What are the primary changes you’ve seen since the publication of The Art of Immersion? How would you revise the central thesis of the book to fit the current moment?
I see two major changes: the arrival of VR, and the, shall we say, clarification of our relationship with social media—which actually involves not just social media but any online service that monetizes its users by selling the data they generate. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal has been a long time coming, and what it’s shown to anyone who pays attention—which does not seem to include most of Congress—is that we’re making a making a devil’s bargain when we opt in to any service that mines our data for profit. Unfortunately that seems to include most successful Internet companies at this point. I don’t know whether we’re going to muster the will to resist it, and when I say “we” I’m certainly including myself. But I do think the phrase “surveillance capitalism” is a good start.
As for VR, I think the jury is still very much out on that too. There’s some wonderful things being done with it—at the Columbia Digital Storytelling Lab we just cited Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena and a Pixar-level animated VR story called Arden’s Wake in our Digital Dozen list of the past year’s most innovative examples of storytelling. But it’s an entirely new and different medium, it has nothing to do with the grammar of cinema that’s evolved over the past hundred years, and there are still only handful of examples of successful VR storytelling. But I think the main thing is we haven’t finished inventing it yet. Until we can interact with one another as easily in VR as we do in real life, or online, it’s not going to be ready for mass adoption.
How can smart content creators use immersive narratives to engage more deeply with their audience? More to the point, how does the notion of “artistic control” conflict with immersive storytelling?
Many years ago—in 1977, to be precise—I did a series of interviews with Brian Eno in which he talked about rethinking music as a system. He’d recently discovered cybernetics, and he was really taken with the idea that you could create a limited series of possibilities and let people improvise within them.
This is essentially how video games work, and it’s also, more or less, how narratives work. By “more or less” I mean to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the narrative and depending on the author. Stories don’t give you the same degree of freedom that games do, obviously, but it’s not true that we simply sit back and consume them. That’s a very 20th-century notion. In fact we “co-create” them in our heads. We have an imaginative response, which is why no two of us have exactly the same experience of a book or a play or a movie.
And, this one seems simplistic, but I think it’s clarifying: why do audiences like immersive experiences?