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Absorbing Text

Essay on speed reading we produced as part of attendance at a workshop at Constant, Brussels, and panel at Transmediale, 2017. Organised by Aarhus University, Participatory IT Research Centre (Geoff Cox & Christian Ulrik Andersen), Transmediale (Kristoffer Gansing & Daphne Dragona), Constant (An Mertens, Michael Murtaugh & Femke Snelting)

Extract Speed reading applications such as Spritz isolate individual words from bodies of text and display them sequentially, often with the middle letter highlighted. Known as Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP), its proponents suggest it can accelerate reading speed from the average of 100-200 words per minute, to over 1000. This is principally achieved by the visual system reducing the number of saccades involved in ‘normal’ reading. When reading a word among many other words, for example a line of text, you are reading both backwards and forwards, scanning ahead for words within your parafoveal vision, and back again. The speed reading app Spritz declares on its website that: “You’ll find that you will be able to inhale content when you regain the efficiencies associated with not moving your eyes to read. And you will no longer move your eyes in unnatural ways.”

A new natural then, where we inhale content, and exhale who knows what. Not so much vapourware, as vaping words. But this invocation of old ‘unnatural ways’ and new physical and neuronal processes is both the most radical conceptual side effect of this esoteric technology, and the rhetoric that surrounds it. Furthermore, it is important to note that increased speed of reading is only one of the possibilities afforded by the processes of RSVP, and the degree to which comprehension ‘keeps up’ is questionable, as will be discussed later. In fact, speed reading as a term, application and a commercial enterprise, in the case of Spritz and others like it, has essentially appropriated and redirected the science of RSVP toward their own commercial, and one could say accelerationist ends. That such an apparatus is framed in terms of increasing speed and the productivity of the reader, is perhaps unsurprising – in an age where speed and efficiency appear to be synonymous with technological development. There has of course been an increasing interest in speed with social sciences and the humanities in recent years. From the work of Paul Virilio, in particular Speed and Politics and The Great Accelerator, through to more recent work such as Hartmut Rosa and William E. Scheuerman’s book High Speed Society. As they observe in their introduction:

‘What was experienced as being extraordinarily speedy just yesterday… now seems extraordinarily slow. The shot lengths in movies, advertisements, and even documentaries have increased by a factor of at least fifty, and the speed with which speeches are delivered in parliament has risen by 50 percent since 1945… Speed dating and drive-through funerals remind us that even basic life activities appear to be speeding up: fast food, fast learning, fast love.’

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Absorbing Text: Rereading Speed Reading


Nathan Jones & Sam Skinner



Published In

A Peer Reviewed Journal About – Machine Research
Volume 6, Issue 1, 2017, (Eds. Christian Ulrik Andersen & Geoff Cox)