Reading to Have Read

Spritz doesn't strive to fix speed reading's flaws, but to transcend reading entirely.

If you’re a person who reads, you may have read about Spritz, a startup that hopes to “reimagine” reading. Like most tech startups, reimagining entails making more efficient. Spritz promises to speed up reading by flashing individual words in a fixed position on a digital display. Readers can alter the speed of presentation, ratcheting it up to 600 words per minute (about three times the speed the average reader scans traditional text). 

This method, called rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP), isn’t new, but Spritz has added an “Optimal Recognition Point” or ORP to this display technique. They claim it helps readers recognize each word most effectively by focusing their attention on a red letter representing its optimal point of recognition. Public response to the technology has been tremendous. According to Spritz, over 10,000 developers have already signed up to develop “Spritzified” products.

Does Spritz work? Well, it depends on what you mean by “work.” As Olga Khazan wrote here at The Atlantic, speed reading has long been accused of sacrificing comprehension for convenience. University of South Carolina cognitive psychologist John M. Henderson further explains that Spritz’s ORP doesn’t improve matters:

But can you really read a novel in 90 minutes with full comprehension? Well, like most things that seem too good to be true, the answer unfortunately is no. The research in the 1970s showed convincingly that although people can read using RSVP at normal reading rates, comprehension and memory for text falls as RSVP speeds increase, and the problem gets worse for paragraphs compared to single sentences. One of the biggest problems is that there just isn’t enough time to put the meaning together and store it in memory (what psychologists call “consolidation”). The purported breakthrough use of the “ORP” doesn’t really help with this, and isn’t even novel. In the typical RSVP method, words are presented centered at fixation. The “slightly left of fixation” ORP used by Spritz is a minor tweak at best.

Interventions like Khazan’s and Henderson’s are meant to introduce doubt that Spritzing (or speed reading in general) offers an effective alternative to more traditional means of acquiring knowledge through written language. Spritz, it would seem, is just the latest repackaging of a decades-old optical snake oil.

But what if the purpose of Spritz isn’t to improve or eliminate speed reading’s ability to produce comprehension, but rather to downplay or even eliminate the very need for reading comprehension? 

In today’s attention economy, reading materials (we call it “content” now) have ceased to be created and disseminated for understanding. Instead, they exist first (and primarily) for mere encounter. This condition doesn’t necessarily signal the degradation of reading; it also arises from the surplus of content we are invited and even expected to read. But it’s a Sisyphean task. We can no longer reasonably hope to read all our emails, let alone our friends’ Facebook updates or tweets or blog posts, let alone the hundreds of daily articles and listicles and quizzes and the like. Longreads may offer stories that are best enjoyed away from your desk, but what good are such moments when the #longreads queue is so full? Like books bought to be shelved, articles are saved for a later that never comes. 

With so much so-called content, “consuming” it by means of comprehension is becoming impossible. And while we might lament such an outcome along with Dr. Henderson, it stands to reason that the technology and media companies might want to compress more and more interactions with content (let’s not mistake them for reading) into a smaller and smaller amount of time. Think of it as an attentional version of data compression: the faster we can be force fed material, the larger volume of such matter we can attach to our user profiles and accounts as data to be stored, sold, and bartered.

Presented by

Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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