I have a habit that horrifies most people. I watch television and films in fast forward. This has become increasingly easy to do with computers (I’ll show you how) and the time savings are enormous. Four episodes of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” fit into an hour. An entire season of “Game of Thrones” goes down on the bus ride from D.C. to New York.
I started doing this years ago to make my life more efficient. Between trendy Web shows, auteur cable series, and BBC imports, there’s more to watch than ever before. Some TV execs worry that the industry is outpacing its audience. A record-setting 412 scripted series ran in 2015, nearly double the number in 2009.
. . . .
This is where the trick of playing videos at 1.5x to 2x comes in — the latest twist in the millennia-old tradition of technology changing storytelling. The concept should be familiar to many. For years, podcast and audiobook players have provided speedup options, and research shows that most people prefer listening to accelerated speech.
In recent years, software has made it much easier to perform the same operation on videos. This was impossible for home viewers in the age of VHS. But computers can now easily speed up any video you throw at them. You can play DVDs and iTunes purchases at whatever tempo you like. YouTube allows you select a speedup factor on its player. And a Google engineer has written a popular Chrome extension that accelerates most other Web videos, including on Netflix, Vimeo and Amazon Prime.
Over 100,000 people have downloaded that plug-in, and the reviews are ecstatic. “Oh my God! I regret all the wasted time I’ve lived before finding this gem!!” one user wrote.
. . . .
But speeding up video is more than an efficiency hack. I quickly discovered that acceleration makes viewing more pleasurable. “Modern Family” played at twice the speed is far funnier — the jokes come faster and they seem to hit harder. I get less frustrated at shows that want to waste my time with filler plots or gratuitous violence. The faster pace makes it easier to appreciate the flow of the plot and the structure of the scenes.
. . . .
In a way, what’s happening to video recalls what happened to literature when we stopped reading aloud, together, and started reading silently, alone. Beginning in the Middle Ages, people no longer had to gather in groups to hear tales or learn the news or study religion. They could be alone with a text and their own thoughts, an unprecedented freedom that led to political and religious turmoil and forever changed intellectual life.
. . . .
For a very long time, life was limited by the rate at which we spoke. Although we have had writing systems for millennia, early texts were designed to be read aloud, meaning that literature unfolded at the pace of human speech.
Many ancient Greek and Roman documents, for instance, lacked punctuation, spaces or lowercase letters, making it challenging for people to understand them without sounding out the words syllable by syllable. “A written text was essentially a transcription which, like modern musical notation, became an intelligible message only when it was performed orally to others or to oneself,” historian Paul Saenger writes.
There are physical limits to how quickly we can form sounds, as anyone who has attempted a tongue-twister can attest. Mouths need time to move into position for the next vowel or consonant. A good estimate for the natural rate of speech in English is 200 to 300 syllables per minute, which translates into 150 to 200 words per minute.
. . . .
According to Audible, the audiobook company, the typical book recording is performed at 155 wpm. A 1990 study found that radio broadcasts run at 160 wpm on average, while everyday conversations, which use shorter words, occur at about 210 wpm.
. . . .
For much of human history, this was the sound barrier for communicating ideas.
It’s not that silent reading was impossible in antiquity. It was just very difficult. There exist tales of scholars who seemed to absorb books silently; in the fourth century, Saint Augustine told of an odd monk who read without forming the words with his mouth. “When he read,” Augustine wrote, “his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.”
Historians debate whether these silent readers were regarded as freaks or the practice was merely unusual. Reading was still a group activity in the fifth and sixth centuries. One person read aloud while others listened. Even for scribes who copied manuscripts in solitude, the act of reading was intertwined with the act of speaking. Many early medieval monks who had taken vows of silence were still allowed to mumble as they read, Saenger writes, because mumbling was considered part of the reading process.
During the Middle Ages, scribes began introducing spacing and punctuation into texts, which made silent reading much easier for everyone. The practice began in monasteries around the 10th century and slowly spread to university libraries a few hundred years later, and finally to the European aristocracy by the 14th and 15th centuries, according to historian Roger Chartier.
The technique of silent, solitary reading released people from the sluggishness of the spoken word — as well as from the judgment of their peers. Reading in private gave people room to engage with a text, the freedom to think critically and sometimes heretically. Opinions too controversial for group reading could be disseminated and consumed in private. The result, historians say, was an intellectual, scientific — and spiritual — blossoming in Europe.
. . . .
“Silent, secret, private reading paved the way for previously unthinkable audacities,” Chartier writes. “In the late Middle Ages, even before the invention of the printing press, heretical texts circulated in manuscript form, critical ideas were expressed, and erotic books, suitably illuminated, enjoyed considerable success.”
Chartier called silent reading the “other revolution” — together with the printing press and mass literacy, these developments created both the demand and the supply for a vast quantity of writing. The faster pace of silent reading accelerated the spread of new ideas and vaulted Western society toward religious and political schism.
“This ‘privatization’ of reading is undeniably one of the major cultural developments of the early modern era,” Chartier argued.
. . . .
In the 1960s, a blind psychologist named Emerson Foulke began experimenting with this technique to accelerate speech. A professor at the University of Louisville, Foulke was frustrated with the slowness of recorded books for the blind, so he tried speeding them up. The sampling method proved surprisingly effective. In Foulke’s experiments, speech could be accelerated to 250-275 wpm without affecting people’s scores on a listening comprehension test.
. . . .
These limits were suspiciously close to the average college reading rate. Foulke suspected that beyond 300 wpm, deeper processes in the brain were getting overloaded. Experiments showed that at 300-400 wpm, individual words were still clear enough to understand; except at that rate, many listeners couldn’t keep up with rapid stream of words, likely because their short-term memories were overtaxed.
Some, of course, fared better than others. Just as people naturally read at different rates, subjects varied in how well they could understand accelerated speech. Further studies found a connection to cognitive ability. Those with higher intelligence, as well as faster readers, were more adept at understanding sped-up recordings.
PG would be interested to know how many TPV visitors listen to audiobooks at an accelerated speed.