Russ Roberts

Frank Rose on Storytelling and the Art of Immersion

EconTalk Episode with Frank Rose
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Bruce Meyer on the Middle Clas... Wapshott on Keynes and Hayek...

Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion and correspondent for Wired Magazine, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about how the web has changed the art of storytelling and the interactions between the web, advertising, games, movies, and television. Rose argues that when a new medium is introduced, whether it is the book, movies, or the web, there is always a period of exploration as to how storytelling, the author, and the audience will interact. While there have always been readers, viewers, and listeners who immerse themselves in good stories, the web allows this immersion to expand dramatically, partly because the audience can share reactions and insights with each other as well as becoming part of the creation of the story in ways that past media have not allowed. Rose chronicles these developments with specific examples and speculates on where storytelling on the web might be headed. The conversation closes with a brief discussion of the passing of Steve Jobs.

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0:36Intro. [Recording date: October 6, 2011.] Your argument is that storytelling is changing, along with advertising, movies, TV, and the web. How? What is the art of immersion? The focus of the book is on how the internet is changing storytelling; and the idea is really that every time a new medium comes along, it takes people 20 or 30 years to figure out what to do with it, to figure out the grammar of that medium. The motion picture camera was invented around 1890 and it was really about 1915 before the grammar of cinema--all the things we take for granted now, like cuts and point-of-view shots and fades and pans--were consolidated into first what we would recognize as feature films. Birth of a Nation being the real landmark. It wasn't the first film that had these characteristics but it was the first film to use all of them and that people settled on that really made a difference. I think we are not quite there yet with the internet but we can see the outlines of what is happening, what is starting to emerge; and it's very different from the mass media that we've been used to for the past 150 years. How so? Essentially, mass media is broadcasting, whether it's in print or over the air or whatever. It's one to many. It's just a function of economics: around 1850, 1860 it became much more economical to start newspapers that would reach a large number of people. And this same pattern obviously obtained in broadcasting, once radio and then television came along. The tradeoff was it was essentially one-way communication. There was very little way for people to write back. Of course you had letters to the editor and so forth, but the bandwidth, so to speak, was infinitely smaller. It was essentially a one-way form of communication. The internet is not only two-way; it's multi-way. It enables us to talk to each other about what we are seeing, viewing, experiencing. And that puts us all in a very different place. It means among other things that essentially the boundaries are blurred. All of the boundaries we took for granted for much of the past 100 years, the boundaries between advertising and entertainment, for example, between fiction and non-fiction, between the audience and the author. As these things blur we are entering essentially a new kind of media world. I have believed now for a while that advertisers are some of the best storytellers; and that's become increasingly obvious. It's almost all story-telling. What we as economists do--we do a lot of storytelling, much of it ex post, after the fact justification of philosophical views rather than science. That's a common theme on this program. But one of the things your book does is it makes you realize how pervasive storytelling is and how fundamentally human an act it is. We like telling stories, we like listening to stories; and one thing your book made me think about is we like re-telling them. When we retell them, we retell them with our own additions, subtractions; we retell jokes all the time, the most primitive form of it. The audience communication among each other is one of the things your book brings out. And the participatory nature. You give a marvelous example of 19th century participation with the serial novel. Talk about that as a primitive example of how Charles Dickens was influenced in his writing. I was really fascinated by that example as I got deeper and deeper into it. Essentially, Dickens as a young novelist was very influenced by the technology of the day, and so were his publishers. The situation was, in England in the 1830s, you had large numbers of people who had recently migrated to cities. Increasing numbers of them were literate, far more than had been the case even 50 years before. At the same time you had fairly rapid advances in transportation with the railroads, which guaranteed a distribution system, and printing presses, and the manufacture of paper. At the same time this sort of newly literate potential audience did not have a lot of money, so it wasn't very easy for them to go out and actually buy a book. But they could afford a small portion of a book. So, novelists like Dickens published their books in monthly installments, occasionally even in weekly installments. This meant that the writing of the novel was very much an iterative process. It was ongoing as the novel was being published. So, this made it possible for readers to make their feelings known. And Dickens was, I think perhaps even more than other writers at the time, very responsive to what his readers said. He didn't always follow their suggestions. With Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop as it became increasingly apparent that she was going to meet an untimely demise, there was a great hue and cry. He was certainly a good enough story teller to know her days were numbered. In other cases where the narrative was faltering a bit he paid much more attention. I hadn't thought of this until you just mentioned it. In Oliver Twist, the character Fagan, who is Jewish, not a very flattering portrait; and Dickens took a lot of heat for that. So, in his later book, Our Mutual Friend, which is my favorite Dickens--I'm a big Dickens fan--there's a Jewish hero in it. And I think Dickens was upset that his fans were upset, and he responded.
