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Monday, September 2, 2019

Transformative information technology?

The other day I saw some quick TV news in passing about this German VC-funded start-up:

Basically, non-fiction reading summaries for those lacking time to get through all of the books on their reading lists. A first fleeting reaction came to mind--digital Cliffs Notes:

Some TechCrunch news from 2018"
We are living in the information age, but that doesn’t mean that we have all the time in the world to ingest everything that we want. A startup that is aiming to help with that has raised a round of funding to grow its business. Blinkist, a Berlin-based startup that presents condensed versions of non-fiction literature — each title can be read or listened to in about 15 minutes — has raised $18.8 million in funding led by Insight Venture Partners...
For at least the past six years, since I retired from the REC/QIO, I have averaged about two non-fiction books a week, in addition to my many periodicals and online reading. I read fairly quickly, but, still, I probably require 6-8 hours per book (I am not given to fluff stuff). Potentially cutting that time burden by roughly a factor of seven or so is, at first blush, an intriguing idea.

From an interview with one of the founders:
What can we look forward to in the years to come? What can we expect from you in the coming years?
New formats! We are currently playing around with the length of the titles because many customers are interested in more detailed formats. This summer, we are also introducing a new algorithm to the app which makes title suggestions even more intelligent and individualized. With currently more than 3,000 titles, this inconspicuous change will have a big influence on how our customers use Blinkist.

What is your vision: Where do you see your company in 5 years time and what is your ultimate goal?
Our long-term goal is to establish Blinkist as the leading global brand for lifelong learning. In five years, we will offer our customers even more content – thematically as well as in formats & scope – to meet various needs along the lifelong path of learning…
"Lifelong learning." Yeah, count me in there (though, since getting my Ethics & Policy Studies Master's in 1998 at the age of 52, I characterize myself more as a "lifelong unlearner"). I am so backed up with great reading at the moment, I can hardly see straight, and my queue is not getting any shorter.

Their "vetting" / summarization process is rather ("SME?") labor-intensive.
How does this summarizing of the books work? Freelancers? Journalists? Editors?
The books are summarized in several steps by freelance authors, then by editorial experts who check them for language and facts, finally, they are recorded and produced by professional speakers and our own audio team. Blinkist takes about 10 days from the abridged text to the audio version. An average of seven people are involved in the production of a title.
At this point my Dubiety Meter is in the yellow zone. What's the durable knowledge acquisition-retention tradeoff here? Who vets the vetters? Imagine trying to do a credibly scientific "subject vs control group" relative reading comprehension / knowledge transfer efficacy study of this tech.

You couldn't do it, as a practical matter. So, all you're likely to end up with is anecdotal marketing testimonials.

Which may be all that matters for the VC funders.
Another potential problem I see is circumscribed "scalability" in light of the relatively pricey labor-intensive summarization process. Room there for "NLP/Natural Language Processing" AI assistance? The Blinkist peeps might want to look into that, even if just for the outset tech "cache" while experimenting with its utility.


One of my many routine book review sources is Science Based Medicine. to wit:

I read the reviews and the comments and then typically look the book up on Amazon, etc (where I read the "look inside" sample and reader assessments, particularly the negative ones). If I find it interesting and relevant, I buy it and read it myself. There is no way I would farm it out for synopsis.
The main tactical time-saving shortcut I sometimes employ, mainly with books advancing an argument (rather than just some chronology), is based on the frequent "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, and then tell 'em what you just told them" layout of writing progression. If I trust my initial reviews and the authors have presumptive cred, I sometimes scan the table of contents, read the (preface, introduction and) opening chapter, then go to the concluding chapter (and epilogue)--figuring that everything in between comprises supporting evidence, which I can eventually get to. Depends on the book; some you have to read linearly, others can be consumed effectively by other means.
I also make extensive use of eBook "search" features to zone in on keywords and phrases of interest (quicker than hitting the indexes in hardcopy books, which I do as well).

L.A. Times:
Op-Ed: Speed-reading with Blinkist isn’t reading at all

When I was young and cynical, a friend and I came up with a plan to make reading easy. We called it litzak — Muzak for literature — and the idea was to boil down great books to a sentence each. “Moby-Dick,” for instance, was reduced to: “A whale of a tale about the one that got away.”

We knew it was ridiculous. That was the intent. How could a single sentence capture the essence of a book? But as it turns out, the joke was on us. Blinkist, a website and an app, now summarizes nonfiction titles in the form of quick takes labeled “blinks.” The end result is more than one sentence, but not by much. Sarah Bakewell’s philosophical history “At the Existentialist Cafe” is broken into 11 screens of information; Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming” fills 13.

Litzak, in other words, although Blinkist, which has been around since 2012 and claims to “connect” 6 million readers, prefers a different spin. It calls its synopses “15-minute discoveries” to indicate how long it takes to read a Blinkist summary. “Almost none of us,” the editors assure us, “have the time to read everything we’d like to read.”…
Yeah, but,
"...a book is something we ought to live with, rather than speed through and categorize. It offers an experience as real as any other. The point of reading a book is not accumulating information, or at least not that alone. The most essential aspect is the communion between writer and reader.

The premise behind Blinkist, however, is the opposite: Reading can be, should be, measured by the efficient uptake of key ideas. Call it the Twitter of books, all those narratives in concise, digestible packages, conveniently consumable and once blinked at, toted up by the app in your “library” of instant reads."

If you’re a voracious reader of new business titles, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Blinkist, the app that sells condensed versions of top-selling books.

The Berlin-based startup wants to solve what it calls the “modern reading problem,” which is that no one has much time for reading anymore. The app’s writers consume books on behalf of subscribers and reduce them to texts that take 15 minutes to zip through. The company hopes you’ll call these executive summaries “Blinks.”

If that sounds gross to you, you’re not alone. On the surface (Blinkist’s native territory) the service sounds like yet another sign of our culture’s demise. Facing short attention spans and a constant need for novelty, we’re throwing in the proverbial towel, giving up on any act that stretches our ability to focus on a narrative or go deep. (“After taking Blinkist for a spin, I think it may appeal less to a time-poor, avid reader than a sweating businessman, crouched in a golf course toilet, trying to quickly brush up on his knowledge of politics or astrophysics to impress his boss,” Sian Cain writes in her review of the app for The Guardian.)

Some argue that Blinkist and its competitors, like Scribd’s new Snapshots, can have a place in one’s life if applied judiciously. They ought to be prohibited as stand-ins for literary work, goes the thinking, but may be acceptable shortcuts for mainlining non-fiction. Some books, meanwhile, really are meant to be information delivery systems, not experiences. In theory, that should make Blinkist perfect for books about careers and entrepreneurship, which are often fat with repetitive anecdotes, bullet-pointed material, and rehashed descriptions of social psychology or management studies…
Obviously, a lot of subscribers thus far find this service "useful." I rather doubt that I would. And, it rather looks like a VC "acquisition exit" to me. Bezos or Zuck (or Google) could buy this company with pocket change.

Speaking of Jeff Bezos, I recently tweeted this.

It will be, as always, fabulous. I lament no longer covering these conferences.

More to come...

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