Why is incremental reading not popular?

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This text is a part of a series of articles about SuperMemo, a pioneer of spaced repetition software since 1987

Limited reach of incremental reading

Incremental reading is a powerful tool. Even though it can spark a revolution in learning, its present incarnation will reach only a small fraction of society.

Existence in obscurity

  • Most of people will never arrive to this website. A great part of this planet do not have access to the Internet. Of those who are privileged enough to be able to use Google or Wikipedia on a regular basis, most are too busy with work, family, and other pursuits. The rest are busy with Facebook, Twitter, videogames and other "more urgent" blessings of the Internet
  • A significant fraction of net users realize that the web offers incredible self-help opportunities. However, we all suffer from a cognitive bias known as the illusion of knowledge. Under the illusion of knowledge, we are less motivated to seek more learning, esp. that all knowledge seems to be just a google away. With less learning, the learn drive diminishes with age providing a negative feedback of inaction
  • Users of the Internet who are highly interested in learning quickly discover that their memory can be improved, and that their learning can be advanced to a new level with some help from the net or software. However, the language barrier is another big sieve. The best material about learning techniques has been published in English. Language divisions result in a global inequality in the access to information. You can read about SuperMemo in a couple of major languages. Perhaps you might learn about incremental reading too. The article you are reading now will take years to percolate to non-English areas of the net!

Discovering spaced repetition

  • For anyone interested in learning, it does not take long to find out about spaced repetition. The term was quite exotic when first used in the context of SuperMemo in the late 1990s. In those days, the term could only be found in a couple of obscure scientific publications. However, it was SuperMemo that helped popularize spaced repetition, which now has entered the popular culture. Those who seek better memory will quickly be informed that spaced repetition is the way. They might get their introduction from SuperMemo freeware, or an array of other excellent free spaced repetition applications, some of which use older SuperMemo algorithms. The fact that the newest SuperMemo is a commercial product will prevent many potentially excellent students from ever going in the direction of incremental reading. This non-discovery occurs even while, at the moment of writing, SuperMemo 15 is freeware, and supports incremental reading
  • These days, users expect results and gratification straight from the first 3 clicks. If supermemo.com asks for a few more, we can hear complaints. If Anki takes 3 hours to learn, it is already too much. If incremental reading requires months of practice to achieve high fluency and high returns, you can expect a tiny fraction of most dedicated survivors to continue.
  • A dedicated user of SuperMemo does not need to be a happy user. Very often users hate SuperMemo for the burden it imposes in their life. Haters drop out fast, but some may persist stubbornly for decades. See: Hating SuperMemo
  • Among happier users of SuperMemo, only a fraction will ever become interested in a complex concept of incremental reading (probably still below 5%). A typical newcomer is more likely to drop out altogether than to move on to the next level. The chief culprit is the incompatibility of SuperMemo with the human nature and the modern lifestyle. Stressful and busy lives do not help in forging new paths and acquiring new habits. It is not just that humans like to live in their comfort zones. It is also that the pressures of the modern dog-eat-dog society are pretty effective in stifling higher inspiration, lifelong learning, creative pursuits beyond one's job, etc. Even high speed of cramming at school is the enemy. SuperMemo rationalizes the process and proves the absurdity of cramming. However, schools still largely rely on cramming to push the students through the assembly line of education. Those modern life challenges are inherent in human nature, or systemic (education, economy, society, etc.). As such they cannot be easily remedied

Human nature

  • Some users might hold a relatively positive opinion about incremental reading, but will excuse their lack of commitment by technological limitations of SuperMemo. For example, "unless you give me a Mac version, I won't go there", "I hate Internet Explorer", "Your interface comes from Windows 98 era", "I will come back if you have a mobile version", etc. Incidentally, there is an inherent incompatibility between mobility and incremental reading. Mobility correlates with multitasking and low attention (interaction with others, social media notifications, arriving mail, phone calls, browser pop-ups, etc.). Classical SuperMemo, with atomic questions and answer, can fare pretty well on a bus. In contrast, the power of incremental reading lies in balancing creativity and focus. As such, incremental reading is inherently immobile (unless you understand mobility as a transfer between two or more peaceful and static environments). In addition, without a standard-size keyboard, incremental reading might feel like paddling up the creek
  • Among those users of SuperMemo who get down to reading about incremental reading, a large proportion will come with a preconceived goal: proving mentally that incremental reading is not really worth the investment of time. "Negative reading" is more likely to occur in a bad state of mind: low-spirits, irritation, or reading outside one's optimum circadian brainwork bracket. This preconception may be largely subconscious and based on a defense mechanism: proving that incremental reading is weak is easy, and should save one a great deal of investment in mastering the concept, and prevent the need to leave one's comfort zone. Discovering that incremental reading is a must will simply augur long hours of plodding through the documentation that is notorious for its poor readability index. This text is harder to read than 70% of articles at Wikipedia. The ultimate judgement is strongly correlated with the state of mind. You are more likely to say Incremental learning is full of fluff, or Incremental learning goes against human nature than to say I have discovered a new great technology that will change my life. You might be just seeking affirmation of your preset frame of mind: Incremental learning must be a hoax or at least a waste of time, or simply Incremental learning is not of much use in my particular profession. It is easy to find the desired confirmation. Imperfections in this article will provide a rich material for dismissal. A perfection is not achievable. Prejudiced mind will always find a way to misinterpret. Naturally, if you are enthusiastic about incremental reading at your first encounter, this is a very good predictor of your ultimate success.


