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Who's in the Video

A conversation with the contributing editor at Wired Magazine.

Question: What impact is technology having on storytelling?

Frank Rose: I’ve spent the last several years at “Wired” writing about different kinds of entertainment, marketing and so forth and how they are being impacted by technology. So, I’ve literally covered everything from Hollywood to cellophanes and, in particular, I’ve done a couple of stories in the last couple of years that started me thinking in a new direction.

I did a story about a year and a half ago on alternate reality games; the idea that people could go out and take part of a kind of communal experience that certainly is driven by the web but takes place in the real world and off and end on the web and all sorts of places. So these kinds of games have been used to promote everything from Halo 2 to Trent Reznor’s “Zero” album, which was the focus of the story that I did. Around that time it began to occur to me that we’re really seeing the emergence of a new kind of narrative, a kind of narrative that’s made it to the internet in the same way that the sitcom is native to television or the feature film is native to the movie camera. But, in each of those cases it took 30 to 40 years from the invention of the medium to the point where people created a narrative form that was native to that medium.

The early films, films a hundred years ago, were about ten to twelve minutes long because that’s how long a reel of film was, and they were silent of course. Many of them were not a narrative at all and certainly they didn’t employ the conventions—the grammar—of cinema as we know it today; things like swoops and pans and cuts and you know all of these things that we now take for granted as part of movie making. So, I think something like that is beginning to happen with the web. I think we’re now about twenty-five years since the internet went civilian. About twenty years from the invention of the World Wide Web itself, and a little more than fifteen years or so from the time that web browsers began to be popular.

What we’re finding is that the internet has been incredibly disruptive to media businesses—whether they’re newspapers, the music business, we’re beginning to see it now with television—but it hasn’t really been disruptive to media forms until now. And, what we are beginning to see though is sort of tentative, I think halting steps toward finding a new grammar of storytelling that is really native to the web. And, we see it…in things, like, for example, Battlestar Galactica, which takes place not only on TV but, online through webisodes (as they’re called), but also through sort of game like experiences where you can go online and, for example, choose whether you want to be a human or a Cylon –and you end up sort of playing this game.

And Wikies, there is Battlestar Galactica Wiki, which tells you everything you can conceivably want to know about the series and it’s various antecedents, but which you can also take part in. Like other Wikies you can go there and add to it, and whatever you feel like doing. This is becoming increasingly common and I think what’s happening is that we’re seeing the emergence of a new kind of narrative that is participatory—that’s nonlinear in the same way that the web is nonlinear and that is often game-like. The result of that is essentially that media is becoming entertainment--or for that matter marketing—is becoming something that you can go into in various levels of depth. If you want to sit back and watch the TV show, you can do that. If it’s a property that really engages you and captures your imagination you can interact with it in all sorts of other ways. I think the times when –certainly the ‘couch potato’ is over—and the times when all you would really do is sit back and watch something on TV, that’s pretty much over as well.

Question: What is Deep Media?

Frank Rose: The idea is really that you can explore something in depth. You can explore, whether it’s a brand, whether it’s an entertainment property—anything that has a story in it. You can go into it at various levels of depth. If you want to just sit back and watch the TV show, for example, you can do that…watch a video clip on the internet, whatever. But, if it’s something that really seizes your imagination, you can go into it much farther, much deeper.

One of the first things that this happened with was Star Wars. It happened almost by accident. The first movie, of course, came out in 1977 (long before the internet) and like other properties—the comic books and that sort of thing—but the comics, for example, had nothing to do with the story of the movies. And it was only years later that they began to realize—that the people at Lucas Films began to realize—what they had here, that they have a property that people were so engaged with that they started creating fan fiction and fan films and that sort of thing.

At first, they didn’t know how to deal with it. You know, it’s a little bit scary to have your creation appropriated, but eventually they realized –and other, big media conglomerates, it’s taken them much longer to do this—but they started to realize that this was an incredibly powerful thing and what they needed to do was to channel it and leverage it and let people become involved. And so that’s what they’ve really done; I mean they have a contest now and it’s become, in a way, a kind of a template for what you do with a giant overarching story like this.

Question: What’s your take on Second Life?

Frank Rose: There are a couple of problems with Second Life. One is that the graphics are incredibly crude—and it just doesn’t work very well—but the other problem with Second Life is that, essentially, there are no rules, there are no goals, you know, it’s not a game. Games are a structured experience, you know, where we’re given rules to follow and goals to achieve and that’s what makes them so compelling—whether it’s World of Warcraft or chess. And Second Life doesn’t have those. And virtual reality, I’m not really sure where that’s going to go but it certainly at the moment doesn’t have the kind of appeal—it hasn’t seized the imagination the way it did a few years ago.

