Aug 24, 2014

Too long, didn’t read. That’s what the kids say.

Books. tl;dr. 700-word blog posts. tl;dr. Email. tl;dr.

We may bemoan the decline of literary culture in the United States, or worry about the ever-decreasing attention spans of our children, but we also need to pay much closer attention to what is taking the place of books, articles, and complex arguments. If we don’t, we may lose the attention and interest of a generation of thinkers simply because they don’t like to read and we didn’t pay attention to the other ways they prefer to engage their brains.

Christians understand the tl;dr culture. They’ve been successfully spreading their message through apps, movies, and TV shows.

It could be argued that the tl;dr culture was custom made for religion: Simple, to the point, don’t look (or think) too deeply. Perfect. But that’s giving up too easily. We need to think hard about how we can promote reason, rationality, and the public understanding of science in the tl;dr age.

One increasingly successful strategy has been the use of blogs. Blogs allow writers to break their ideas into chunks, digestible in one hard-thinking sitting—complex, but brief. Blogs also help atheists build an increasingly vibrant online community in which writers can explore new ideas and readers can provide (hopefully) civil and thoughtful feedback. Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, James Lindsay, and John W. Loftus write fantastic blogs that are among the best examples of this type of writing.

Sidestepping tl;dr, pod- and video- casts can also be effective tools for communicating complex ideas to an audience increasingly uninterested in reading about those ideas. The Thinking AtheistThe Malcontent’s Gambit, Mr. Deity, Dogma Debate, and others, continue to be intellectually challenging, successful advocates for rationality and humanism—while not letting themselves be constricted by tl;dr.

Podcasts have the advantage of reaching busy people who can listen while driving, or cleaning the house, or working out at the gym. Their advantages are similar to those afforded by audiobooks, but podcasts don’t require as much continuity and thus can be more easily digested in small chunks.

Atheists have taken a step in the right direction with Atheist TV. Highly successful TV shows like The Atheist Experience also serve an important function. They provide viewers with an opportunity to not only to ask questions, but also to see how those questions are answered—calmly and sincerely—and thus undermining the theist narrative of the angry atheist. Our next step is to borrow strategies from the gay community by modeling strong, kind, successful, humble, compassionate, and ideologically diverse, atheists on TV.

Within the confines of the tl;dr ethos, I’m currently working on two projects. First, I’ve created a card game, JUX, in conjunction with Elbowfish, a Portland Game Studio. JUX guides players in developing the attitudinal dispositions necessary to value creative thinking and critical rationality. Games are important because the unique context of play environments afford engaging, interactive, and fun opportunities that books and traditional classroom environments may not.

Second, my team and I are developing an app that teaches users how to talk believers out of faith and superstition and into reason. The content is set up like the jiu jutsu belt system: white, blue, purple, brown, and black. (I practice jiu jutsu and I find the belt system to be an effective way to hierarchically organize curricula.) Users navigate their way through increasingly complex ideas and arguments, from deepitiesfallacies, and benefits arguments, to extremely complex dialogue trees with ontological, cosmological, and presuppositional arguments.

Phone applications are important because they enable skeptics, atheists, humanists, and freethinkers to make our content available to a broader, and possibly less bookish, audience. They’re also more portable than books; people may forget to bring their books with them to lunch or on vacation, but few of us ever forget to bring our phone.

We should look at the ubiquity of the tl;dr culture as an opportunity to reach people where they are and provide them with tools necessary to live better lives and make better communities. Many would argue that we need to combat tl;dr values, and while I wouldn’t disagree, in the meantime let’s continue to reach those people we’d otherwise not be able to reach.


36 comments on “tl;dr

  • I skipped this a bit, because it wasn’t going in the direction I wanted. What I wanted was not something that takes tl;dr (I am impressed by the exravagence of the semi-colon though) as a fact and accommodates it but that modern (particularly “social”) media trash the idea of deferred gratification and actively train people out of it.

    Soon to disappear, the three panel cartoon. Two panels of agonising wait. Now we have the perfect drug of the Instant Ha! Instant dopamine hits have been evolved and three hits fill the space of one.

    Bored teens are losing the idea of investing in their interior life, seduced by the quick hit.

    Religion is of course the perfect instant hit for any existential twinges. Pre-packaged for peasants by their parasite overlords it knows all the dumb-enough tricks.

    But the problem is bigger than religion. We have to sell the idea of intellectual investment and deferred gratification quite generally.

    Boycotting Twitter as a discussion channel and using it only as a flag and sign post would be a principled start. (7 Tweets long)

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  • We have to sell the idea of intellectual investment and deferred gratification quite generally.

    And there is science to back up this point. The famous marshmallow test for children indicates long term future success for the child that can do delayed gratification over the child that has no self discipline.

