Communications, for the course “Internet, Media, Globalization”.

Published in 2011, “The Art of Immersion” was written by Frank Rose, an American author and journalist who, as well as having written several books on digital culture, is currently a contributor for the likes of The New York Times and the technology magazine Wired. In fact, Rose has said that it was a decade of reporting for the latter that prompted him to write this book, with one incident in particular being decisive.

While doing research on 3D technologies as a contributing editor for Wired, Rose interviewed James Cameron while he was still developing Avatar (an example that features heavily in the book), who claimed that the best form of science fiction (and what he was striving to achieve) was something that could be immersive, that you could “jump in almost in powers of ten and the pattern would still hold up”. Intrigued by this quote, and after a set of further research on the universe of alternate reality games, Rose realized that the power of immersion of today’s narratives was a story that he wanted to tell himself. Before “The Art of Immersion”, he spent many years writing about the impact of technology on entertainment, culture and society in general. Today, he describes himself as a “digital anthropologist”, with specialized knowledge on storytelling in the age of the Internet.

The starting point of this book is the observation that “the people formerly known as the audience”, as Rose writes, have evolved from being a passive crowd to participating individuals that can no longer be expected to simply consume what they are given. Instead, Rose argues, the digital era in which we find ourselves today stimulates us to help shape the stories we are told, which are becoming more and more immersive with each development in technology.

At the heart of every medium, of which the ultimate goal is (or should be) to substantially engage the audience, is storytelling. In “The Art of Immersion”, Rose gives the reader an overview of the evolution of storytelling and tries to identify as well as make sense of the changes we are currently experiencing in the way we consume media. As a whole, “The Art of Immersion” deals largely with examples from the present day but Rose occasionally goes back in time to illustrate the point that, historically, new types of narratives have always emerged with the advent of a major new medium – it happened with radio, and with television after. So while what we are experiencing today may feel unprecedented, we have in fact faced similar issues before and seem to repeatedly fall into the same patterns.

Regarding the central subject matter of the book, which is how digital tools are changing storytelling, Rose asserts that the Internet’s intrinsic attributes inevitably influence the way we are telling and consuming stories. Not only is it non-linear, enabling a much more versatile experience for the audience than the mass media did, but it is also inherently participatory, meaning that it constantly incites us to comment, contribute and share. Most importantly, though, the Internet is immersive by nature; it certainly is the most immersive out of all the mediums we have experienced thus far. What is meant here by “immersive” is the simple fact that the Internet allows anyone to delve as much as they wish into any matter they like.

As a result, people’s expectations are changing and the days when we accepted to passively consume mass media are, it seems safe to say, long gone. The Internet has brought about with it a yearning for involvement, because it not only lets us access unlimited amounts of information, but it also gives us a voice and a means for us to express ourselves. We are now witnessing the rise of a much more fluid environment in which consumers have become “prosumers”, acting simultaneously as producers, consumers, commentators and curators, and interacting with anyone that might be willing to listen.

This leads to one of the main themes of the book, the notion of “deep media”. Rose believes that, after 25 years of existence, only now can we actually start assessing the repercussions that the Web is having on different media forms. He argues that, under its influence, a new kind of narrative is emerging, one that is, above all, immersive. Rose dubs this phenomenon “deep media” and makes a point of distinguishing it from Japan’s “media mix” strategy, as well as from Henry Jenkins’ concept of “transmedia”. These refer to stories that are told through several different media at once in order to create a unified entertainment experience. For Rose, deep media goes one step further: stories are still told across different media outlets but in a way that is non-linear, participatory and that is not only entertaining, but designed to be immersive. Whereas transmedia provides a multi-platform narrative, deep media strives to directly incorporate the public within the storytelling process, by offering a way for it to engage with and immerse itself in said narrative.

One of the many examples Rose uses to illustrate this idea is the “Why so serious?” alternate reality game that preceded the release of the film The Dark Knight from the Batman series, which involved assisting the Joker as he staged a robbery by trying to solve a sequence of mysteries, puzzles and enigmas. This stunt, which Rose describes as a hybrid of a game and a story, attracted ten million people around the world and revealed a new kind of immersive narrative that blurred the lines between reality and fiction.

Of course, this new type of narrative has lead to a new type of public, which, as we have seen, has evolved from passive consumer to active participant. However, as Rose points out, an audience such as this one, with an intense will to be immersed, already existed in Japan several decades ago, as a result of the aforementioned “media mix” strategy. The “otaku”, as they are called, are hard-core fans on the verge of obsession who are prepared to give up their social life to extend whatever fiction they have just experienced into real life in any way possible. According to the author, one can be otaku about anything and, in fact, he considers them to be the predecessors of today’s tech-savvy, expert and participative public that has emerged in a more and more connected world.

