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Frank Rose Tracks New Narratives

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 cellophones 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.

Recorded on: May 21, 2009

The Internet has created a way to tell stories that is uniquely suited to the medium.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."