Reading Without Scanning Lines?

We’ve talked a lot about how digital technology affects our interpretation of texts.  We’ve also talked about how it alters the way in which we read texts by changing the medium through which those texts are delivered or on which they are assessed.

But what about changing the actual makeup of the text itself?  Check out this new reading technology called Spritz.  The technology’s developers aim to improve reading speed by making it completely unnecessary for the reader to move his or her eyes from line to line, or even from word to word; each word appears, instead, in a “redicle” (a play on words between ‘red’ and ‘reticle’) in the reader’s field of vision.  In addition, the app centers each word on what Spritz calls its “Optimal Recognition Point” (ORP), which Spritz claims cuts down on the time that takes for the brain to decipher the word.

Spending thirty seconds or so with the demo is certainly an…eye-opening experience (sorry for that one).  This Elite Daily article encapsulates the technology’s efficiency, and the implications of that efficiency, with its headline: “This Insane App Will Allow you to Read Novels in Under 90 Minutes.”  Sounds like a dream come true for anyone taking multiple 300 or 400 level Geneseo English courses.  It’s easy to see how Spritz could prevent fatigue and distraction while reading, since the technology makes reading is less physical work (not to mention, it’s hard for a reader to be distracted by a flashing ad in his or her periphery when the flashing thing is actually the text itself).  Anticipating fears that reading this quickly would prevent readers from actually getting anything out of the text that they’re being presented, Spritz also claims that their technology improves reading comprehension.  The company argues that the time that a reader would usually spend scanning a text with his or her eye is instead spent on processing the content that it conveys.

But what is lost by not having words that are arranged on a page, be that a paper page or digital page?  As English majors, we are aware that the meaning of a text is as much shaped by its form as its content.  Under the Spritz system of reading, poems would lose line breaks and any enjambment.  There seems to be no convenient way, either, to do the returning to previous lines that such enjambment often impels.  And forget about concrete poetry or any other work that relies heavily on graphical codes.  Assuming that the technology is intended for longer pieces of prose that demand (arguably) less attention to sentence-level form, this may not be an issue.  I also wonder, however, how having a constant and electronically-set reading pace will affect the reader’s reception of meter in poetry and prose alike.

Thoughts?

6 comments

  1. Not only was this technology was never meant to be used for poetry (for obvious reasons, as you pointed out), from what I understand it was never even meant to be used for prose reading. It was originally designed to be used with Samsung phones and devices in order to read messages and emails more quickly and utilize smaller screens, like the “smart watch.” I find it really amazing that this software has the potential to revolutionize reading even more than computers alone ever did; part of the company’s mission statement includes a desire to put something like a fifth of all digital text into this format by 2016.
    There are obvious limitations; eliminating internal narration while reading makes it difficult to do things like read voices for characters in novels, and the speed at which you’re reading makes it virtually impossible to examine a work stylistically. So maybe classical literature and Spritz aren’t the best combination, but things like textbooks or even essays could easily be enhanced through this technology.

    • Whatever its initial intention, “classical literature” is certainly on the company’s radar right now: “Atlas Shrugged in a Day?” they ask. “You betcha.” (I’m sidestepping, of course, any sort of ‘Is Ayn Rand literature?’ debate.)

      I agree that the efficiency that Sprtiz offers is intriguing for certain kinds of text. The problem is this: how do you assess which texts deserve attention to form and which don’t? Without going all Stanley Fish, that line is not one that is clearly drawn. Even if analytical essays and textbook passages may not be primarily aesthetic, a reader’s understanding of them still benefits from the perception of aspects, like tone, that are shaped by the form of the text or require time to discern. No text is value free, in all senses of the word “value.”

      That said, I’m open to possibilities and change. I’m just concerned with what could be lost, and how we could minimize those losses.

