How would you like to read a book that reacted to your emotions, and changed its storyline to give you exactly what you wanted?
It sounds bizarre, impossible and faintly terrifying, but according to this article in NewScientist magazine, it’s coming soon, not just to books, but to movies, TV and other formats. Welcome to the world of “reactive media.”
Here’s how it works. Strap yourself into a machine that monitors your brainwaves, heart rate and a host of other data, and start reading or watching. The computer senses when you’re getting bored, and selects a different storyline to ratchet up the tension and get you engaged. If you’re having too intense a reaction, it’ll dial back the intensity a little.
It’s already been done with films and even short stories. Science fiction author Hannu Rajaniemi wrote 48 different narrative paths for his story Snow White is Dead, and the computer automatically selects which one to give you based on scans of your brainwaves. And the BBC has launched “Perceptive Radio”, which will use light, sound and proximity sensors to assess how much attention you are paying and adjust the content accordingly.
I guess that whether your reaction to all this is “Wow, that sounds cool” or “Please shoot me now” depends on what you want from your media. If you want pure entertainment, you can’t beat reactive media. After all, novelists, filmmakers and other storytellers have been struggling down the ages to play with the emotions of their readers/viewers, to engage them and to hold their attention. This technology promises to do it better than any of them, to deliver personalised thrills and spills and adapt mid-story to give you what you want, when you want it.
But as you’ve probably guessed by now, I fall more into the other category. Sure, there are times when I’ve been reading a book and thinking, “Why doesn’t he just get on with it?”, and I kind of like the idea of the book magically shifting to a more engaging version. In general, though, I believe that the function of good books and films is not to give me what I want, but to surprise me and expose me to new things.
I read Moby Dick last year, and a “reactive” version would certainly have detected boredom and frustration at times, and seriously abridged many of Herman Melville’s tangential asides, or perhaps flipped to an alternative storyline in which Ahab kills the whale and they all live happily ever after. But actually I’m glad I read the whole thing. I don’t need to have everything tailored to meet my immediate emotional needs. I’m willing to tolerate a little discomfort if it takes me to a place where perhaps I learn something new, or see the world through another person’s eyes. I want to be broadened by my engagement with culture, and having a machine feed me exactly what I want sounds incredibly narrowing.
And then there are the privacy issues highlighted in the article, and the worries over the technology being used to feed us not only the stories we want, but also the advertisements we’ll respond to. And perhaps, although it’s not mentioned in the article, political propaganda could also be “optimised” for our smooth acceptance.
Luckily all of this is a long way off. For now, we can simply choose not to participate if we don’t want to. But what if the next generation’s equivalent of the smartphone automatically reads all of these physical signals and sends them to whichever media company we’re dealing with. Would we give up our privacy for the sake of convenience? History suggests most of us would, in a heartbeat.
What do you think about reactive media? Am I missing some of the potential benefits? Or overreacting (ha ha) to the dangers?