What is happening though is that by turning entertainment properties—by turning stories into kind of participatory experience—they began to become like games themselves. The thing about a game—video games especially—is that you’re the protagonist. You become the character that everything is happening to. It really thrusts you into the middle of this world and, you totally engage with it. So, I think, that’s one of the places where things like these are going. There’ve been several different experiments, ways of trying to figure out how to take advantage of this. One is alternate reality games, which tend to be very long drawn-out experiences that engage people in any number of levels—from casual involvement, people who just go to a website and look at what’s happening, to the very, very active who sort of apply their minds to resolving the whole series of riddles and puzzles and so forth.

But these games tend to take place over many months and they’re not really workable; you know, once it’s over, it’s over. What other people are starting to experiment with now is experiences that last more like ten minutes, fifteen minutes and that happen to you when you set something in motion. For example, you go to a website for a movie and you enter your phone number and a few minutes later your phone rings and, perhaps, you’re thrust into the middle…of a situation that has to like has to do with the throwaway that you’re dealing with. So, I don’t think these things have been perfected either, but it’s a very intriguing way of looking at entertainment.

Question: Who is effectively adapting traditional narratives for the user experience?

Frank Rose: Well, one very interesting manifestation certainly is what Anthony Zuikeris doing. This is the guy who created the CSI Series. He’s single-handedly made forensics a major subject of study in American Universities, and he’s essentially moving on from that and creating a whole different series of entertainment properties that really engage people on a number of different levels. The first one—which is going to be introduced at that Comic-Conin San Diego this July, and which will be available for sale starting, I believe, September 8—is a series of novels, thrillers, that incorporate not only text, but videos that you can watch on the web or which you can, on your iPhone, or your itouch, do the whole thing. You can read it and then watch the video and go back to reading again. This points out to a whole new way of experiencing novels say, you know, it’s constructed so that you don’t have to watch the video if you don’t want to, or if it’s not available to you wherever you happen to be at the moment—but, if you do, it gives you a little something extra. It gives you a kind of a deeper understanding of what’s happening and, frankly given that this is a thriller about a serial killer, a pretty scary understanding of what’s happening or what could be happening. And, there’s also going to be a website involved, of course, which will enable people to talk to each other about it, sort of communicate online—participate in the whole thing in one level or another and it’s…, again it’s a bit of an experiment, but it’s a very bold and interesting experiment and I think this is clearly someone showing himself to be a master story teller and we’ll see where he takes us.

Question: How can news media enrich the user interface?

Frank Rose: Newspapers are rapidly evolving, if they’re going to be successful at least, into websites that incorporate all kinds of different media and that incorporate the reader as well in the whole experience. Obviously, if you’re going to some website to learn about some news development, what you really want is, not just to be able to read the text about it—although you certainly want that—but you also want to be able to watch video about whatever it is that’s happening. You want to have maps, sort of flash interactive experiences that take you into the story and give you a deeper understanding of it. And, you want, and expect, to be able to express your opinion about it—there on the site—to communicate with other people about it. Really, the news is, I think, fast becoming a group experience. It’s no longer something that you sit there in isolation at your kitchen table reading the newspaper in the morning.

Question: Is the passive user experience over?

Frank Rose: We already live in a tension economy essentially…where the real scarcity is attention. You know, it’s getting the attention of people’s minds, and I think that’s only going to become more so. What’s happening with this kind of depth of experience, that internet storytelling offers, is that some people will be sucked deeper and deeper, so to speak, into particular stories, and obviously ignore other ones entirely. And I think that goes for any kind of story, whether it’s a science fiction, say entertainment; whether it’s a marketing method where a company like Nike, for example, or Coke get to sort of suck you into some game-like experience; whether it’s the news. And I think one clear ramification of this is that we’re just becoming more and more connected. I mean the internet obviously is connecting us any way but this gives us things to connect onto and an opportunity to go from reading about something or watching something, to acting on it with other people as well.

Question: When will AI become part of our everyday lives?

Frank Rose: When I wrote the book I did on AI, it came out 25 years ago, it was a very, very different time in the discipline. I wrote a book about a group of grad students of Berkeley who were trying to program a computer to have common sense. And, in particular, there was one guy who had given his computer a problem which was—we’re anthropomorphizing here a bit—but the computer woke up in the morning and it looked outside and it saw that it was raining and it had to decide to put on a raincoat before it went outside. So really, the whole book with a way was about this guy trying to get his computer to put on a raincoat–-and without great success. And one of the things that interested me about Berkeley was not only with this sort of compelling group of students and of faculty advisers who had worked with Roger Schankat Yale in one of the leading AI researches, but there are also a couple of philosophers there who for different reasons took issue with the whole idea of AI.

One of them wasHenry Dreyfus who argued that this approach wasn’t going to work. That it was—one metaphor that he used—was like building a stairway to the moon: yes, it will get you closer, but it won’t get you there—and that’s kind of what happened. This idea that you can program a computer to have to be in situations and have certain types of thoughts that you give it in some, you know, more or loess god like way. It has really, you know, not panned out and what is happening is, we’re beginning to see emergent systems. You know, systems where computers begin to show emergent intelligence and that seems to work in a way that somewhat resembles a brain and their massively parallel processing, and that sort of thing. So, that seems to be a much more promising area and I think people like Chris Wyler are forecasting some pretty radical developments. We’ll see where that goes, but it certainly…it’s certainly a long way from where it was when I was writing about it.