Throughout the book, Rose also outlines some of the ways in which this new audience is behaving in the increasingly immersive environment we live in. Firstly, he highlights the fact that higher levels of participation lead to the formation of communities that work together to decipher and learn more about certain narratives, as was the case with the hit television series Lost. Rose tells the story of Kevin Croy, the creator of “Lostpedia”, a Wikipedia page dedicated to the TV show that he started in an effort to create a platform for discussion, in which the fans could share knowledge and aggregate as much information on the programme as possible. In this sense, while Lost may not have seemed particularly interactive at first, it represented such a complex universe that viewers needed to talk to each other to be able to understand the whole story. Here, the author introduces the notions of “foraging” (searching for information) and “sense-making” (putting the pieces together), and Lostpedia was where the fans gathered to do just that.

But the Internet has also helped create a hyper-connected public and social media in particular has become one of the most popular tools for the audience to extend the fantasy and make the most of these immersive experiences. One of the examples mentioned in the book is about a group of fans of the successful television show Mad Men, who decided to start tweeting as the series’ characters and essentially helped tell part of the story themselves by sharing Don, Betty and Peggy’s deepest and most personal thoughts online.

With the development of technology and the changing structures of narratives, the level of participation of today is such that the audience now has the ability, at least to a certain extent, to take the reins and be part of the storytelling process as much as the author. Control is thus another central theme in “The Art of Immersion”, and Rose argues that it is quickly eroding. As a matter of fact, he says that it started eroding as early as 1975, when the invention of the VCR introduced the notion of “time-shift”, enabling viewers to choose when to watch television. This trend was then exacerbated by its successor, the digital video recorder, and today the Internet has done a good job of practically eliminating any kind of power that the author might have had on the audience. As has happened with the Star Wars saga, which George Lucas himself today admits that it “now belongs to the fans”, the author can no longer control what happens with his stories. People no longer want to just listen to the stories they are told; they retell and imagine themselves in them until they make it their own.

This was the case of the infamous “Potterwar”, when Harry Potter fans enraged Warner Bros. by using the Potter name in websites they had created to celebrate the saga. The entertainment corporation, eager to protect its trademarks, threatened them with legal action, but why attack your audience for trying to connect with a story you happen to hold the rights to? This is a symptom of what Rose calls an “authorship crisis”: as the author starts the story, the audience completes it, blurring the lines between producer and receiver.

Yet it doesn’t stop there. The Internet, with its non-linear, participatory nature, continues to blur boundaries across all spectrums, be it between author and audience, story and game, personal and professional, even fact and fiction. The degree of immersion we procure by the narratives of today is only amplifying this phenomenon, and the question is, where is this all leading? As it stands today, we are still at an intersection trying to figure out how to make use of a technology that may not yet have shown even half of its potential. Indeed, as Rose points out, it usually takes us 20 to 30 years to fully recognize what to do with a new communications technology. As long as we are in the middle of this transition, no one will be able to predict how storytelling will evolve for sure, but the author believes it could lead to nothing short of the level of immersion found in Star Trek’s “holodeck”, a simulation engine populated with holographic characters. In any case, “The Art of Immersion” manages to demonstrate that stories are, in fact, culturally significant, especially since the way we tell them appears to say an awful lot about the state of our society.

Ultimately, whether or not you agree with its thesis, this book still reveals itself as relevant to our times, not only because we are currently in the midst of the new era of the modern technological revolution it is describing, during which an unprecedented convergence between all existing media is taking place, but also because it revolves around a timeless, unspoken truth, which is that humans love stories. No matter which time period or historical context, from the serialized novels in the age of Dickens to today’s alternate reality video games, we have always found a way to distract ourselves from reality by producing and consuming fiction, in some form or another. At a deeper level, though, the author’s bold thoughts on the future of storytelling prompt a crucial underlying question: what will the future of media look like?

Indeed, if we tell stories through media, and if the way we tell them is shaped by technological developments, it seems inevitable that this debate should emerge. I use the word “debate” because the number of theories on the subject is as prolific as it is diverse. At this point in time, of course, any arguments, whether for or against, can be considered nothing more than the result of speculation. However, Rose does make a compelling case for the ever-increasing immersive quality of storytelling and media, and, it must be said, is rigorous when analyzing evidence. In my view, his reasoning can be divided into two separate arguments: the fact that the development of technology, and the Internet in particular, are changing storytelling and making it a more immersive process than ever before, and the fact that this is happening because we, the audience, want it that way.