8:57But as you point out, the bandwidth wasn't very big. Some people could let him know how they felt. What has changed is not just the ability of the audience to influence the story, but as you often point out in your book, the ability of the audience to write the story. Not in the way that it used to happen, as you point out--the audience picks the ending. But really how the characters evolve in response to the audience's sometimes tweeting in the name of a character. Marvelous example in the book. But let's talk about the immersive aspects, which is not just the ability to get into a story, but to get into a story in a way you couldn't imagine before the technology came along. Why don't you talk about NotSoSerious.com--which I didn't know about; the campaign in advance of the Dark Knight. This was what's known as an alternate reality game. This was a particularly large-scale example that took place over a period of about 18 months. Essentially the purpose of it was to create this experience that kind of started and largely played out online but also in the real world and elsewhere that would familiarize people with the story and the characters of the Dark Knight. In particular with Heath Ledger as the Joker. Build enthusiasm and interest in the movie in advance of its release. On one level it was a marketing campaign; on another level it was a story in itself--a whole series of stories. It was developed by a company called 42 Entertainment, based in Pasadena and headed by a woman named Susan Bonds who was interestingly enough educated and worked first as a Systems Engineer and spent quite a bit of time at Walt Disney Imagineering, before she took up this. It's a particularly intriguing example of storytelling because it really makes it possible or encourages the audience to discover and tell the story themselves, online to each other. For example, there was one segment of the story where there were a whole series of clues online that led people to a series of bakeries in various cities around the United States. And when the got to the bakery, the first person to get there in each of these cities, they were presented with a cake. On the icing to the cake was written and phone number and the words "Call me." When they called, the cake started ringing. People would obviously cut into the cake to see what was going on, and inside the cake they found a sealed plastic pouch with a cell phone and a series of instructions. And this led to a whole new series of events that unfolded and eventually led people to a series of screenings at cities around the country of the first 7 minutes of the film, where the Heath Ledger character is introduced. That was a rather remarkable--you mention at the beginning of the book and then I think again toward the end: when you went into the bakery you had to ask for a package for Robin Banks, which is kind of a pun--I missed it the first time, but that's how the movie opened, with a bank robbery. Cheap joke for such an extraordinarily complex set of clues. One of the things that happens in these stories that you chronicle is the crowd-sourcing, the wisdom of crowds, the emergent smartness of the ecosystem of these fans. Any one of them has trouble solving all these things but as a group they solve them with lightning speed sometimes, to the surprise of the designers. In one example where they expected some puzzle to last for weeks or months, and they solve it the first day; and they are off and running and it's out of control. In this case, do we have any idea how many people were involved in exploring that game that was created in advance of the Dark Knight? The numbers are extraordinary. Ultimately it was about 11 million people around the world. Just stunning. That's one level of immersion--before the movie comes out you are into Christopher Nolan or the Batman series or you just like puzzles or games, so you start playing along with this.
14:40But one of the examples you talked about that was particularly interesting was the TV series Lost. So, I'm one of the only people in the world who hasn't seen all the episodes. I saw a few of them, when it first came out. But a lot of people got immersed in Lost. Give us some examples of that immersion and the products that created along the way. The thing about Lost was it was really a different kind of television show. What made it different was not the sort of gimmicks like the smoke monster and the polar bear--those were just kind of icing. What really made it different was that it wasn't explained. In the entire history of television until quite recently, just the last few years, the whole idea of the show has been to make it really simple, to make it completely understandable so that no one ever gets confused. Dumb it down for a mass audience; PBS, that's really sophisticated, where you can watch Shakespeare; you'd have to work a little bit at it. But sitcoms are just supposed to be easy. Right. Lost took exactly the opposite tack, and the result was--it might not have worked 10 years ago, but now with everybody online, we live in an entirely different world. The result was people got increasingly intrigued by the essentially puzzle-like nature of the show. And they tended to go online to find out things about it. And the show developed a sort of fanatical following, in part precisely because it was so difficult to figure out. There was a great example I came across of a guy in Anchorage, Alaska who watched the entire first season on DVD with his girlfriend in a couple of nights leading up to the opening episode of Season 2. And then he watched the opening episode of Season 2 and