The Rise of ‘Speed-Listening’

Books can be places for intellectual wandering. They can also be mined of precious information with ruthless efficiency.

It started, for Ashlee Vance, with an email. The author of a recent (and much-quoted) biography of the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk recently received a note from a reader, the CEO of the San Francisco-based data-analysis startup Kaggle:

LOVED the book. Listened to it on Audible at 2x speed and finished it in three days. Couldn't put it down. Congrats!

For Vance, an author who ostensibly did all the things authors do when working on their books—slowly crafting narratives, painstakingly choosing words, deliberating over the lengths and tones and rhythms of sentences—the note came as something of a shock. “It had never occurred to me,” Vance wrote, “that people might listen to the book at 2x speed in order to ingest the information at a quicker rate. But here was proof that such things occur.”

Such things! Vance added: “This struck me as such a Silicon Valley thing to do. Hook your brain to the machine and download at the best transfer rate available.”

He’s right, to an extent. Reading a book and listening to a book are, of course, extremely different propositions—technologically, experientially, everything. (The email’s “couldn’t put it down,” Vance notes, suggests romantic images of being curled up in bed with a collection of pulped wood—not, on the other hand, of earbuds that accompany one at work/at the gym/running errands.) And speed-listening represents yet another step away from the curled-in-bed ideal. It suggests that a book exists not primarily for pleasure, but rather for being sucked of its precious information as efficiently as possible. It suggests that digital advances can help make an extremely old activity—reading—newly transactional. It suggests that all the artistry Vance put into this book, the careful words and cadences, has been subsumed, to some extent, in the speed of a chipmunked playback.

It suggests a logic that is indeed, in some sense, Valley-inflected. On the audiobook-selling site Audible, Vance's Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Futureread by Fred Sanders—has been a top seller even before the book was officially released. “This appears to be the way Silicon Valley has chosen to consume the book,” Vance notes, “and I suspect it’s because other people want to download the information into their brains as quickly as possible.”

Speed reading, the visual version of Vance's lament, has long been used in the ongoing quest for the efficient absorption of information. And personalized, sped-up audio playback, for its part, has been around since 2004, Brian Feldman notes, when Apple introduced variable playback speeds into its iPod software. In 2007, the “Getting Things Done” blog recommended “adjusting the playback speed of your audiobook or video to a maximum of 150 percent” to complete the book more quickly. In 2010, the tech blog GigaOm suggested “speed-listening to podcasts” as an overall time-saving technique. Software titled, straightforwardly, FasterAudio promises to “cut your audio learning time in half.”

And last year, Feldman points out, brought the introduction of Overcast, a podcast-playback app designed by the creator of the text-bookmaking app Instapaper. One of Overcast’s key selling points is a feature called Smart Speed. Smart Speed isn’t about simply playing audio content at 150 or 200 percent of the standard rate; it instead tries to remove, algorithmically, the extraneous things that can bulk up the play time of audio content: dead air, pauses between sentences, intros and outros, that kind of thing.

Overcast might well suggest the future of “speed-listening”: an activity that involves not so much a sidestepping of artistry, as Vance suggests, but a renewed focus on it. Listening—an intimate way to consume media, a way that adds the texture of the human voice to words and information—has traditionally been rather inefficient. Consuming words as sounds, unless you are an extremely slow reader, takes much more time than reading words on a page. “Speed-listening,” whether the speed comes from a sped-up playback or a sophisticated algorithm, brings some added efficiency to the equation. But it also removes the silence that can, in context, be meaningful in and of itself.