There are lots of good things to write about, so it is with despondent irony that I am writing about something very bad for anyone who reads or writes. The something in question is “Spritz”, a new app or computer program or something that force feeds written material to you at the frenetically nauseating pace of three-to-five hundred words-per-minute. The average reading speed for a well-read adult is at most 220 w.p.m. so this is a staggering 30-100% increase in the speed that words are flying from the page—er—screen—to your brain.
The creators of Spritz claim that this technology will revolutionize the world, make you a better person, improve your love life, etc. It certainly will change things if it catches on. If the boundless exuberance on my social media feeds is any indicator, people plan to finally “read” all the books they’ve been lying about having read for all these years. I put “read” in scare quotes, because after watching a sample feed of words at three, four, and five hundred w.p.m. I simply cannot buy that anyone who chokes down Gatsby, Lolita, or Infinte Jest on Spritz will have learned a damn thing. They might be able to name characters, outline the plot, even talk about what they liked and didn’t like, but the sweeping impressionism of Fitzgerald’s prose or Wallce’s asinine footnotes and re-references will be entirely lost on these one-word-at-a-time phonies.
Based on my brief demo of the program, I was almost unable to worry about the societal implications because my brain was teetering dangerously close to epilepsy. The words whir by so quickly that, even though it does work better than I’d like to admit, it feels like some sort of unsustainable warp speed that will eventually catastrophically fail when the center ceases to hold. After reading about five sentences at 500 w.p.m. I felt like I needed a breather. Which led me to miss two more sentences and wonder what happens if you have to sneeze or write down a favorite line (not that you can pick favorites when you can’t see syntax, etc.).
By sterilizing the reading experience, we are dehumanizing ourselves. Humans are unique in the elaborateness of their written and spoken languages, their completely-unrelated-to-survival artistic endeavors, and their hellish bent toward self-destructive progress. From nuclear weapons to hyperconnectivity to reading sans fun, we are remarkably proficient at taking good ideas several steps too far. Harnessing atoms to make energy out of nothing seems wise, especially with our insatiable appetites for electricity and the finite amounts of coal and crude available to us. Connecting all corners of the world has obvious advantages. Helping people dig into the classics who wouldn’t otherwise read at all is a noble cause. And yet, somewhere along the way, these have all become perverted.
We make energy out of nothing to level nations or mutually assure one another that such destruction is imminent. We are so connected that walking peaceably down a quiet street and being wholly present seems as quaintly archaic as black and white video footage of a soda parlor. And now, we are bent on eradicating the frustrating, relaxing, challenging, rewarding endeavor that is reading a good book. I wonder when Beethoven’s complete canon will be compressed into a minute-long ultradensesupertechnowunder soundbyte or when every Picasso painting will be downloadable straight to your hippocampus via GoogleContacts.
This is not technophobic or dystopic radicalism. It is a not-so-far-fetched look at what might happen soon, and, more importantly, a sincere “why?” What do we gain by ‘knowing’ great works of art if we haven’t engaged with them? There might be a hint of democracy to downloading the Mona Lisa since traveling to Paris is not exactly free, but everyone knows what she looks like. The pilgrimage to Napoleon’s Great Pillage that is the Louvre is as beautiful an experience as sitting on a blanket on the beach for three hours and reading barely ninety pages of Steinbeck’s densest storytelling. If we crush these slow joys and miniature (or major) vacations out of our lives in favor of efficiency, what will we do with the time we ‘save’?
I might could answer “get in more training time for triathlons” or “spend more time with people I love,” but how long until those things are somehow condensed (see the gimmicky workouts and workout machines that promise incredible results in minimal time) too? Until we learn to (re)value the process, be it of creating or appreciating art, of building, repairing, maintaining, we are going to watch the uniquely human aspects of our lives get marginalized until A.I. is not so Hollywood anymore. This is not strictly about robots becoming convincingly human, but about us forgetting how to turn pages and wrenches. And things are only enjoyable because they are counterbalanced by other things (there is a mechanical analogy here, but it is likely lost on everybody because our cars are too complex to bother understanding anymore), moderation the key to savoring anything at all.
The complexity of all our gadgetry has created a unique problem that could fill volumes of books, were they still being printed and sold en masse. Technology has become so good and improvements come about so quickly (cheers, Gordon Moore) that rather than maintaining it or learning how it works, we use it until it becomes unbearably irrelevant (oftentimes less than two years).
I’m not arguing against inevitability or standing on a Luddite soapbox. Some things we cannot change or resist. But as long as we create the demand for great literature, architectural triumphs filled with artistic masterpieces, and keep putting pockets in our pants and shelves in our homes to stash the smartphones for a few minutes, we will maintain a degree of resistance to the fierce force of homogeneity that is the invisible forces behind technological ‘advances’. Read something printed on paper, be it a newspaper article or even ten pages of a great book. Walk outside for twenty minutes without checking your phone. Go to an art museum. Dedicate ourselves daily anew. Something like that.