something completely unexpected happened. What is going on here? So he did what comes naturally at this point, which was to go online and find out some information about it. But there wasn't really much information to be found, so he did the other thing that's becoming increasingly natural, which was he started his own Wiki. This became Lostpedia--it was essentially a Wikipedia about Lost and it now has tens of thousands of entries; it's in about 20 different languages around the world. And it's become such a phenomenon that occasionally the people who were producing the show would themselves consult it--when their resident continuity guru was not available. And you talk about again a modern version of the Dickens story: when they created a couple of characters that people didn't like, they killed them off pretty quickly. Right. Again, a little bit of audience feedback affecting the story. But the other part of that is that Lostpedia and videos that others make: they start using the characters in ways that probably often violate copyright laws but often the creators say: This is good, let it run. I think that's the more enlightened attitude toward it. Because the truth is that people really want to inhabit stories that they love. If it's a story you really care about you want to get into it as deeply as possible. And for many people that means retelling the story yourself. For years--decades in fact--you had an underground fan fiction community that flourished particularly around certain science fiction movies and TV series--Star Trek and Star Wars being the ultimate examples. With the coming of the internet all these things surfaced. What had been published in very small-scale Fanzines suddenly became available online for anybody to see. And this caused a fair amount of panic--certainly in Hollywood as well as in the publishing community and elsewhere. I think the really interesting example is what's happened in Japan, where manga series, comic series, developed this same kind of following and the same kind of intense involvement in the form of fan fiction. And the publishers eventually learned to just sort of look the other way and let it happen. Because it's not as if the fan fiction is taking something away from the series. It's only increasing interest in it. It's hardly plagiarism. It may be technically a violation of copyright law, but it's the benefit of all concerned. I think companies in the United States and in Europe are just beginning to reach this conclusion. A particularly interesting example is what happened to Warner Brothers when it started to take on teenage and pre-teen fans of the Harry Potter series in advance of the release of the first movie. They started sending cease-and-desist letters to 12- and 13-year olds who had set up websites that used names like HarryPotter.com, fan sites of course. So these kids got these letters and a lot of them were pretty freaked out about it, and so were their parents. Where once they wouldn't have had a voice, that's not the case any more. It developed into a huge public relations disaster for Warner Brothers and they finally had to back off on it.
21:56It's an interesting question whether the vision of an author often might be a little different than the vision of a conglomerate. Who owns Hamlet? Well, after a while we all do. But maybe for some period of time we ought to be able to protect the author from becoming a slacker surfer dude. It's a fascinating question and in a way it's kind of an irrelevant question because the internet is making it so hard to enforce those cease-and-desist orders even if you wanted to. But as you point out increasing don't want to. I'm going to go back to Lost for just one second. One of the remarkable things about it is the size of it. A lot of articles. But I think you said the article on Jack Shephard is over 100 pages, or roughly 100 pages. It's not just that there's lots of information about it; there's scientific studies of airplane crashes; there's expansive imaginings about what things might stand for that aren't clear. Even, there's an economics page; I went and looked it. I wasn't very excited by it. I blogged on it at Cafe Hayek. I encouraged people to maybe give us some alternative visions of the economics of the show other than what's up there. But that was just one example. One thing that struck me as an economist--I don't think you talk about the amount of time. It's one thing to say when Star Wars came out, a lot of people got into it; and that spawned novels based on Star Wars, action figures kids played with, sequels--all kinds of things that took time. And people went to conventions in costumes and all that. But the level of hobbydom, or whatever you want to call it, the use of leisure to immerse yourself in these stories, is an extraordinary statement about our standard of living. The amount of time people devote to these beloved characters and stories--which are not real, which doesn't matter really at all, which was one of the fascinating things about this whole phenomenon--it couldn't have happened in 1500. Not because of the technology--of course they are related--but you'd starve to death. The fact that people can devote hundreds of hundreds of hours personally, and millions can do this says something about modern life that is deep and profound. Clay Shirky, who I believe you've interviewed in the past, has the theory that television arrived just in time to soak up the excess leisure time that was produced by the invention of vacuum cleaners and dishwashers and other labor-saving devices. I think this is essentially the next iteration of that, the next step. The difference is that television--it encouraged [?], gave rise to the whole phrase "couch potato." This is something entirely different. It shows that people tries to veg out and watch; but there are many other shows that large numbers of people like to become increasingly involved in, as well as books, movies, and so forth. A story in any form. What's really happening here is I think we are putting our excess leisure time to use. Could we be