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.

If Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr are the big box stores for online content, then Spritz strives to be its Olestra—the fat substitute that resists bodily incorporation. Just as Olean-oiled snacks provide the sensation of eating without the resulting gut, so Spritz offers the experience of reading without the nuisance of its mental effects. For Spritzers, comprehension isn’t a lost virtue so much as an unshouldered burden. For today’s overwhelmed content consumers, what could be better than experiencing the sensation of reading without the inconvenience of understanding?

Olestra label (flickr/roadsidepictures)

If ordinary readings are read to be understood, to be pondered and discussed and reflected upon rather than to be completed or collected, then perhaps it’s best to think of Spritzing as reading that is done to have been read. Indeed, the idea of Spritzing is the apotheosis of speed reading: reading in which completion is the only goal.

Spritzing is reading to get it over with. It is perhaps no accident that Spritze means injection in German. Like a medical procedure, reading has become an encumbrance that is as necessary as it is undesirable. “Oh God,” we think. “Another office email thread. Another timely tumblr. Another Atlantic article.” We want to read them—really to read them, to incorporate them—but the collective weight of so much content goes straight to the thighs and guts and asses of our souls. It’s too much to bear. Who wouldn’t want it to course right through, to pass unencumbered through eyeballs and neurons just to make way for the deluge behind it?

It’s easy to blame “the Internet” for the decline of reading. But reading hasn’t declined, or so we’re told. We read more than ever, don’t we? You may have read a statistic supporting such an idea in this very publication:

We now read an average of 54,000 words a day by some estimates, roughly the length of a novel.

Except, we don’t really read 54,000 words a day. Rather, “The average social network user receives 285 pieces of content daily, including 54,000 words.” Such reception doesn’t only include thinkpieces and long reads, but also many other things: your friends griping about this article on Twitter (“tl;dr, needs an editor!”); the PR rep email “reaching out” to arrange an interview with the CEO of a company you’ve never heard of; your former classmates vaguebooking about God know’s what. In the face of so much content, Henderson’s hope for “full comprehension” isn't quaint so much as it is intolerable. The goal isn’t to achieve comprehension but to eradicate it. Mere reception is reading in form alone. It’s reading done to get done with it.

We’ve been spritzing even before we even knew about Spritzing. What choice had we? Nobody can read a novel a day, even if it’s the only thing they do. Spritz hasn’t stepped in to sabotage comprehension, but to formalize and excuse its eradication. Reading already died. Spritz is just the undertaker who injects it with embalming fluid so it looks pretty at the funeral.