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In Praise of Skimming

by | Dec 16, 2021 | Uncategorized | 7 comments

The faster you process 

information, the smarter you are.



Flipping through Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story,” I ran across a scene where some character gets “freaked out.” Her older boyfriend is not just “scanning a text” but reading a book. And not just any book, but “War and Peace”! “He had this ruler out and he was moving it down the page very slowly and just like whispering little things to himself, like trying to understand every little part of it. … I was so embarrassed I just stood there and watched him read which lasted for like HALF AN HOUR.” 

 

Nostalgia for the dead world of print and slow reading may be charming, but the girlfriend got it right. Reading is embarrassing. It’s for losers. Thinking means processing information, so the more new information you can process and the higher your throughput, the smarter you are. Whoever dies with the most information wins.

 

As someone said somewhere, “certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Our brains can’t achieve the unbelievable efficiency of a server farm, but thanks to the Internet, the computers are just a click away—unless you’re reading a book, in which case there’s nothing to click. This is your brain on books: starved of information.

 

If you spend months on a musty 19th-century novel, how much 21st-century data will you miss? Sitting down to pore over some tome means losing out on Google knows how many updates, clips, texts, tweets, and memes. Just scan the book, if you really must, and get it over with.

 

Look how inefficient reading is. A verbose volume like “Super Sad” runs for 331 pages. That’s around a megabyte. A doorstop like “War and Peace” is maybe 5MB. While the reader is still getting started on paragraph one, you can watch a video and take in just as many megabytes in ten seconds.

 

The benefits of optimized information processing are documented by extensive psychological research. By this point I expect the skimmers will have jumped to the end—so hello, fellow reader. I suspect you’ll agree with me that thought is not just information throughput. I call thinking the art of taking time—time to dwell on what we have encountered; to sift through the familiar and uncover its ambiguities; to look again, listen again, and find the nuance, the tone, the irony; to reflect on the consequences and presuppositions of pronouncements; to hear the unvoiced tensions in a confident conclusion; to imagine how the universal applies to the particular and the particular illuminates the universal; to discern the patterns in the play of the evanescent; to discriminate between the few moments worth revisiting and the dross that must fade away. Our information-processing machines can skim terabytes of text to find a sequence of characters, or skim an image and match a face to a name. But they can’t read the meaning of the characters in the text, or read the character behind the face on the video. That takes thought, and thought takes time. Because we love to think, you and I will still read, and the world’s skimmers will still depend on us readers to find the deeper senses of their world. But now it’s time to hand them the conclusion to which they’ve already leapt.

 

Getting information by agonizing over every word in some text is like commuting by bicycle or writing by typewriter: slow, unsmart, and obsolete.

 

So be smart: glance, flip, click, and swipe your way to the payoff.

 

Here’s the takeaway:

 

• the faster the better

• cut to the chase

• skim

• react

• move on

 

Remember: to save time is to lengthen life.

 

 

(I wrote this essay in 2012 but haven’t published it until now.)

7 Comments

  1. Julian

    "Whoever dies with the most information wins" :-) You should print this on a T-Shirt

    Reply
  2. Ted

    "Dying isn't winning." -The Art Of War :D

    Reply
  3. RobertG

    Ooo, that's all glossing over the question of what is ones goal, isn't it? Was the aim info-gathering or enjoyment etc. Both have their time and place, I'd say – always have had.

    (And perhaps it's my cultural/geographical context, but I do take issue with terming commuting by bike as slow, unsmart and obsolete!)

    Reply
  4. schrijfmachine

    TL;DR and agree with Robert. ;)

    That's a joke, I read everything. Interesting approach. In my social bubble, reading is not embarrassing, but phones/instagram etc are simply too addictive to resist.

    Reply
  5. Bill M

    I guess I'm old and slow. I prefer reading a book rather than a screen. My method is skim through at least what I think I'll read at one time. Then I take my time and read.

    Reply
  6. Rob Bowker

    That's tender satire, if a little dystopian. Not sure if dystopian is the correct word but you get the drift. Of course there's a chasm between information and knowledge or learning. I believe that the slower it goes in, the better it sticks. I don't think you are smart if the learning doesn't stick. So books become friends and not just passing acquaintances. That sort of thing. Take it easy Richard and a Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    Reply
  7. Mayank Ajugia

    Aah! This reminds me of the quote from the movie 'The Mummy Returns' (2001):
    Only the journey is written, not the destination.

    Reply

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