New technology makes it possible to read a novel in just 90 minutes. But is that a good thing? Jack McKeown looks at the latest technology promising to make us superhuman.
“Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them; but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents”
So said the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. It’s a sentiment many would agree with. Most of us have shelves and cupboards groaning with books. If we’re honest with ourselves we would admit that we’ve read just a fraction of them. Of course, that won’t stop us picking up another novel or two next time we visit a bookshop.
But what if this could change? What if you could take a long weekend and blaze through 10 or 15 of those novels you’ve always meant to read but have never found the time to?
That could soon be a reality, according to American firm Spritz. The software developer has created a programme which it says can increase reading speed to 1,000 words per minute (wpm) or even faster.
At 250 words per minute:
At 350 words per minute:
At 500 words per minute:
It could also make obsolete the millennia-old method of reading by scanning from left to right.
The technology works by presenting a stream of individual words in a display box onscreen.
According to its developers the most time consuming part of reading is moving the eye from one word to the next. Up to 80% of reading time is spent scanning the page and only 20% processing the content.Post by Spritz Inc.By allowing the eye to remain fixed on one spot while the words flicker in front of you the mind has more time to focus on comprehension and can pick up the sense of the text more quickly.
The average human reads at around 220wpm (that’s roughly as far as you’ve read in this piece) so the technology could allow people to read four or five times faster.
Its makers claim that as well as improving reading speed Spritz also increases comprehension.
It’s now available as an app on Samsung phones and tablets.
The Spritz website (www.spritzinc.com) lets you try reading at speeds of up to 600wpm. The Courier’s staff gave it a bash.
Eschewing any kind of warm up, lead reporter Stefan Morkis dialled the setting straight up to its 600wpm maximum. The effort left him drained: “It said I could read two 400-word articles in a minute, read all my emails in under three minutes and use the time I saved to climb Mount Everest, but had it gone on any longer my brain would have melted.”
News editor Dave Lord was more cautious in building up his speed but no less dismissive in his appraisal of the technology. He raved: “Ridiculous. That’s my first impression of Spritzing. I could just about manage 500wpm but it was no fun at all. In fact, it made me feel distinctly bilious. It won’t change the world. It’ll just make you cross.”
More scientific minds experts in psychology and linguistics have also pointed out flaws in the technology.
The brain needs very little time to process words it sees frequently but more challenging words require a longer time while we access our mental lexicon. Spritz doesn’t leave the reader enough time to process difficult words.
Because Spritzers don’t have the opportunity to go back a few words, it’s hard to unstick yourself when you lose the thread of a passage. And comprehension is not linear. Sometimes we need to pause to soak in the meaning of a phrase or sentence, while at other times we can tear through whole paragraphs. We don’t process meaning at a constant pace.
Techies have struck back, however, pointing out that the technology can be improved upon. Words can be given a frequency score so that easy, commonplace words are up for the shortest length of time, while those that require a touch more cogitation remain onscreen for longer.
Of course, much of the pleasure to be derived from reading comes from taking our time over it. Staring raptly at a screen as a blaze of words flicker in front of you is unlikely to replace a languid bedtime chapter or two of your favourite dog-eared novel. If you look away to take a sip of Horlicks (other malted beverages are available), you risk missing a crucial plot twist or denouement.
An extended session on Spritz leaves one feeling like Alex from A Clockwork Orange with his eyes forced open while subliminal messages are blasted at his dazed consciousness.
To pinch from another dystopian classic, we are entering a brave new world. Apps like Spritz coupled with wearable technology such as Google Glass raise the prospect of being able to read a novel at breakneck speed while walking along the high street.
In a separate development, neuroscientists at the University of California have developed an app that makes you see further even if you already have “perfect” 20/20 vision.
In fact, seven of the project’s test studies improved their vision to a frankly superhuman 20/7.5 meaning that at a distance of 20 feet, they were clearly seeing what someone with normal vision could see at no farther than 7.5 feet away.
UltimEyes works not by “fixing” the eye but by improving the area of the brain that processes visual information.
In a few years, perhaps we will all be technology-enhanced superbeings, reading faster and seeing further than humans were designed to.
Some of us will embrace humanity overcoming nature’s limitations. Others will, like Conrad’s Mr Kurtz, throw up their hands and cry: ‘The horror! The horror!’