Tikitu de Jager, a coder living in Greece, wanted to learn to program in iOS. So, like a lot of us do when we want to pick up a new skill, he started watching lessons online. At the outset everything was new, so he’d watch carefully and take notes. But as De Jager’s knowledge grew, he wanted to zip past familiar material. That’s when he started speeding up the videos.
Now De Jager races along at 2X speed, slowing down only when he hits challenging stuff. “You go, ‘OK, OK, OK, I get the point’—until something new comes along,” he says.
Power consumers of podcasts already know that 1.5X speed is their friend. About half the people who use podcast app Overcast listen on Smart Speed, which gooses the audio by eliminating moments of silence. Ten percent of Audible listeners crank up the speed dial. And as online videos become an increasingly important platform for acquiring new skills, speedup behavior is edging into the mainstream. Nearly 10 percent of people watching Khan Academy videos view them faster than normal.
Sure, we could bemoan this trend as another bleak marker of our hypermetabolized world: We’re racing through life, grimly optimizing every waking moment! (Overcast actually tells you how many hours of your life it has saved you.) But me, I’m in favor of overclocking video and audio. It’s a clever adaptation. In an age where more and more information arrives as multimedia, we’re reinventing the noble art of skimming.
Skimming, after all, was how people dealt with the original info boom, the Gutenberg press. It produced such a flood of books and pamphlets that readers learned to vary their reading speed—sometimes zipping through pages, sometimes lingering to absorb. (“Some books should be tasted, others swallowed,” noted 16th-century intellectual Francis Bacon.)
I can feel my mind trying the same trick with video. If I’m learning a new coding technique on Lynda.com and I hit a section that puzzles me, I’ll slow down to 1X and loop difficult moments over and over. But if I’m in my comfort zone, I’ll race along at 1.5X. Some people are even pushing the limits of endurance: Programmer Max Deutsch recently created a speed-listening app that allows paces as lunatic as 10X. (Beyond even 5X, he admits, “it’s past the point of enjoyable.”) Most of his 10,000 users, a hardcore crowd, listen at 3X to 4X.
Frankly, I doubt I could make sense of speech at that pace. But research suggests that moderate acceleration doesn’t hurt comprehension. Studies by educational-tech researchers Ray Pastore, of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and Albert Ritzhaupt, of the University of Florida, found that people listening to scientific info at 1.5X understood just as much as those listening at 1X. Video, Pastore says, is even more amenable to speedup, because the visual and audio cues reinforce one another.
Now, you might argue that this hummingbird-pace sipping of culture deforms the aesthetic experience. Maybe so. But people seem to make nuanced distinctions about which genres can withstand acceleration. Audible has found that its listeners race along with just-the-facts info—like newspapers and business books—but play classic novels at regular speed, to savor the performance. We’re creating cultural norms in a world of speed.
Yet our current tech and strategies for parsing audio and video are crude, barely Gutenberg-level. Speed isn’t enough. We need tools that nimbly parse multimedia. Imagine—as Overcast creator Marco Arment does—voice dictation so good that every podcast comes with an autogenerated transcript. You could zip forward by clicking on the text you want to hear or, he says, “share an interesting clip just by selecting the text you want.” If we’re going to speed up, we should make sure we don’t lose control.
This article appears in the February issue. Subscribe now .