  2. Katie Allen says:

    I think this is a really interesting concept in theory, and I look forward to seeing how this might catch on (or not) in the future. To play devil’s advocate, I agree with the limitations you’ve already identified about poetry and styling, and I see even more issues beyond these. For example, inevitably a reader will become interrupted while reading, because that’s life. Someone enters the room. They get a text. Their cat walks on top of their device. Their house catches on fire. Okay, but really. Any number of events might distract someone for even a split second, and if they are reading at 500 or 1,000 words per minute, now they’re lost. Is there an easy way to pick back up where they left off? What about the reader who likes to go back and do those English major things we love so much, like comparing scenes or words, re-reading a paragraph through a different lens, or even just double-checking something for clarity’s sake? Is this easily possible with Spritz? God forbid the reader has a headache. My head hurts and eyes get strained after staring at an UNmoving screen for too long, so I can’t even imagine the horrors of long-term exposure on tired eyes. My poor mother can’t do anything but look out the window on long car rides because she gets motion sickness so easily. What a cruel joke it would be to hand her a smartphone with Spritz running, which her brain will automatically start reading whether she likes it or not, and see how she reacts. Lastly, maybe I’m an old soul, but I actually like holding books in my hand and turning the pages. Weird, I know.

    Anyway, I’ll be keeping my eyes open to see how this plays out. If it works, I’m actually excited to try it… despite all the negativity I just spewed. 🙂

    • I would imagine that some of these issues could be remedied with the use of a knob-style USB controller like Griffin’s PowerMate (not that that’s the most portable–or, for that matter, the cheapest–accessory in the world). That way, the speed of the text would be on a continuum rather than in discrete settings, and the reader could intuitively turn down the speed at which the text is scrolling during certain passages. Alternatively such a device could be used to scroll through the text word by word if the text stream was paused.

  3. As soon as I saw this popping up over fb I wondered who would be the first to post about it 😉 Such an interesting concept. To me it seems to blend “reading” with “watching,” two things that have previously been differentiated, one for books, and the other for tv. But, do these two verbs really create a binary? If not, how can they be reconciled? The idea seems to be that “reading” is something you do, while “watching” is when that processing is done for you. Spritz is melding these two ideas so you can “watch” what you “read,” and the problems typically associated with tv (pausing if you need to get up, eye strain, inability to “mark up” what you see, lack of pause to process) could now become associated with books. But, if we consume narratives via tv screen without complaining about these issues, isn’t is theoretically possible to do the same with the written word without compromising the integrity of that medium? Or, is reading simply becoming more and more like watching tv (although with Spritz there are still words and not images…)?

  4. Paul Schacht says:

    Every medium has its formal affordances, and it stands to reason that a work of art created in one medium won’t fare well when translated into another — though it’s possible that the affordances of the new medium will in some cases lead to a surprising and delightful new perspective on the content. Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience lose something important when rendered in type, rather than in their original medium — Blake distributed them as etchings — yet arguably reading them in type has the potential to focus us, in helpful ways, on the meanings of Blake’s words.

    So, sure, the experience of reading a Dickens novel read in Spritz will be impoverished to the extent that Dickens’ novel was written to be read as ink on paper, organized in chapters. (It’s worth noting, though, that describing the form of Dickens’ novels as “organized in chapters” is itself an oversimplification. What are readers “missing” when they read a Dickens novel bound into a single volume when that novel was originally published in individually bound shilling numbers of about 20 pages each?)

    The interesting question for literature going forward, I think, is just the one raised by Becca: how will writers, in new works, exploit the formal possibilities of the screen?

    Jörg Piringer’s interesting video Unicode has a Spritz-like quality by intention. What is the resulting experience for us as “readers”? (Piringer is also the creator of one of my favorite iPhone apps, Gravity Clock.)

    unicode from joerg piringer on Vimeo.

    For a thoughtful general meditation on how the affordances of the screen differ from those of paper and ink, and how the differences call on web designers to think about their craft, have a look at Frank Chimero’s “What Screens Want: Some Thoughts on Digital Canvases”

    If you’re interested in these questions, you might also want to take a look at Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing: Managing Literature in the Digital Age.

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