using that time to solve all the world's problems? Well, maybe. But frankly football games and the like exist for the same purposes, just to soak up our attention, to provide a diversion. To stimulate. Amuse, divert. But what your book made me think a lot about isn't to divert and the passing of time in a pleasant way. That's the least attractive way to describe it. A football game is actually, for a serious fan, something much different than a couch potato experience. It's immersive in a different way. You pore over the statistics, you go over your teams successes and failures, you agonize, you talk to your buddies and family. It is immersive in a non-technological but increasing in a technological way. Now Fantasy Football has changed that. But what I found provocative is that it's very easy to dismiss football or Star Wars or Lost as: Well, that's just entertainment. But it has real effects on us, and not in a bad way: there's an emotional experience that happens there. Some of it can be destructive of course--you are waiting for your team to rip the head off of another team's player. That's not so attractive. There is a blood loss there that you are vicariously appealing to. But in fiction, which is what storytelling is about, you are experiencing things vicariously that are healthy. They are imaginative that you can't touch directly, and you are experiencing them indirectly. You are exploring the universe. You are doing things that are not possible or never were possible for you as an individual. And you talk about some of the neuroscience of that. It's a remarkable thing. I certainly think so; and I agree with you about sports and other things. I'm not a huge sports fan but that's neither here nor there. What's fascinating about sports is that there is potentially the same mechanism at work as there is in fictional stories that are presented in a way that you can become immersed in them, which is that with football or with any sort of ball game, you are essentially able to tell your own story. It presents you with this sort of tableau and an almost infinite number of variables--the players, the staff, and so forth--and out of that you pick the details and create your own story. That's not unlike what happens with fan fiction. The novel or the TV series or whatever it is that you become more or less obsessed with really becomes something that you use to generate stories of your own. It's the same basic mechanism at work.
29:27There's a couple of very interesting factors here--you mentioned neuroscience. That's something I became increasingly fascinated by as I worked on the book, because we're in a time right now where for the very first time it's possible to get the first sort of dim outlines of how the brain works. We certainly don't know it all yet, by any means. There are many aspects of it that are controversial and many more aspects that are still unknown. But it becomes very apparent that the whole idea of storytelling has something to do with the phenomenon of sharing. We essentially want to share information, for any number of reasons. In an advanced, technological society we want to share information for pecuniary reasons. If we are professionals we like to right articles or movie scripts or whatever. A much deeper mechanism at work here. What has happened is a series of experiments that really began by accident about 20 years ago in a laboratory in Parma, Italy, where they were studying the brain functions of Macaque monkeys. These experiments have given rise to the idea that there are cells in the brain that are involved in rehearsing different sorts of actions. The way they work is if we see something that happens to somebody else, where it's somebody else on the street or on TV, it's almost as if it happens to us. And this makes for a very close and personal relationship with the people we see around us even if we don't know them. This is considered to be the basis of empathy; but it's also the basis of the kind of sharing that storytelling is essentially all about. I've remarked on the program before a phenomenon that in a way makes those experiments unnecessary: the fact that we cry when a fictional character dies in a book, whether it's Nell or a modern version or a character in a movie. Right. We can sob. The standard argument is, I think: Well, we fool ourselves. We step back and we pretend that it's real. But it doesn't really matter. Something clearly biological is going on. It's not like: Let me pretend that this is unreal so I can have a good cry. I can't really help myself if the story is well-told. So that's really what's going on. I wanted to comment on your football example. I am a sports fan. One other aspect is there's a story every time, but we don't know the script. So, every week it's like watching a movie you've never seen before. There's that part of it. There's the biochemical rush when your team wins or falters, the depression of chemicals. The point you made that really resonates with me, and I'm going to tie it in to economics, is the ability to tell the story ourselves. So, I'm a Red Sox fan; the Red Sox collapsed this year, which they've done before; which was often devastating to me in the past, but they've won a few World Series; so I didn't like it but it wasn't such a bad thing for me. But what I found interesting and I never thought about it so clearly was: Well, we all tell our story, Red Sox fans all tell their story, about why they lost. Oh, it was the manager's fault, or it was the GM. My story is the pitching collapse put pressure on the middle relief and they collapsed. And I'll prove it! I'll go get data to show you that the Red Sox led the Major Leagues in runs scored. And that's part of my story. Because that shows you it was the pitching. Etc. So we do that in sports all the time. But we also of course do it in economics and politics. So, if you are on the left you have one story to tell about why the economy is struggling; if you are on the right you tell a different story. And some stories are more entertaining. It's not clear that the stories are more accurate. It's very hard in economics to pin those things down, so a lot of what we are doing in economics is unfortunately fake science rather than the real thing.
