On resisting speed

Tom claimed that one book was enough to last a lifetime anyway, especially if you read it in the special way.
‘What do you mean?’ I’d asked him. ‘What special way?’
‘One word a day,’ he’d answer.

 – Jeff Noon, ‘Crawl Town’

It’s finally here: a radically new technology of reading.

The hypertext wasn’t quite that. It was a way of connecting texts to one another, weaving them into a larger whole – potentially as vast as the culture itself. Innovative and disruptive as that idea was, each text or block of text still had to be read linearly, deploying the strategies to which the printed word has long habituated us. As for electronic books, they are but unimaginative, timid imitations of their predecessors. Ebook readers strive to resemble slim paperbacks and recycle the outmoded notion that a book should consist of a discrete number of pages, each taller than it is wide. And still our eyes have to crawl over these pages in search of words to feed the brain, as they have since writing was invented.

But no more: Boston technology company Spritz, Inc. announced in March the coming release of an app designed to take some of that work away. Based on research on the ‘optimal point of recognition’ of words (which in Western scripts is just left of the word’s centre), the app scrolls text at a pre-set speed in front of the reader’s fixed gaze, highlighting the OPR as it moves along. The company believes this has the potential to dramatically increase reading speeds without affecting comprehension. In fact, Spritz claims that comprehension improves along with the acceleration, up to a certain point.

At the current maximum speed of a thousand words per minute, Spritz would allow someone to read a lengthy novel in a matter of hours. As much as anything else, I found it curious that reactions to the announcement, both in the general and technology press, focused so much on this point, affecting astonishment that one might dispatch an entire volume of the Harry Potter cycle in time for dinner. I say curious because speed-reading methods are traditionally marketed on the basis that they can help you absorb information faster, rather than read for pleasure more quickly. But Spritz aims to ‘reimagine reading’ – the phrase is trademarked – rather than just some aspects of it. Picture books, streams of tweets, textbooks, novels: the lot. It’s no surprise that the work named on the company’s own website by way of example is Atlas Shrugged: the app promises nothing less than heroic, superhuman feats of reading.

It took a week or so for scepticism to seep into media reports, for experts on the science of reading to point out that the ‘breakthrough’ behind the app pertains to research first conducted in the 1960s, research that eventually yielded discouraging results. Even in a laboratory environment, reading at high speeds negatively affected comprehension.

Among the scholars asked to express an opinion on Spritz was developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, whose book Proust and the Squid – a fascinating cultural and scientific history of reading – nonetheless fell short in its Socratic warning against digital textuality, in that it didn’t persuasively argue what was so different about it. Spritz is that difference: it is objectivism applied to knowledge, seeking not just to bring greater efficiency to the act of reading, but also to reduce it to a measurable economic function.

The ideology on which this move rests is well established and manifests itself, for instance, when we utter nonsense phrases such as ‘the United States Library of Congress contains X terabytes of information’.

It’s not that the calculation is difficult to make – I’ve seen estimates vary between 10 and 155 terabytes – so much as that it reduces one of the largest and most disparate repositories of human knowledge to a homogenous, amorphous whole in which every book of a given length is equivalent, is the same as the other.

It may take on average 500 milliseconds for a fluent reader of English to read a single word, from letter recognition to the decoding of semantic, syntactic and morphological features, but – as Wolfe impassionedly shows – reading is much more than the activity of parsing words in a sequence. There is the time spent continually pausing and reflecting, re-reading, reinterpreting what has already been read; the time spent in the folds between words or sentences, or away from the book altogether; the time necessary to allow the text to mean other, different things.

We must reclaim this necessary time, not just from apps that would have us staring fixedly at a point in space, waiting for knowledge to pass through it, but also from the mounting pressure to always be moving on to the next in an infinite string of things – ‘and now… this!’ – something that is built into our networks, both digital and social. The conscious practice of slow forms of reading can be a site of resistance and criticism to the great bias of our age.


Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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