In my childhood room, there were two closets.
In one, I hung clothes I rarely wore. The other, in contrast, was full of my most worn possessions: books.
I read hungrily as a child, absorbing information as if it were my life source. No book was too long, no font too tiny. My personal record involved reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 759 pages in about seven hours. That’s 1.8 hardcover pages per minute.
I don’t write this to brag about my strange abilities, but to say I never needed technology such as Spritz, the digital speed-reading software that has prompted lots of chatter over the past month.
Developed by a startup based in Boston, Spritz premiered with a demo about a month ago. The company began shipping the technology April 1 to more than 25,000 software developers, who will integrate it into existing websites and apps, according to TechCrunch.
(Courtesy of Spritz)
Spritz works by showing one word on screen at a time, with a letter in the middle of the word highlighted in red. You’re supposed to look at the red letter rather than scanning words from left to right as you do while reading normally.
The company aims to inundate the world with Spritz by 2016. If that happens, though, I predict culture — and journalism — will suffer. Spritz turns reading into a task that needs to be accomplished rather than a leisure activity that gives us calm. It takes away the beauty of storytelling.
Spritz claims its technology maintains or even increases the level of comprehension when reading. I’ve tested it several times over the past week, and I disagree, as do several reading experts who have testified to outlets such as CNN and NBC.
“The difficulty is it’s not just the rate at which we see words, but it also takes time for us to comprehend what those words mean once we start putting them together,” Michael Masson, a psychologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, told CNN.
Yet the comprehension aspect is only significant if you’re using Spritz to read something you’ll be tested on — a textbook or an academic paper.
While it’s important to absorb knowledge or information from what you’re reading, it’s rare that I remember every single detail I read in a news article — and I don’t think that reflects on my retention abilities. Some facts are more interesting or shocking than others; some sentences are more eloquently written. These characteristics determine my comprehension, not the speed I’m reading.
What’s more telling is Spritz’s ultimate goal: the optimization of reading.
Granted, this strategy fits with the harried pace of our society, which is constantly trying to find ways to do more in a day.
The company’s problem, though, is that it treats reading as a chore when more and more people are actually reading for leisure. The rise of tablets and e-Books has encouraged more people to read — and to enjoy it. Longform.org co-founder Max Linsky said the site has a jump in pageviews on Friday evenings, as users highlight stories to read over the weekend.
Books and articles can certainly be considered works of art, which are inherently meant to be absorbed slowly. Two years ago, I wrote a column for my student newspaper about the consumption of art. I had just returned from a month in Italy, where our group took a whirlwind tour through five different regions. Though I was exposed to a wealth of culture, I felt I could have learned more if I’d spent more time in fewer places.
That’s how I feel about reading. Despite my childhood tendency to inhale books, I now recognize the benefit of slowing down and savoring the words I’m looking at.
I don’t think I’m the only one either. While the cliché is that books open up another world, so can articles. So can social networks for that matter. Many people use Facebook and Twitter to take a break from their real lives, if only for a minute. Whether you’re reading your friend’s 140-character tweet or your favorite journalist’s 5,000-word story, you are temporarily in another, virtual world.
You might as well enjoy it while you can.
With Spritz, though, relaxation time just becomes time, time that you’re doing something quickly rather than moving at your natural speed.
Those of us who work in the media industry already move at a frantic pace most days. If you publish more content, your site is more likely to show up in search engines and more likely to attract an audience; the nature of the Internet pushes for more things to read and watch and listen to all the time.
Many publications are paying more attention to analytics and putting pressure on reporters to bring more unique visitors to their sites. The Oregonian now expects writers to publish three stories per day in addition to working on longer, more in-depth pieces. They have a quota to fill, a demand to meet.
What then if consumers needed even more pieces of content thanks to Spritz?
We’d be stuck with tired writers and rabid readers. Both of them are already in a state of constant overload. There’s no need to make it worse.