  • Having passed all this rich obstacle course, you are now bound to be in a tiny group of people who arrived at this point. The good news is that you might be part of a special elite. People with fertile minds who are open to new challenges, motivated well enough and self-disciplined enough. Naturally, you might have equally well come here exhausted with your failure in learning, in hope of finding a remedy to your recent bad exam results. Whatever the answer, the road is still very long. Even with a brisk mind and great enthusiasm, you may still drop out at later stages.
  • When reading about incremental reading, you might hit another major obstacle: This is more convoluted than I thought!, or The whole idea of prioritization makes me nauseous, or The toolset may be rich but is it natural?. You can get discouraged either by incomplete understanding of the concept, or the incompatibility of the concept with your personality. There is still hope that you discover how easy and fast incremental reading can be with a bit of fluency (see the video)
  • If you have already decided to try incremental reading, and you have SuperMemo installed, you may get an unpleasant shock. SuperMemo is not user friendly! It has been optimized for pro users and only simplified enough at lower levels (set with File : Level : Beginner, etc.) to make it somewhat palatable for a novice. You can overcome this impression only with a firm belief: incremental reading works and it is worth the investment of my time. After a year, you may love the solutions you hated in SuperMemo at first. User unfriendliness and complexity will make many give up in the first days or weeks. Those dropouts rarely return, or return only 3-5 years later! We are guilty here too. New solutions are never perfectly encapsulated and/or interfaced. You will get your neat iPad and Android version only when incremental reading is more popular, which is not anytime soon.
  • The dropout rate in the first weeks is still high. Some of the main problems: importing unsuitable text, difficulty in parsing the text with extracts, losing context of extracts, comprehension problems (not related to SuperMemo), clozing texts that are too complex, difficulty in formulating items, excessive time spent on formatting and templates, learning overload, confusion, problems with layouts, lack of sense of progress, etc. Without clear gratification, many users come to the conclusion that the cost is greater than the benefits. They are not wrong. It is not easy to get a return on your investment in a month or even longer. Few users start their learning swiftly on a wave of solid enthusiasm!


  • Many of the advantages of incremental reading rely on the size of the learning material database. The value of Search and review increases with the size of the database. At the beginning of the process, you may feel like laying the first brick of a large pyramid on a vast boring desert. The greatest fun can be found at the top of the pyramid, when you can see the extent of your knowledge in a good perspective. This metaphor should not imply your pyramid will ever stop growing. You keep adding stone blocks to the sides. The pyramid keeps growing high and wide for lifetime.
  • The extent of failure does not only cover the dropouts and the never-has-beens. Even long-term users may enter a never-ending struggle with knowledge formulation, complex material, priorities, overload, etc. The later you start, the longer the transition from pain to gain (and fun). Old habits die hard. There is one clear litmus test for success: once incremental reading is fun, you know you do things right. If you have not reached the level of fun after a couple of months of trying hard, you need to re-think your strategies.

Happy reading

  • Happy users of incremental reading often keep it to themselves. They use it as a secret weapon. They ace exams and keep it a mystery. We all love to take credit for being smart and knowledgeable. However, using SuperMemo as a secret weapon has a big contribution to its miserable virality
  • If you happen to be a happy user of incremental reading, your knowledge will keep growing fast, and your hunger for learning will keep increasing at an ever faster rate. This makes you a part of a very tiny elite. This also imposes an obligation. It is time to help others reach your level!
  • Happy users of incremental reading may choose to promote the technology amongst their friends and family. Only then they discover how hard it is to recruit new followers. The effort needed to convert an average man in the street into a successful student is large enough to realize why this text had to be written. Incremental reading is not viral. New users are rarely recruited by other users. Most of new users belong to the small proportion of the population that relies on their own reading, their own research, and their own explorations

Adoption curve

  • SuperMemo was invented in 1985. It became a computer program in 1987. It got a million users by the end of the millennium. Only today it starts becoming truly popular as spaced repetition (aka SRS system) used in new applications that seem to crop up daily. It took 3 decades from the start to somewhat noticeable adoption (perhaps at the level of 100-200 million). The bad news is that incremental reading had an even slower start despite addressing a large population of users of SuperMemo. The good news is that dissemination of information becomes more efficient these days. In a decade or two, incremental reading will reach all its potential users. However, that population is still pretty small and elite. As always, a degree of competition will be necessary. More versions of incremental reading must test out adoptability of relevant ideas. Wider adoption will be possible when incremental reading can be reduced to a few clicks, with zero entry barrier, substantial gratification feedback, and a great deal of progress in artificial intelligence. Human mind needs a lot of help in decoding semantics of the wisdom available on the web.

Future of incremental reading

On a happier note, if brilliant minds come up with identical ideas, everyone should pay attention. Good grounding in neural networks or artificial intelligence seem to make incremental reading an obvious step in the evolution of human learning. Curse of expertise makes me think that again, for a wider adoption of my idea, I will need to wait until others implement it in a palatable form.

If spaced repetition needed two decades to explode, incremental reading may need three. This means that by 2030, all smart people will use a form of incremental reading