34:54Let me ask you a few questions that came up in my mind that I don't think you talked about in the book. One of the differences in immersion is gender. Men, I suspect are much more likely to be immersed in these examples. And you give a lot of examples of how video games interact with movies and stories. Men are much more likely I suspect to be involved in these immersive examples than women. Is that correct? I'm not entirely sure. I don't have the data on that. Certainly it would appear that men appear to be more immersed in some kinds of stories than women--football would be one example. Grand Theft Auto, too, I assume, which you talk about. But I am not at all sure that the idea of immersion itself is gender specific. I think it's more a matter of what kind of story it attaches to. True. Obviously there are movies and TV shows that appeal more to women than to men. I suspect that in cases like that that women are at least as capable of being immersed, so to speak. One of the examples I used in the book of fan-involved story-telling is with the show Mad Men, which obviously has been a hugely popular show, especially among people in New York who have some kind of knowledge of the ad business. And there is a whole series of people who started tweeting in character as characters as Betty or Don Draper or various other characters in the show. Overwhelmingly these people were people who had experience in the ad business. But also interestingly I think most of them were women. It's obviously an anecdotal example. I'm not sure how much I can extrapolate from that. But it certainly suggests that women are as capable as men. Of wasting large amounts of their time doing something in an alternative universe. Exactly. I don't dispute that. I think there is an aspect of this immersive phenomenon that you touch on in the book from time to time which is the power of reward, competition, score-keeping; that's what video games exploit, obviously. Video games that don't have points, winning, goals you achieve don't do very well. For whatever reason. And I'm interviewing Roy Baumeister in a few weeks on the topic of male/female differences of this kind. But for whatever reason, men seem to find those kinds of experiences more exhilarating. On average. Obviously there are women who do and men who don't.
38:31Another phenomenon in the book I wanted to ask you about, which I found fascinating--and we are doing this interview on October 6, 2011, which is the day after the passing of Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was well known as a college dropout. He didn't finish college. He went to Reed for a while, dropped out, went into typography; hung out there for a while and made his own way. There are a lot of portraits in your book of people who have done these exhilaratingly creative story-telling examples, videos, etc. I was struck by how many of them did not take the standard route to financial wellbeing in the United States, which is to graduate from college and get a good job. A lot of them were kind of on the edges of being on the fringes of mainstream economic activity and suddenly vaulted, not just to success, but to wild success. Did you notice that when you were doing those interviews? I can't say that I thought about that consciously but you are absolutely right. It's pretty well known, for example, that there are a lot of college billionaires, Steve Jobs was hardly unique. They're a dime a dozen. But these aren't the standard people you hear about. Sergey Brin--he finished college, he dropped out of grad school. But a lot of these people, just driving a car on the lot and suddenly he's at home and just running something. I can't remember the details. But there's more than one. I think one really good example is Will Wright, the video game designer who was responsible for Sim City and then later the Sims, which is one of the two or three most successful video games in history. It's made him and Electronic Arts a great deal of money. Kind of changed the way a lot of people think about video games. Interestingly, it's one example of a game that while it has a structure that many video games had, it's not really focused on points or competition. What it is focused on is model-building. As the name implies, you are creating a simulation and that turns out to be really basic to what we are talking about, whether it's the football game--we take our experience, we abstract it, and we tell stories about it as fans--or whether you are playing this game and that gives rise to its own kind of stories, because you are essentially talking about what happens to you. And people essentially become so interested in a fictional story that they want to make it their own, that's kind of what happens, too. There was this fascinating exchange that I stumbled across between Henry James and Robert Lewis Stevenson in I think 1883 where Henry James, in a fairly well-known essay described fiction as sort of an impression of life. That seems to be hard to argue with. But actually Stevenson argued with it; and what he said was that "Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt, and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate." In other words, art is essentially an abstraction. It's a form of model building. And again, I can't help but think about economics, where we have all this data and we have the complexity of a modern economy which is literally mind-boggling; and we want to make sense of it. We want to talk about it, when we think it's not going well. And so we build a model that simplifies by an enormous amount, and that is both comforting and it can be dangerous. But it is, I think for political and economics junkies, it's a form of entertainment in the same way that storytelling is. It's comforting; it leads to confirmation bias of one's own world view; and I think in economics we have to face the fact that that's a lot of what we do; and that's what people are consuming that we provide. And it's a little bit scary. Right.
