Two years ago last month, as editors worldwide were beginning to debate whether anyone would actually go see Avatar, the $200-million-plus, 3-D movie extravaganza that James Cameron was making, Josh Quittner wrote in Time about getting an advance look. “I couldn’t tell what was real and what was animated,” he gushed. “The following morning, I had the peculiar sensation of wanting to return there, as if Pandora were real.”
It was not the first time someone found an entertainment experience to be weirdly immersive. For all the cutting-edge technology that went into the making of Avatar, in that sense there was nothing new about it at all.
Some three centuries earlier, Miguel de Cervantes reported in his satirical novel that Don Quixote went tilting at windmills because he’d lost his mind from too much reading:
"He read all night from sundown to dawn, and all day from sunup to dusk, until with virtually no sleep and so much reading he dried out his brain and lost his sanity. . . . He decided to turn himself into a knight errant, traveling all over the world with his horse and his weapons, seeking adventures and doing everything that, according to his books, earlier knights had done."
As Janet Murray of Georgia Tech observed in her 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck, every new medium that’s been invented, from print to film to television to cyberspace, has increased the transporting power of narrative. And every new medium has aroused fear and even hostility as a result.
Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in the early ’50s—the dawn of the television era. It’s about a man whose job is burning books, a medium that by this time had long since ceased to cause alarm.
The man’s wife, like her friends, is mesmerized by the video transmissions on the giant “televisors” on her living room walls. “My wife says books aren’t ‘real,’” he tells Faber, the former English professor who gradually transforms him into a savior of books.
“Thank God for that,” Faber replies. “You can shut them and say, ‘Hold on a moment!’ But who has ever torn himself from . . . a TV parlor? . . . It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is the truth.”
That was Bradbury’s beef with television—it was just too immersive. Logical, linear thought was no match for its seductively phosphorescent glow. It became and was the truth.
Before television, the same danger could be found in the movies. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—published in 1932, ﬁve years after the birth of talkies—young John the Savage is taken to the “feelies,” where he is revolted by the sensation of phantom lips grazing his own as the actors kiss.
“Suddenly, dazzling and incomparably more solid-looking than they would have seemed in actual flesh and blood, far more real than reality, there stood the stereoscopic images, locked in one another’s arms. . . . The Savage started. That sensation on his lips!”
Too real. Dangerously, immersively, more-real-than-reality real. Better to curl up with a good book.
But even after books gained acceptance, novels could still seem dangerously immersive in other formats.
A century before talkies, there was serialization. England was being radically transformed by technology. Industrialization was drawing people to the cities in unimaginable numbers, crowding them together in appalling conditions, but also producing a dramatic rise in literacy.
At the same time, improvements in paper, printing, and transportation were making it possible to print and distribute periodicals on a much greater scale. Book publishers, being young and scrappy, saw a market for serial fiction—books released a few chapters at a time in flimsy paperback editions that sold for pennies.
Many authors were published in this manner, but one became identified with it above all. As a young boy, Charles Dickens had imbibed Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe; at 25, he was writing Oliver Twist in monthly installments for a new literary journal he’d been hired to edit.
The tale of an indigent boy forced into the miasma of crime and despair that was contemporary London, Oliver Twist spoke directly to the new audience that cheap serials had created. The same technological upheaval that gave rise to the workhouses Dickens described also created a readership for his story, and a way of reaching them that was cheap enough to be practicable.
From our perspective, Dickens is a literary master, an icon of a now-threatened culture. But at the time, he represented the threat of what was coming. Novels themselves were only beginning to find acceptance in polite society; for upper-class commentators, serialization was entirely too much.
In 1845, a critic for the patrician North British Review railed against the multiplying effects of serialization on the already hallucinatory powers of the novel:
"Useful as a certain amount of novel reading may be, this is not the right way to indulge in it. It is not a mere healthy recreation like a match at cricket, a lively conversation, or a game at backgammon. It throws us into a state of unreal excitement, a trance, a dream, which we should be allowed to dream out, and then be sent back to the atmosphere of reality again, cured . . . of the desire to indulge again soon in the same delirium of feverish interest. But now our dreams are mingled with our daily business."
Novels, in other words, were not yet on a par with more acceptable pursuits, like games and social networking. But if you had to indulge in them, best to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Now it’s the Internet that seems new and dangerously immersive. Three decades after William Gibson introduced the concept of cyberspace (“A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions. . . . Clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding”), the Internet has redefined our expectations from stories.
It’s no coincidence that we are beset by questions of authenticity. Value is a function of scarcity, and in a time of scripted reality TV and Photoshop everywhere, authenticity is a scarce commodity.
But though we live in a world in which identity is always in question, we also have the media savvy to sniff out fakery and the tools to spread the word. Technology makes authenticity suspect, and technology gives us the wherewithal to demand it—if that’s what we really want.
Except that it’s not what we want. It’s what we think we want. What we really want is to go back to Pandora, even though we’ve never been there in the first place. We want to be sucked inside the computer like Jeff Bridges in Tron. We want to be immersed in something that’s not real at all. Just like Don Quixote.