The Future of Books: Reactive?

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.”

Researcher-testHere’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.

EEG_capBut 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?

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There are 14 comments

  1. Wonderful post, Andrew! This is a very fascinating topic. I remember reading one or two Jeffrey Archer stories, where we could choose different narrative paths in the middle of the story and reach different endings. I also remember seeing a Nancy Drew story like that. It is definitely an interesting thing if a story adapts itself to the reader’s mind and way of thinking and gives the reader what he / she wants. I wouldn’t mind reading this kind of book once in a while, especially when I want to de-stress or I am looking for something light to read. But this is not the kind of book I would prefer to read during a normal day – my reaction to this kind of proposal during most days would be ‘Please shoot me now’ 🙂 So, as a reader, though occasionally I would like a book to court me, most times I expect a book to make me work hard. Some of my most rewarding experiences have been when a book made me work hard and rewarded me when I did by revealing its secrets and made me think in new ways, showed me new insights and taught me new things. If all books became ‘reactive’, how would anyone discover the pleasures of reading ‘Middlemarch’, ‘The Wall’, ‘The Savage Detectives’, ‘In Search of Lost Time’ or any of Dostoevsky’s books (I read the first part of ‘Notes from Underground’ recently and discovered that the first part doesn’t have any plot but Dostoevsky just discusses his philosophy of life in it and most of it is pretty bleak, but also quite powerful and insightful.) So I am not sure that I would like to read a ‘reactive’ book all the time, though I can see the value of reading it once in a while.

    Interesting to know about Hannu Rajaniemi’s story ‘Snow White is Dead’ and the 48 different narrative paths that he wrote in the story. I would love to read that book sometime. Have you read Raymond Queneau’s ‘Exercises in Style’? Queneau tells a story in one page at the beginning of the book and then proceeds to tell it in 98 different ways in the rest of the book. It is different from alternative narrative paths, but I remembered that when I read your thoughts on Rajaniemi’s story.

    1. Hi Vishy

      Glad you liked it, and thanks for your comment! You’re right, it’s definitely an interesting concept, but it does bring to mind lighter reading. It reminded me of “Choose your own adventure” books I used to read as a child!

      I’m with you – some of the best reading experiences are when you work hard. It’s interesting that you picked up on Dostoevsky, because I read almost all of his books when I was a teenager, and it really ignited my love of reading and made me want to be a writer myself. At that age I’m sure I missed a whole lot of the nuances, and it was certainly really hard work, but that’s what attracted me in a way. I didn’t want to read things that were deemed appropriate for me – I wanted to be stretched and to see the world in a new way. A reactive version would probably have sensed my confusion and anxiety, and switched to a less challenging track, which would not have been good at all.

      I haven’t read Exercises in Style, but it sounds very inventive. I’ll probably check it out! And I’d probably try a reactive book too, given the chance, but wouldn’t want to read them too often.

  2. I think that the reactive media thing can allow art to move into some new and amazing directions. With that said I also think that these directions can be limiting and if they became ubiquitous would be catastrophic. I totally agree that great novels and other literature would be ruined for all the obvious reasons. I guess it all depends whether or not these technologies add to the mix or displace what is otherwise worthy.

    1. You’re right, Brian – adding new things to the mix could have some exciting results. I guess my worry is that new technologies tend to become ubiquitous very quickly, and could also change our expectations of traditional media even when we’re not reading the reactive stuff. It’s the premise that the media should adapt to you instead of you adapting to the media that seems damaging to me. Thanks for commenting!

  3. My son used to have a Sonic the hedgehog book, in which at every plot crossroads, he could decide amongst a number of options and turn to the necessary page to read onwards. It was fun for about five minutes, and then it was really boring.

    Reading a book, watching a film, these are the few places left where we get to sit peacefully and quietly for a few hours and sink into a story of someone else’s making. We have to leave our opinions, and those of our friends, to one side, to listen to something from beginning to end, even if – especially if – we disagree with where things are headed. Sometimes, it turns out that we were wrong, and the decisions the authors/directors made were the right ones. I think this is a salutory lesson in a world that becomes ever more narcissistic and solipsistic.

    Storytelling began as an oral tradition, where people would gather together to listen to a story from a person who had the skill of memorising it and retelling it. Then as a community they could discuss it together afterwards and see what they could learn from it. I can’t quite be persuaded that this isn’t the essence of the experience of art, and whatever bright ideas technologists have, it will remain so.

    Fabulous topic, Andrew – will be interested to see how the discussion develops.

    1. I agree – that space to sit down and sink into someone else’s story, someone else’s mind, seems incredibly important, and it feels as if it’s dwindling all the time. There’s the trend of “enhancing” ebooks by including links to videos and extra material, and being able to tweet or share the reading experience with others as you go along, which seems to negate the value of reading to me.

      You’re right, it’s wonderful when you’re reading a book thinking you know where it’s going, and you turn out to be wrong, and the author’s solution is so much better than what you expected. I’d hate to have the book adapt to give me what I wanted.