44:05Now, one of the things that struck me, and you talk about this in the very beginning of our conversation, when you said we are at the cusp, not quite at the cusp or at the landmark event yet--as extraordinary as all these examples that you give in the book and as a 57-year-old who is not immersed in pop culture, and I didn't know about Lostpedia; I didn't know about NotSoSerious.com and the Dark Knight run-up. So, those are utterly fascinating and really interesting. But the flip side is: they are really kind of pitiful. In that, I read your book on my iPad, using a Kindle app; I took notes, it was a nice experience; it's fun to put it under my arm and carry it around. But I was struck for example when you talked about the Happiness Factory which Coca Cola ran, which I remember vividly and loved and found it just a beautiful thing and just fun to watch. Easy to find. But I was struck that I had to get out of my Kindle app and go wander around on my YouTube app. It wasn't a very seamless experience. I should have been able to touch it, and it should have popped up and played. Lostpedia should have been on there. Et cetera. As far as we've come, we have so much farther to go. So much of what is on the web is just print put up on the web. In academic life, the gold standard has always been an interactive textbook. And yet most textbooks online are just the textbook--a pdf. A little more interactive maybe. But we've got so much more to go. So, one, I'd like you to speculate on that, and then where could it go? What directions might it be heading? You're absolutely right. In a perfect world the book version of this would have had many of these things embedded in it. It was just a matter of economics and time--which are just about the same thing. You could have built an app in some fashion. Takes a long time and it's expensive. We decided the best thing to do would be to get the book out there as quickly as possible, since it's something that is pretty much happening in popular culture at the moment. These things have kind of a half-life. And it's not so bad to go on my YouTube app. Although that distraction and challenge, trivial as it is, will in a year or five be unacceptable. I totally agree. I think we are fairly rapidly entering a period where a book like this is going to look very old-fashioned. I think at some point we'll be able to update it to accommodate all of those things. But you are absolutely right: that's a measure of where we stand right now. It would be less intrusive to have these things built in than to force you to go online on your laptop to explore them. But the same experience happens essentially with television right now. There are more and more studies that show that with increasing numbers of people, especially young people, who are watching TV, especially with a laptop or some other device immediately next to them, whether they are chatting with friends who are watching the same show or looking things up. Right. It's not just TV. It's life. Conversations are like this. They are checking their email while you are talking to them and it's a little bit embarrassing for some people, but we are multi-tasking. It's not just: Oh, we can reach somebody on their cell phone. It's you can reach them on their cell phone while they are talking to you, texting you; and they look down. It's everything.
49:02Talk about where you think it might go. I think ultimately where it's going to go is some kind of fusion of story and game, which has not really been accomplished yet. I think that is, however, what's implied in this kind of immersive, participatory kind of story-telling. It really comes down to a question of authorship. We touched on this earlier. The problem is: whose story is it? This was actually reflected perfectly in an exchange I had with the people who ran Lost where they said that fans who talked to them at fan conventions and the like basically had two opposite reactions. One was they wanted to be sure that the producers knew where the story was going. And at the same time they wanted to have some voice in where the story was going themselves. Slightly contradictory. Exactly. Now there are ways you can accommodate it, and I think Dickens shows how you could do that. But if there weren't a strong narrative and if there weren't a strong author in the first place, people wouldn't be attracted to it. It's a difference between Lost, say, and Second Life, which is a sort of online experience that has kind of fizzled out, because there are no roles [rules?]. You can kind of do anything you want and so what? The benefit games have over conventional narratives is that you can be the hero. Whatever is happening is happening to you. But there are a lot of technical limitations in game consoles and devices that are involved. Those tend to make it feel not at all realistic. I think it's very interesting though that the game that has come closest to being a real story is one that has recently come out from RockStar, which is the company behind Grand Theft Auto, which is called L.A. Noire. It's essentially a detective story that is set in Los Angeles in the mid-1940s. And it's kind of fascinating that a detective story would make such a great narrative video game, because of course detective stories are inherently participatory in the first place. Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple--you are always looking over the detective's shoulder. You've got the data; in theory you've got the same data; you've got the clues. Right. And typically what happens in a detective story is some bit of data surfaces. But you can imagine those data. You really get into it, you say: What can I be missing that I'd need to know? Absolutely. So, in any case, I think where it's going is some form that really hasn't been invented yet that very convincingly combines the very participatory aspect of games with the narrative absorption of storytelling. And when you were talking about that seeming contradiction between you want the producers of the show to know where it's going but you also want to have a say in it: It's no fun to think they are playing around with you, that they are leaving clues that don't mean anything. You want there to be an integrity to the story. That part, to some degree has to be scripted. I'm reminded of this quote I've always loved of William Faulkner's: I just follow my characters around and write what they say. And in a way, that is one style of writing fiction. And when you write fiction you do think about your characters and what they do in certain situations. And what that captures I think is the integrity. There has to be some intellectual, artistic vision that has integrity. And then you want to play with it. You want to imagine where it might be going; you want to anticipate the ending. And so on. That's what makes it exciting. It's funny you mention Second Life. We had Edward Castranova, an academic who studies virtual reality, massive multiplier games on this show a long time ago. At that time Second Life was just exploding and it seemed to be that it would be a big success. It was a big success for a while. But I loved the way you described it, which was: Well you could do whatever you want. That's a little too much like life, at least to some extent. In 1500 that would have been a remarkably exciting thing. If you knew your Dad was a blacksmith and you were going to be a blacksmith, to inhabit a world where you were something else, that would be a lot more exciting.
55:11Let's talk a little bit about Steve Jobs. I'd love to hear a little bit about your thoughts on his passing. Because he's part of this story, in lots of ways--on the edges and in the middle sometimes. Absolutely. Years before I wrote this book, I wrote a book called West of Eden, which is about the conflict between Jobs and John Sculley, who Steve brought in to be the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Apple and who two or three years later ended up firing him. Sculley fired Jobs. I thought about this quite a bit a couple of years ago when I republished the book, and therefore I needed to think about what had happened. What was the difference between then and now. Because when Jobs was forced out of Apple in 1985, everybody celebrated. The press, the tech world, the business press in particular. And the grown-ups were going to be in charge now. Exactly. It meant that Apple was going to be safe and it could be like Hewlett-Packard. Well, of course nobody wants to be like Hewlett-Packard these days. Especially not if you are in the entertainment world. What was so intriguing to me was that I think in the 1980s we weren't ready for computers, and we certainly weren't ready for Steve. People were obviously fascinated by computers, but most of us were obviously pretty scared of them. And in a way that many of us are fearful of one aspect or another of the internet at this point. But we certainly made our peace with computers. And Steve has very much defined the world that we live in. And he started to do that way back in the 1980s when he introduced the Macintosh, which contained the seeds of desktop publishing, which eventually led to blogging; and all forms of social media. All of these things can really be traced back to stuff that he was involved in as far back as the 1980s and then in the late 1990s and then in the current decade. Really brought to fruition with a whole series of remarkable products--the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and so forth. But we really do live in Steve's world. It's a world he created for us without the influence of focus groups. He didn't ask us what we wanted because he understood quite correctly that nobody knows what they want when it hasn't been invented yet. He learned from some of the mistakes he made in the past. But he certainly didn't become a different person. He remained as fierce and as intense as he always had been. And that inspired a number of things, but in particular a kind of loyalty among the people who worked for him. People really wanted to please him. And it wasn't just out of fear that he would eviscerate them if they failed--because he might. But he inspired them. He always inspired the people he worked for. And ultimately he did that with all of us. And I think that's the real secret of the marketing campaign, the incredible marketing success that Apple has had. Yes, they've had good ads and great slogans and all of that; and that's a fair part of it. But somehow what they really managed to do was take that sense of inspiration and challenging people to do something and spread it to the whole populace and not just people who were working for him. I'm glad you mentioned the people who were working for him because I was watching some news clip this morning; and they talked about all the products he created. And as much as I respect the man, he didn't create many of them directly. He had an extraordinary team. But that's not enough. The hard part is getting them to work together, unified by a vision that he did clearly impose. Not a literal vision but certainly a set of principles of taste, usability, etc. that were rather extraordinary. My obituary on him was from Rudyard Kipling: He felt the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run. His intensity of creativity and his faith in himself--which of course is probably sometimes just lucky, that people just liked what he created--he didn't force it on us, he couldn't force it on us, was really his will, his indomitable will in the face of received wisdom was really so extraordinary about him. I remember when the iPad came out and people laughed at it. This is the iPad, he's already had a string of incredible successes when it came out; it's just small computer and it doesn't have a real keyboard and it's expensive and nobody needs it, and the only people who are going to buy it are going to be these geeky fans of Apple. And not everyone, but a lot of people love that toy. I enjoyed reading your book on it.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Brad Hutchings writes:

