When I was in grade school during the disco era, “speed reading” was a thing—at least according to the perpetually drab but oddly memorable TV ads for Evelyn Wood’s “Reading Dynamics” lessons. These days, we’ve progressed to speed listening, thanks to apps that allow us to stream podcasts at chipmunk speed—reportedly up to five times faster than normal. It is a true and beautifully fitting fable of contemporary life that the developer of one of these apps was inspired by the urgent need to get through a relaxation recording he was using to relieve anxiety. As the Wall Street Journal put it, the meditative pace of the recording stressed him out: “The episodes were too long; it was hard to focus.” He could sit still for ten minutes, but not twenty, so speeding up the playback actually helped him relax.
The developer of another speed listening app claims to be able to absorb podcasts at 4.5 times normal speed with 99% comprehension, on the basis of which he has proclaimed himself, “the world’s best speed listener.” Perhaps speed viewing is next—maybe this is already practiced by people skimming through their binge-viewing queue on Netflix, or surfing endless flows of images in Instragram and Snapchat.
Back in the Evelyn Wood days, I assumed the appeal of speed reading was that people could get their homework done in time to get back to the TV, which was still plodding along at its old ‘70s pace. (Try watching an episode of a classic ‘70s show, and you’ll be stunned at how slow it is). Perhaps today’s fascination with speed follows in part from the torrent of information pouring through our always-on devices. Keeping up means speeding up. Anxiety results from knowing that no matter how fast we go, we’ll never be able to listen to, see, and read it all. The advent of our digital information society means that we will never be informed enough. The more time we spend listening to the relaxation tape, the farther behind we fall, and the more stressed out we get.
Underneath the sensory acceleration, of course, lies a mania for speed living. Soon, Hyperloop and smart cars will accelerate our commutes (we will haveto “speed listen” if we want to hear the whole show during the ride); Amazon will get us any product we dream of the very same day; while Google envisions drone delivery to diminish the “last mile” of product delivery. So-called predictive analytics—data-driven predictive models—bring the future into the present so that we can act on it before it even happens. Predictive analytics promises to pre-empt crime, risk, and even the minor inconveniences of everyday life. Our cars will know beforehand that they are going to break down and will spirit themselves off to the garage before they do; Amazon will deliver products to our doorstep before we know we want them (they have actually patented this process). In short, we can get everything over with before it happens—so eliminating the uncertainty of risk and the threat of thwarted desire.
To describe the appeal of speed living, the author Anatole France recounted a tale he heard as a child. In the story, a genie gives a little boy a ball of thread, telling him “This is the thread of your life…When you find time heavy on your hands, pull it out; your days will pass quickly or slowly as you unwind the ball rapidly or little by little.” The boy quickly pulls on the thread to become a man, and then to marry the girl he loves, then to see his children grow up, and finally to cut short, “a peevish old age.” Thanks to the ball of thread, he managed to compress his entire life into four months. For our purposes, he became a world “speed living” champion. For France, the story is an allegory of the ups and downs of the gambling table, which compresses the drama of an entire life into next to no time. But the real key to his story is the way the boy uses the ball of thread to, “abridge anxieties, to escape grief and the infirmities that came with the years.” This is perhaps the lesson of our hyper-accelerated culture and its frantic attempt to pull the future into the present. You can’t know how things will work out until the story ends, so the faster you get there, the sooner you conquer the uncertainty of living.