    You cannot mount a cogent argument in 140 characters. You cannot mount a rational argument in Facebook. To craft a rational response requires a plan, data, research, and composition. Introduction. Develop your argument. Summarize and press enter. How can anyone either mount a case for anything, or understand anything if they don’t have the skills to compose a sensible response, or can’t be bothered reading about a subject in sufficient depth to be able to hold an opinion worthy of respect.

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  • Fascinating, this ‘delayed gratification’ element in a person’s development. I never thought of that before. Surely the sense of future and accumulated value is an indicator of intellectual development . So the question for me is, can it be taught, or if it is inborn, can it be damaged?.

    Gosh, now that I think about it, education, construction, civil order, agriculture, hell, all of civilization depends on the grasping of benefits achieved after planning and effort. We should deplore and not accommodate a medium which prevents children from learning the value of a distant goal.

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  • We should deplore and not accommodate a medium which prevents children from learning the value of a distant goal.


    And thanks to David for his 7 tweets worth. It just goes to show the problems of trying to be concise. I had assumed that what was in my head (deferred gratification correlates to positive outcomes) may not be in others’ heads.

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  • As we get older we learn tricks to strengthen our will power. We put the marshmallows out of sight in a high cupboard. We announce to our friends our intention to diet (at least as far as marshmallows) adding the risk of shame-cost to our future selves if we fail and a little willful-value, in the seeming strength of character, now.

    Me, for marshmallows, I would attempt to eat the insides out straight away and put it back on the plate seemingly intact…..

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  • I’m not convinced that this is a new problem.

    Many of my contemporaries didn’t read the books set by our English teacher. They relied on revision notes by ‘education’ publishers, newspaper reviews of books, or films, or plays based on the book. A few relied only on their peers’ critiques and at least two just winged it in class then scanned one friend’s essay before the exam.

    None of the kids I went to school with ever read a newspaper – probably a blessing in disguise. They read cartoon comics and teen mags which were almost exactly the same as today’s celeb mags (supposedly aimed at adults).

    Even TV documentaries, where teams of experts worked diligently to shoe-horn a simple subject into a one hour slot, we’re often derided as too long, boring, and lacking in any kind of hook (I fell asleep watching … ).

    interpersonal communication never included anything more than a crude scribbled note on a piece of scrap paper (think post-it note, small size), a ‘phone call, or a brief exchange, on some street corner, replete with a large number of expletives that we never used in front of our parents . Twice a year my parents forced me to write proper letters thanking relatives for gifts and cards.

    The fact that modern teenagers talk in blocks of 140 characters is, if anything, something of a victory for thinking.


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  • Wow! That wasn’t my youth at all nor that of my friends. We seemed, as a school, to be book readers.

    My teenage daughter spends days on social media with no discernable trace of coherent thought in conversations afterwards….then… a visit with friends to Tate Modern, a Poetry Slam in Farringdon, and Kafka to read on the train and the ideas and riches just pour out. The difference is startling. Ideas are connected and directed.

    Not my favourite source but this will have to do for the moment

    This site has had lots of its connectedness ripped out (no back refering to my ideas or yours). It has been designed by kids, with whom, I worry, that our benefactor is down.

    (You are right that adults have always despaired over youth mostly over their dangerous behaviours. Jackass stunts and rowdiness existed amongst the drunken students of the fourteenth century. But this is a new danger they’ve found. Little dopamine hits on demand.)

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  • I think the abuse of social media is sad.

    I keep receiving messages from Facebook and Linkedin asking me if I know someone or other.

    If I know someone the chances are that we’ve got each other’s contact details.

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  • What I was trying to append, as the timer ran out on me, was this: numbering the posts makes it much easier to keep a discussion going in at least two ways I can think of. It becomes possible to reference prior posts, or multiple posts, and it allows responses to appear at the end of the thread. In long threads, a reply to a post in the (e.g.) middle of the thread is buried and less likely to contribute to the discussion.

    There… I hope that didn’t merit a response of “tl;dr” 😉


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  • lol, When I was a kid, I’d lick the frosting out of the oreo cookies and put them back. Everyone in the family would get ticked at me. I’d also press in the bottoms of chocolates and put the ones with fillings I didn’t want back into the box.

    I wonder how I would have done with the marshmallow test. My guess is that I would have done OK because the environment and instructions from the adult. If it were done at the family dinner table, instructed by my mother, I would have gobbled it up.

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  • 15
    aquilacane says:

    When clients ask me for my cell number they are amazed to be told I don’t have a phone. “You can call the office number to get me”, I tell them. “Why don’t you have a phone”, they all ask. Of course, telling them the three emails they checked and five text messages they sent during our meeting (that ended up taking an hour longer than it should have) pisses me off so much I hate the smart phone and everyone who has one, doesn’t go over well.

