Pop Culture

Help, I've become a content speed freak

We may be able to consume audiobooks and podcasts at thrice the normal speed, but will we find it hard to retain information?

I'm listening to the audiobook version of the novel Ready Player One at 1.5 times the normal speed. Podcasts, I inhale at 1.7x. YouTube videos can be knocked off at 1.5x, sometimes 2x speed, if the presenter is an especially slow speaker.

Someone help me: I've become a content speed freak.

It might sound like a boast that I prefer to drink from a firehose instead of a tap, but I suspect that I'm not alone in nudging that podcast speed button higher and higher as if it were a sort of competition.

In reality, compared to those who have pushed their player software to the breaking point, I'm a slowpoke. Recently, I learnt that listeners in the United States have broken the seemingly impossible 2.5x barrier. They listen at mind-warping 3x speed.

They have trained their brains to pick out words from a stream that would sound like white noise to most of us. Where did I learn this fact? On a podcast, of course, consumed at an a old fogey's 1.7x speed.

Because of smartphones and high-speed data, I like to think that we are in a new era of pop culture consumption.

Listening at 2x requires close attention. Let the mind wander for a few seconds and the thread is lost more quickly. Hit that rewind button often enough and the time saved by going faster is wasted.

Remember how speed reading was in vogue a decade ago? I know an editor who scans text one paragraph at a time; to see him consume a news story in under a minute, without losing sight of grammar or structure, is to witness something akin to black magic.

Today there are websites that train one's eyes to see whole sentences rather than words, or some such technique.

But the frontier now is not written text, but in spoken word and visuals. And even in the realm of written text, things are changing.

Emoji have seeped into everyday use. Unlike text, emoji have no spoken word equivalent. Think of them as a faster, more efficient means of displaying information in text form.

With ears trained to process words at 3x speed, the world of culture looks very different. Bill Bryson's A Short History Of Nearly Everything is 18 hours long in its audiobook format. At 3x listening speed, you could polish that off in a few train rides; J.K. Rowling's 21-hour Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire could be done and dusted on a flight from here to Sydney.

Of course, I worry that there will be a price to be paid.

Does faster listening mean less retention? Is it literally a case of faster in, faster out? I cannot find any data about this, but it stands to reason that it depends on how the material is presented.

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell's podcast about forgotten moments and people of the past, Revisionist History, is easy to retain because each show is built like a radio drama, filled with strong characters and striking, non-obvious conclusions. A less well-made podcast would be forgotten in a day.

Listening at 2x requires close attention. Let the mind wander for a few seconds and the thread is lost more quickly. Hit that rewind button often enough and the time saved by going faster is wasted.

If I were to download an audiobook version of a James Joyce novel, feeding it into my ears at normal speed would be all I could handle. But a Dan Brown book? Double speed would not just be easy, it might even improve the experience of a Robert Langdon adventure.

Audiobooks are not just text turned into sounds. Many are read by the authors themselves, or by actors turning in a performance. What would be lost if Max Brooks' World War Z, read by Simon Pegg, F. Murray Abraham and John Turturro, were given the aural equivalent of a skim?

Most likely a lot. I finished the novel at normal speed, using every bit of self-restraint I had. But when I was done, I played it again. At 2x speed, of course.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2017, with the headline 'Help, I've become a content speed freak'. Print Edition | Subscribe