The problem with "building an app" is that it would just run on the iPad. Kindle runs on many platforms, giving all of us a choice of where to read. Many content developers build these app based immersive experiences, but the downside for a developer is that you're locked into that Apple ecosystem. At this point, reach of Android isn't wider and different-er enough to make it more de facto than Apple iOS for these kinds of things.

Also Russ, if you really want to know why apps don't reach their obvious potential, you need to explore the rule-set that Apple imposes. For example, there is this wonderful MIT project called Scratch that teaches kids to program and share their programs online. Really brilliant stuff, available for Mac, Windows, and Linux PCs. Apple rejected their iPad app because of Apple's overly restrictive ruleset designed to protect its store revenues from other competition, such as Flash. A real shame for kids.

Ryan writes:

I like your podcast and Im an avid listener.

Im also a PhD Economist and an avid surfer, but i am not a slacker or a dude.

Worse things could happen to hamlet than he learns to surf.


Jason writes:

Great interview! I'm not at all immersed in pop culture, but I do love my IPad... and can you believe that I splurged and bought Frank's book on my Kindle app before I had even finished listening to the podcast?!

Trent Whitney writes:

Russ,

While I agree with you 100% on Wodehouse, Dickens??? That one really surprised me because I've always found Dickens much too dense to become immersed in one of his stories.

Have you ever read any of Wilkie Collins' novels? Would be interesting to get your reaction if you have. Collins was not only a contemporary of Dickens, but a friend, and I think his stories are much more compelling. He's often regarded as the creator of the suspense novel, but I'd assume he merely popularized it.

In any event, The Woman In White (also an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical) and The Moonstone are his two most well-known novels, but I've found Armadale the most compelling and best of his works...literally could not put the book down once I got going.

By the way, Collins also serialized his novels in magazines. I think he's regarded as having been more popular than Dickens at the time, but obviously his work has not been similarly classified as "great literature" by those who classify such things.

In any event, thoroughly enjoyed the podcast on storytelling & am looking forward to your next story (insert novel) whenever you get around to publishing another one!

aldo fantin writes:

Great podcast.
Regarding the fact that the audience wanted to know that the writers knew where they were taking the show I would like to mention that as audience I am turned off or upset when the story seems to be able to go RANDOMLY ANYWHERE. I think that we want the reassurance that the story had some kind of credible or plausible path and that the author believed or had a vision for it from the beginning.
I never got hooked by Lost, I only saw few episodes, I have been told that the plot tended to run out of control.

I also believe that for current movies and series the most important element for the audience is not just to be entertained but to be SURPRISED by the turn of events. We have seem many different plots over the years and we cannot settle for less than being surprised.

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