      It’s interesting that you bring up the oral tradition, because it does have that aspect of listening and then discussing afterwards. But I was reading a book about oral literature in Africa recently, and it said that while there were certain basic storylines that the storytellers memorised, there were endless variations. The narrators often added and subtracted things on the fly, responding to the mood of the audience by giving them more drama or less. Sounds a lot like reactive media! The book said it was only when the stories got written down that they became codified into a single, often quite arbitrary version, and lost their earlier fluidity. So maybe we’re returning to our storytelling roots! Just a thought 😉

  4. As interesting as that sounds, I wouldn’t want it. I was reading about a similar experiment in Love Minus Eighty, a sci-fi book I finished recently – it described people wearing a “system” that enhanced their experience, like changing the environment, even the smells. Honestly, it scared me. We should not have that power, because we should not lose touch with reality – I think that is a dangerous thing, losing touch with reality. We should be able to see every scrap of dirt, every fallen building, every true, real, beautiful sunshine.
    As for stories and movies, I want to see what other people are writing/producing and not my own version. If I want that I can write my own stories, or just imagine the ending I really want.
    So yeah, I guess you can shoot me now. 🙂

    1. Don’t worry, Delia, I won’t shoot you. But I do agree with you about seeing what other people are writing/producing, not your own version. I think we do create our own versions in our heads anyway as we’re reading, and my experience of a book will be different from yours. But I do like the idea that we’re at least starting from a fixed point. Hey, imagine what book discussions would be like with reactive media, if we’d all read different versions of the book!

  5. Don’t shoot me but I think I might run for the hills with my books that don’t react to me. Such a book might be fun once just because of the novelty but I think, for me at least, it would get old really fast. I like my books to challenge me and surprise me, not cater to my moods and whims. As for movies, how do you even watch one with someone else in the room? It can’t react to you both, which means you’d always have to watch a movie by yourself and there is no fun in that at all. As I read you post I also thought about the privacy issues so I am glad you brought that up. I don’t own a smartphone, I like mine dumb thanks, but someday I might not have a choice any longer and if that’s the case and reactive technology gets added to it I guess it will be time for me to really move to a cabin in the woods.

    1. I laughed when I read your comment, Stefanie. I can just imagine the film getting confused by the conflicting emotional signals of the two different viewers, and flicking erratically back and forth between a more violent version and a more romantic version! Hard to see how it would work, and I agree, it would be a shame if we had to watch by ourselves.

      I have a dumb phone too! Thought I was the only one, so it’s good to discover there are two of us out there. I think the cabin sounds like an excellent idea – to nudge you further in that direction, have you heard about wearable books? 😉

  6. Now we can have a book blogging fest and all shoot ourselves in the end, Jonestown-like. Seems like we all vote for the same outcome.

    When I was in collège (In France, school when you’re 11 to 15) all the boys except one used to read gamebooks. It’s the paper version of what you describe. They didn’t invade the whole bookmarket though

    That said, I love Stefanie’s comment. I tried to imagine a cinema like this. Dear, that would be fun to watch from the outside.

    I agree with you and the previous commenters about the privacy thing and the experience with books.

    Apart from the risk of collecting the data for marketing or dictatorial purposes, do I really want other people to witness all my emotions? No. Not even my husband. Don’t I have the right to keep some things to myself?

    And yes reading is a way to confront to someone else’s view of life. That’s one of the most important advantages brought by extensive reading. Writers show us another perspective, another point of view. If the book does what I want, then I’m stuck with my thinking pattern. I never improve. That’s terrible.

    Again, I’m surprised that books aren’t considered as an untouchable work of art. They’d never do that with painters. They’re not going to create an app that makes you see all the Picassos from the blue period in pink because you’re a girl (don’t laugh, marketing people are able to think about that and find it a good idea. Their opinion about what a feminine market wants is appalling) or because you don’t feel like watching blue paintings today. No. A painting is a sacred thing that can’t be altered.
    But a book? It can be abridged, transformed or apparently, adapted according to the reader’s whims. Nobody cares about the artist who expressed part of himself/herself in their writing.

    Let’s hope it won’t develop more than gamebooks.

    1. Yes, I’ll be passing around the Kool-Aid later on. Be sure to drink all of it 😉

      When I was a child, I used to read “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, where you got to the end of the page and it said something like: “If you trust the alien and decide to make friends with him, turn to page 35. If you decide to kill him and steal his spaceship, turn to page 62.” Is that something like the gamebooks you’re talking about?

      Good point about art – you’re right, you’d never find that sort of app to transform Picasso (at least I hope you never would!). Books have always been transformed in some ways, I suppose, like the abridging you mention, but at least in physical form they had a certain permanence. Once it was down on the page in black and white, it was unalterable. But I do worry about how they’re getting transformed in the digital age. It’s often done in ways that seem to be good for the reader, but if you lose that sense of being confronted by another person’s worldview, then you lose something important, I think.

        1. It probably is the right word – it’s not a term I’ve ever heard before, but it’s been about 20 years since I had any contact with that kind of book, so it’s no surprise if I’m not up-to-date with the terminology 🙂

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