Question: What has Steve Jobs’ impact been on Apple?

Frank Rose:What happened was he had started—Jobs had started his own computer company—called NeXT.The hardware wasn’t terribly successful, but the software was quite good, and Apple was in the position where it desperately needed software so they brought—Apple bought—Jobs’s company and brought Jobs in as a sort of an adviser. Within a few months the CEO was fired and Jobs kind of stepped into the bridge and for a while acted as interim CEO, he reorganized the board, eventually, obviously, became the permanent CEO. But, along the way he radically reorganized the company. He put into practice many of the ideas that he had wanted to put into practice in the mid-80s, when he and Sculley were having their problems with one another. And within, literally, a period of months the company became profitable again and began to capture people’s imaginations with an innovative and very compelling, very sexy, series of products; starting with revamped max and ultimately continuing into the ipod and then, most recently, the iPhone. And dramatically successful marketing: suddenly Apple became cool to have—it became the cool thing to have—and at the same time it also had the kind of manufacturing discipline and the disciple in terms of product lines that. It began to send a clear message and it began to execute really well on its plans and that’s why it’s been so successful.

Question: How has Apple changed computing?

Frank Rose: In looking back at this, I was trying to think well…Why is it that Apple today is viewed as essentially inseparable from Jobs; whereas, twenty-four years ago it was considered that the company would be that much better off without him? And…looking back on this I began to realize that really a big part of it was that computers were kind of scary back in the 80’s. People didn’t know much about them; didn’t really know, what they did; what you could do with them; how they were going to affect you. There were all of these things going back to, well, science fiction stories and, the movie “2001” and all of these things that sort of captured people’s imagination in a very negative way.

The way that computers—personal computers— really made inroadsinto a business environment was through IBM. IBM was a company that was extremely conservative, and that had been around for a long time and that people felt that they could sort of trust. Apple, on the other hand, was kind of considered a toy…you know, Macintosh…The idea that you could, do all of these things—that what you see is what you get on screen, icons, this whole thing was widely distrusted. And it was really the idea that in order for computers to be okay they have to be they had to kind of become sterile and non-threatening—if you are going to use them in business they couldn’t be toys, and the way for them not to be a toy was to be sold by IBM or, after a couple of years, by Compaq which was frankly just like IBM, except that it was a start up

It was also a pretty conservative period generally. I mean, when Jobs was creating the Macintosh, the question he threw out to his people was, “Do you want to join the Navy or do you want to be a pirate?”  And the Macintosh was for the pirates. What’s happening now is that pirates are pretty well accepted these days. They’ve made a lot of headway. And people are obviously far more comfortable with computers and with what you can do with them—in all sorts of ways whether it’s entertainment of any sort. We just live in an entirely different world now, and it’s really largely a role that Jobs sort of invented; this idea of a personal computer as a liberating device—as something that would free up your creativity, and it’s really something that started with him.

Question: When will TV converge with the Internet?

Frank Rose: What you’re seeing now especially with Hulu, but before that with YouTube and with network sites like, and so forth, is the availability of online video. With more and more ubiquitous broadband connections, video becomes something that’s easy to get online and very compelling. The idea that you can watch anything you want, whenever you want it has a lot of appeal for obvious reasons. And, television, obviously, isn’t set up that way, and frankly the cable companies, which have enormous amounts of bandwidth coming into the home, most of that bandwidth is now taken up with analog programming which doesn’t have nearly the efficiency of digital. But, with the change over to digital, that’s going to be going away soon.

What’s happening, I think, is that people are beginning to confront the fact that when you watch TV it becomes really hard to find what you want. There might be, sure, On-Demand programming, but even to find the right On-Demand channel is not exactly easy. Plus, there is a very limited availability for what you want and, by contrast, you can go online and easily search for it; and if it’s there you can watch it, and if it’s not there on a legit site you can find it on a pirate site. More and more often--and it’s now still a relatively small number of people who have the tech savvy and desire to go that route but it’s not going to be the case for very long. And…So we’re really only one step away from watching shows on the internet on your computer, to watching them on TV. And companies like Boxy are starting to make that possible—starting to make that a plausible option and when that happens, the whole idea of television as we know it is going to change.

People are paying kind of enormous sums on a monthly basis for packages of programming—much of which they don’t really even want. And then to be able to—instead get anything you do want on a completely on demand basis and watch it on your, you know, on your TV set. It’s going to be a very, very compelling proposition. So, the problem for the networks and for the cable company is that that’s not the way the business is structured so far. The business is structured around cable companies paying television networks large sums per user and for the right to carry their programming and then making money by charging the users for the right to see that programming.

When you have free online video that you can watch on your tv set that kind of doesn’t in run around that whole set up—which is to say, it really calls in to question the entire economic basis of television that we have right now.

Recorded on: May 21, 2009