We can trade small amounts of comprehension for large amounts of time.
The Speedy Media Manifesto
You can literally watch every episode of Stranger Things (Season 1) in 3 hours and 20 minutes.
Yes, you can literally watch a 400-minute series in 200 minutes. All you have to do is watch it faster!
But why would you want to‽
In Search of Lost
Pages follow the rhythm of hearts, not the rhythm of watches.
What’s the duration of a 250-page book? To answer this question, you must first ask: how much does the reader want to understand?
Of course reading-speed depends on the difficulty of the text — 250 pages of J.K. Rowling is not 250 pages of James Joyce. But even Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets may take 2 hours for a bright child, or 2 weeks for a tired Literature student working on the 4th draft of a midterm project.
The duration of every book is tempered to our thirst for fun or information or whatever. Pages follow the rhythm of hearts, not the rhythm of watches.
Movies, podcasts, etc. naturally move at the rhythm of watches, but do they have to? What if we viewed 1X speed as a recommendation than a requirement?
Rather than asking “how many hours will this media take?” — ask “how many hours does this media deserve?”
Consider the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility:
The law says, first, that the marginal utility of each homogenous unit decreases as the supply of units increases (and vice versa)….
Four pretzels does not make you 4X happier than one pretzel.
And watching Grown Ups 2 52 times does not make you 52X happier.
Drugs are valued by the experiences they evoke. MDMA makes you feel a certain amount of happiness for a certain amount of time. It’s a simple matter of maximizing intensity and duration. If movies were like drugs (whose utility are the literal experience), then 4K would be incredibly better than 1080p. But it’s not. Reading a book on higher-quality paper is not incredibly better. Watching a film in theaters is not incredibly better than your laptop.
In the same way, watching one movie at half-speed does not make the movie twice as enjoyable.
The “utility” of media is the communication of its ideas. And comprehension is the efficiency of idea transmission. Media can be used for entertainment or information, but it’s not useful if the consumer doesn’t understand what’s being communicated.
But comprehension is a sticky topic. For instance, take this David Lynch short-film about rabbits — I may not comprehend Lynch’s intent, but I certainly understand what I’m seeing. I certainly understand that there is a rabbit family in a family room, but I fail to grasp the deeper meaning of the film (if there is any). And I doubt that watching it slower or higher-resolution or louder would affect my understanding.
In other words, ideas are usually the important parts of films, podcasts, etc. (regardless of author or author’s intent). And each additional minute you spend with an idea up to a point will give you smaller and smaller amounts of value.
If it takes you 60 seconds to understand an essay with 45% comprehension, 60 minutes may only afford you 65% comprehension. And 60 hours would probably only get you up to 75% accuracy.
What if you were required to submit written exams as you left theaters? What level of comprehension do you think you would score for Jurassic Park?
Nobody aims for 100% comprehension.
Comprehension does not scale linearly with effort.
On average, each additional second pored into a piece of media returns less and less utility.
Why don’t people spend their lives watching their favorite films on repeat? Because at some point, they get it. They get what the film was doing. They get what the film was trying to say, or what the film uniquely spoke to them. At some point, they heard the message and hung up the phone. And maybe months or years later they’ll watch it again with brand new eyes.
So what if you had a magic dial that traded comprehension for time/effort? Assume the following:
| ||Comprehension ||Time |
|🐛 ||86% ||2 hours |
|🐢 ||80% ||1.5 hours |
|🐇 ||71% ||1 hour |
|🐆 ||46% ||30 minutes |
If you could magically choose between 🐛/🐢/🐇/🐆 on any book or television series or film, would you?
Spoiler alert: you can choose. Even better, 🐛 and 🐢 probably yield the same comprehension.
Comprehension and Control Theory
It takes 1.25 days (1830 minutes) to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender (a.k.a. ATLA) at the recommended viewing speed.
ATLA is one of my treasures. I’ve watched the entire series 4-5 times (and will probably rewatch it again soon). I’ve committed more than 4 days to this single piece of media, because it’s just that important to me.
I love ATLA dearly, so why would I watch the series at double-speed‽ Here’s my simplistic defense:
My attention frequently drifts when I watch ATLA at the recommended viewing speed.
I enjoy ATLA more when my attention doesn’t drift.
My attention doesn’t drift when I watch ATLA at ~1.75X.
Therefore I enjoy ATLA more at ~1.75X.
The following is true for most people in most situations:
|Speed ||Comprehension ||Engagement |
|way too slow ||incomprehensible ||💀 |
|too slow ||lost comprehension ||😴 |
|slightly slow ||inefficient comprehension ||🙄 |
|perfect ||full comprehension ||🤔 |
|slightly fast ||lost comprehension ||😰 |
|too fast ||incomprehensible ||😵 |
|way too fast || ||🤯 |
The key is staying engaged. It’s about tuning the speed of incoming ideas to the speed of your mind. If the flow is too slow, you’ll actually lose comprehension due to distractions.
Asymmetries of Understanding
So how inefficient is recommended speed?
Ears ⋙ Mouth
|listening ||250-315 WPM |
|speaking ||140-180 WPM |
Humans can listen about twice as fast as they can speak without loss of comprehension.
Eyes ⋙ Ears
|reading ||300+ WPM |
|listening ||250-315 WPM |
Audiobooks are great, but they’re not as efficient as books. We can read much faster than we can listen!
Eyes ⋙ Hands
We can understand movements and behaviors much faster than we can perform them.
My top listening speed is ~350WPM, which means dialogue becomes unintelligble at 3X. But my top reading speed is ~1100WPM, which means I can theoretically process subtitles at 7-8X.
In practice, video-comprehension (personally) starts plummeting at 4X speed. It is possible to keep up with simple stories, but trying to read 600WPM subtitles while watching the images flash by is no easy feat.
I’m not sure if I recommend moving to subtitles for speed purposes, but it definitely raises the speed limit for videos.
The Scenic Route ≠ The Slow Route
Every person and media forge a new experience together. Sometimes you want to savor every morsel of every frame. Sometimes you want to understand the bare minimum of the plot. Sometimes you want to skip around to the fight scenes.
Let’s step through some hypotheticals:
If savoring every second is what truly matters…
Every experience has a sweet-spot on its speedometer.
Time is precious.
Ideas are also precious.
Comprehension is a measure of idea transmission.
Comprehension is precious (following (2) and (3)).
You can trade small amounts of comprehension for large amounts of time.
Speeding up media is a natural way to trade comprehension for time.
You should speed up media when time is more precious than its ideas (following (1), (4), (5), and (6)).
There exist naturally inefficient asymmetries between the speeds of transmission and comprehension, e.g. speaking vs. listening.
When transmission inefficiencies can be exploited at no cost of comprehension, you should speed up your media (following (1), (4), (5), (6), and (8)).