In regards to the first assertion, it is hard to refute it. The fact that the Internet is a gateway to an unlimited wealth of information from countless sources, therefore enabling people to immerse themselves like never before, is a fact. Naturally, the unique characteristics of this medium were bound to have an effect on the way we communicate. A simple element of proof is that conventional entertainment isn’t working the way it used to. Media no longer works at a unilateral level, so what could be considered a successful venture as little as 15 years ago would probably have a harder time deeply engaging with an audience today. More and more, scientific research is being carried out on the subject and results so far have only served to confirm what we already know. For example, a recent Pew Internet study in the US has revealed that people’s attention span is diminishing due to the Web’s instant environment where everything is just one click away. With this in mind, it only makes sense to say that stories have to be more compelling and the way we tell them more immersive in order to retain the audience’s attention.

Having said this, when Rose suggests that this will only intensify with time, he might be getting slightly ahead of himself. It is hard to imagine a future, as distant as it might be, where the lines will become so blurred that we will not be able to tell the difference between fiction and reality anymore. If this were ever to be the case, it would mean that the Web would become our primary, if not only, means to access all media. However, as challenging as the Internet has been to other media business models, it could also be argued that new media isn’t necessarily killing print, radio or television. It will continue altering them in significant ways, to be sure, but there seems to be a pattern whereby people make room for new media in their lives, without giving up on old media. The fact that Rose published his thoughts on the matter via the most old-fashioned medium of all, the book, is certainly revealing.

But what I find most difficult to agree with is the idea that Rose puts forth in the concluding chapter of the book, according to which the public is not only experiencing but also willingly driving this evolution towards a more encapsulating environment, because it craves immersion. He writes: “What we really want – many of us, anyway – is the holodeck. We want to be sucked inside the computer like Jeff Bridges in Tron. We want to be immersed in something that’s not real at all.” The fact is, as much as the public wants to be engaged with and is stimulated to exercise its newfound power to help steer the direction of a story, there will be a point when too much becomes too much. When a consumer is faced with too much choice, he finds himself in need of guidance to be able to make a decision. The same goes for storytelling: as soon as the audience is given too much control, it will get lost and rapidly lose interest.

At one point in the book, Rose talks about the dramatic failure a “choose-your-own-ending” film called Mr. Payback, also described as an interactive movie because audiences, using dials, could vote on what would happen after each scene. The film got devastating reviews and was shown in mostly empty cinemas. This proves the point that just because entertainment has become interactive doesn’t mean that the storyteller should abdicate responsibility. On the contrary, it is still up to him to create and carry a coherent narrative; we just want to have a say in it too.

Some data even suggests that we may not care about involvement as much as we have been made out to. It seems that, currently, 70 to 75 % of people watching television remain passive, while 20 % engages in a limited fashion (for example, by tweeting about it) and a mere 5 to 10 % actively participates. Furthermore, for all the talk of TV becoming increasingly social, a recent study by the Council for Research Excellence (a group that does in-depth research on how Americans use media) has, on the contrary, suggested that most of us don’t post at all while in front of the big screen, and when we do, it has nothing to do with what we are watching. This seems to demonstrate that not all of us yearn for the active involvement Rose is talking about, at least certainly not all the time. Consequently, a time when the world will be completely populated by otaku seems to belong in the very distant future, if not purely in science fiction.

Despite this, Rose seems optimistic about such an impact on future storytelling approaches. In fact, he ends the book by talking about the 2010 film Inception, which takes place in a subconscious, dream space. In it, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character always carries a spinning top with him, which only topples over if he is awake in the real world. Rose appears to believe that this item might one day come in handy for us, if we keep going in the same direction. To make a prediction on how immersive storytelling will become, one has to make a judgment on what the future holds for media. Given the degree of immersion Rose is foreseeing, one can deduce that his view is that, one day, every medium will be absorbed by the Internet, leaving us little choice but to keep craving more engagement.

However, this assessment should be met with caution. In a world of constant change and evolution, it is easy to forget that technology is just a tool. As revolutionary and enthralling as the Internet might be, it cannot, strictly speaking, and for all its wonders, dictate what we will become; instead it is what we make of it that will determine where we are headed.

– Rose, Frank, “The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and The Way We Tell Stories“, W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.
– Rose, Frank (2013), “Schumpeter and the Future of Media”, in Milken Institute Review. Available here.
– Terdiman, Daniel (2011), “The Internet and the ‘Art of Immersion’”, in CNET. Available here.