Bullet Time!

Lately, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied by a simple but elegant thought. First, consider that a standard paragraph of scholarly prose (at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words) takes about a minute to read. Next, grant me, for the sake of argument, that a well-trained scholar can write a coherent paragraph about something they know in about half an hour. It only takes a moment. Now, let’s think about what that means.

Basically, the writer has an enormous advantage on the reader. Even within my somewhat ungenerous constraints, the writer spends 30 times longer on the paragraph than the reader does. If this is a “conversation” then it is, at first pass, a very asymmetric one. But we can recover the symmetry by realizing that the reader’s ultimate response to the text will also come in writing. That is, the reader will respond by writing a paragraph that it will again take the original writer only a minute to read. Writing that paragraph, too, can take 30 times as long.

(Like I say, these are ungenerous constraints. In fact, I am much more generous, since you are free to re-write the paragraph as many times as you like before exposing it to the reader.)

As I noticed a few years ago, this suggests a situation that resembles that famous visual effect in the Matrix film series. The writer is able to slow time down in their mind, establishing the perfect sequence of moves to deliver the message. The “moves” are of course simply the order of the 150-200 words that the paragraph is composed of. Ideally, they look like spontaneously produced speech. But to speak as coherently in real time is much, much more difficult and, in a conversation with many participants (which is what a scholarly discourse is) virtually impossible.

Everything I’ve just said of the paragraph is, of course, also true of the article. It takes at least 20 hours to write but only 40 minutes to read. That gives plenty of time to plan and deliver a rapid series of punches, parries and kicks in an almost leisurely manner (and then fly away) and even time to “dodge a bullet” or two from a familiar foe. You just have to remember that, when they come back at you, they, too, are working in bullet time!