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Just How Optimized Can Your Life Be?

The Instagram algorithm has developed some strange ideas about me. For example, it has decided that I might dream of owning shoes made of recycled wood pulp or what looks like reconstituted pencil erasers. I have also been misidentified as susceptible to nondescript dresses that cost $500, candles that smell like old libraries and something called “waterproof gold,” which as far as I can tell is just normal gold. Mainly, though, my value as a prospective customer lies not in my love for flammable-looking dresses or insane-looking heels, but in my dogged pursuit of enhanced productivity.

For reasons unclear to me, I am constantly served ads for products that promise a lifestyle of incessant optimization: work-flow apps, time-management apps, polyphasic-sleep-schedule apps. I get ads for podcasts called things like “Get Sh!t Done” and ads in which the product itself is unidentifiable but the design brief was clearly “make people think about how much they love checking stuff off a list.” Recently I have been getting a lot of ads for an app called Blinkist, which is essentially a tool for acquiring and absorbing as much information as possible in as brief a time as the human brain will allow.

Like a lot of these products, Blinkist seems predicated on the belief that every activity can be made more efficient, held upside down and shaken until its value is dislodged. In this case, the main activity waiting to be streamlined is reading (time-consuming, requires sitting down), and the object waiting to be disassembled and rebuilt for maximum convenience is a book (unwieldy and poorly conceived vessel for the information it contains). The service condenses thousands of nonfiction books, identifying “key ideas” — called “blinks,” presumably in a nod to the Malcolm Gladwell book — and presents them in 15-minute formats to its users, which per its website are “some of the busiest people on the planet.”

The Blinkist user is not the kind of sucker who will just embark on an activity without knowing in advance what he’s getting in return. The website promises that their customers’ reading time will never be wasted, that they will “always come away with a new nugget of information or key insight.” If that’s too abstract, Blinkist’s site defines the worth of its product in precise financial terms: $89,000, the combined value of all summarized books on offer. And it only costs about $8 a month.

Each summary begins with a question: “What’s in It for Me?” For instance, for someone demanding to know why he should take 15 minutes out of his day to listen to a condensed version of Larissa MacFarquhar’s “Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices and the Urge to Help” — a book about the “extreme altruists” who commit themselves wholly to the service of others, usually at great personal and financial cost — the answer is that he will find out whether he is “selfless enough to become an altruist.” For someone on the fence about the summary of Svetlana Alexievich’s “Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets” — a 500-page oral history of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and by extension one of the dominant political ideologies of the 20th century — the sell is that after 15 minutes, he will have a grip on what it means to lose your country and beliefs.

Each summary ends with a summary of the summary, under the heading ‘Final Summary.’

The house style is chirpy and conversational, no matter the tone of the precondensed original text, with the reader coaxed from blink to blink with occasionally startling prompts like: “Imagine if everything you believed was true was thrown into question and the world as you knew it turned upside down overnight. How would you feel?” (from “Secondhand Time”). Or: “Would you say you know yourself? Where does your sense of identity come from?” (from R.D. Laing’s “The Divided Self,” a book about schizophrenia). Each text is mined for its actionable takeaways, even when the actionable takeaways should prompt the user to snap his laptop over his knee immediately, as in the summary of Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing”: “Meaning is often the product of accidents, chance and serendipitous encounters — the very ‘off time’ our 24/7 cult of productivity seeks to eliminate.” Each summary ends with a summary of the summary, under the heading “Final Summary.”

Unsurprisingly, Blinkist’s library contains a lot of books about productivity and time optimization, where the answer to the question of what is in it for the user is often right there in the title. For example, a summary of “Not Today: The Nine Habits of Extreme Productivity” is available on the app, forming a set of productivity takeaways so dense it could bend space-time. The service has also expanded into “shortcasts,” which are condensed versions of podcasts, many of them about productivity, time management and generally the idea that there is always a better, faster way, that every room contains a secret panel behind which more optimization opportunities are hidden, and that if you cannot find it, it is simply because you have not yet harnessed the limitless, near-mystical potential of the optimization mind-set.

That this proposition is unsound hardly needs spelling out. I find it difficult to imagine what could be gained from reading the mercilessly digested version of “Secondhand Time,” unless your only goal is to get away with pretending to have read it for about 30 seconds, and even then. If you carry on summarizing the summary, you will end up with gibberish, and if you carry on condensing the podcast about productivity, you will end up with white noise.

And yet there’s something about the concept I cannot shake, because it would be thrilling if a shortcut like this worked, if it turned out that there was actually a way to keep up with everything we are supposed to have read and listened to and formed sophisticated opinions on, opinions that demonstrate deep knowledge of the cultural product in question as well as keen awareness of everything everyone else has said about it, ever. I would love it if my first thought on walking into a bookstore was something other than faint panic at all the new releases, and it would be very nice if I possessed the strength of character to resist Instagram’s pull for more than five minutes.

Even for the sunniest adherent of the optimization mind-set, the fact that something like Blinkist exists could be interpreted as a concession that the competing demands on our attention have us all just about snowed under, and I would be elated if the solution it offered brought me peace. The real solution feels so tedious and so difficult — stoically ignore the hysterical claims on your tattered attention span, stop looking at nonsensical ads on Instagram, read a book from beginning to end and then after that read another one — that if there were an easier way out, I would probably take it.

Source photograph: Stopwatch by Andrei Kuzmik/Shutterstock

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