Sunday, March 30, 2014

Now, A Reading App That Does Away With Reading

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

There’s been much chatter of late about a new app that promises to increase reading speeds. Claims are being bandied about that from an average of 250 words per minute, this app can make you reach up to 1,000 words – about four times as fast. There’s no need to quail anymore, enthusiasts say, at the sheer bulk of books such as War and Peace or Infinite Jest, which can now be finished in a day.  One imagines librarians across the land groaning at the increased rate of borrowings from the stacks.

What has been a closely-guarded secret until now, however, is that another app is being developed that takes speed-reading a huge step further by eliminating the need to read at all. After all, these developers say, why bother with mundane details when you can – in their words – think out of the box while pushing the envelope?

Understandably, the developers don’t want to release too much information at this stage, as they’re wary of competitors latching on to the same formula. However, this columnist has managed to unearth some particulars of their venture, which is radical in the extreme. I’m legally bound not to reveal all of the details, but suffice to say that the world of books and reading will never be the same.

What I can report is that, as with all works of genius, this one has simplicity at its heart. In essence, their plan is to eliminate the need for a person to measure reading speeds and eye movements simply by having the books read out to him or her. As the company’s vice-president said, “The ear is the new eye”. Those who think that this is just a rehashed version of an audiobook could not be more mistaken.

Once downloaded onto your smartphone, HearHere, as the app is called, will store details of your location and offer a menu of titles. All you then have to do is to tap your choices onto it, and you’ll receive an address and time where one of the titles is to be read out in public. Such venues are typically campfires, riverbanks, town squares and other such open spaces. Here, a group of like-minded people will assemble to listen to a trained representative of HearHere, called “a Storyteller”.

The initial plan is for such Storytellers to recite titles from mainstream and genre bestseller lists: thus, on any given evening, there would be a wide-eyed group listening to tales of the many shades of grey, whereas elsewhere, they would be enthralled by robots overtaking humans, or thrilled by locked-room mysteries.  This revolutionary new step, the developers claim, also decreases the waste involved in a single book being read only by one person at a time. (“It’s a Multiplier Effect”, one of them said.)

HearHere’s founders don’t plan to stop here. Once the stock of titles that people want to listen to start to dwindle, they intend to coach their group of intrepid Storytellers in order to take it up a notch. In this phase, they will start to riff on subjects such mythical battles between champions and demons, the origins of the universe and our place in it, local legends of love and loss, and so on. In passing, this is also the basis of HearHere’s business plan: companies can sponsor such tales and have their products woven into them. For example, a detergent manufacturer could sponsor a folktale of a washerman’s donkey, and cleverly imply that you’re an ass if you don’t use washing powder. Ingenious.

When I asked one of HearHere’s founders how their scheme differed from age-old pre-literate storytelling activity, he bristled. “There’s all the difference in the world!” he spluttered, taking a few sips of his hazelnut latte. “You see, in the past they simply recited stories. Now, we plan to simply recite stories – by using an app!” Refusing his offer of another latte, I returned home, marvelling at the uses of 21st century technology.

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