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  • 16
    Barry.M says:

    My boss gave up his mobile (cell phone) just over a year ago. It was frustrating at first but we’re all used to it now and all of the work still gets done. I don’t think we ‘need’ them as much as most people assume we do.

    I do make a point of not using my mobile in front of other people though – it just seems like very rude behaviour to me. If someone sits there staring at a text (or whatever) whilst I’m talking to them I tend to stop and ask them to let me know when they’re ready to listen.

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  • 19
    Skeptic says:

    This topic was a Frontline episode several years ago. For those who can’t get through the entire episode : here.

    I remember a comment a high school teacher made a comment that he could no longer assign a book more than 200 pages because no one could get through it.

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  • Information is so readily available and omnipresent that it’s hard to focus on one particular theme without becoming distracted. I’ve been a persistent reader all my life but I’m finding it hard to persevere with a long book unless it really grabs me from the beginning. I’m hit with a constant barrage of competing avenues, a text, a video clip, the book I’ve just started. If fact, I didn’t complete the article above; just gave it the once-over and dipped into the comments!

    There is an upside, however. It’s easy to verify a point on the spot. In the past people were able to make assertions without having the need to prove their point. By the time one got around to checking, the mood had passed. An occasion cropped up recently and I was able to say ( on the spot) that it didn’t sound right and I needed to check the validity of the statement. The statement was very far off the mark. Wrongful assertion averted.

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  • 22
    Christopher says:

    I am inclined to file this article under “non-existent Golden Age” and “Old Fogey-ism”. Is the short attention span really a new problem? Hardly. There have always been and always will be a certain (and perhaps disturbingly large) segment of the population that refuses to read much of anything. Magazines, Reader’s Digest, and USA Today are hardly new formats, after all. As a personal anecdote, in the pre-hyperconnected age (cell phones were only just on the horizon) I went out on a date (one date, no more were required) with a lovely young lady who quite proudly stated that she never read anything thicker than a magazine. I’m sure she is quite happy in these days of sound bytes and twitter posts, but she pre-dated the situation the article is discussing. So did most of the people I went to school with, who though me the odd one out for rushing through my classwork in order to read the book I had brought with me, usually Bradbury or and odd something about baboon social hierarchies.
    At least the author understands that there are alternative means of reaching those can’t be bothered to read, or who prefer other forms of communication and engagement. I’m not a huge fan of yet another game that is supposed to reach the “younger audience” or really of any attempt by those outside the “it” generation trying to make headway with them (any time I hear/see a style of music or slang used in a commercial, it’s already passe’), feeling that it is up to that generation to create meaning for themselves, not be force-fed it by those of us whose time has passed (if only just). I may be only barely too old to be trusted, based on the hippie hipsterism of my parents’ generation, but I understand and accept that my values are not the same as my son’s or his generation. I’ll stick to my dusty old tomes and he can, in addition to the occasional book, carry on with the tweets and updates and whatever else. After all, I’m sure there was plenty of fist shaking and “you kids get off my lawn” statements directed towards those hooligans who dared use those new-fangled Gutenberg printing presses instead of taking the time to copy everything down by hand. Bah! humbug!

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  • Me, for marshmallows, I would attempt to eat the insides out straight away and put it back on the plate seemingly intact…..

    Oh my… The corruption of age… There is a whole essay here on the passage from childhood to adulthood.

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  • I’m sure plenty of kids still read. Maybe not scientific literature, but they certainly still read books.

    Usually, tl;dr is used in a different way : it’s the authors providing a short summary of the statements made in their article.

    This is not because people don’t want to read it, but because there is so much to read, that there simply isn’t enough time to read everything in detail.

    It’s not so much a product of ‘instant-gratification’ culture ( we have youtube for that 🙂 ) , but a product of information overload/struggle to filter the meaningful from the junk.

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  • Christopher Aug 24, 2014 at 10:18 pm
    I am inclined to file this article under “non-existent Golden Age” and “Old Fogey-ism”. Is the short attention span really a new problem? Hardly. There have always been and always will be a certain (and perhaps disturbingly large) segment of the population that refuses to read much of anything.

    I think you are right. I suspect that a majority of our species are short concentration span / instant gratification types. There is a significant minority who are able to concentrate on a task and bring considerable resources to bear on a problem. Read long informative documents. Convert that knowledge to a productive future. I suspect that in this forum, this last type outnumbers the TL:DR’s.

    I suspect the article reported earlier on this sites’ News feed of the Italian research into Facebook and the fact that shallow conspiracy theory rubbish is twice as likely to get LIKED and SHARED as a sound piece of science taps into this TL:DR thinking. It may be homo sapiens downfall.

    The TV production houses know that they need to pitch there entertainment to the majority TL:DR’s. Majorities equal ratings, equals advert revenue. On the rare occasions while flicking channels I have stumbled upon the CSI franchises, they appear to have no scene greater than a few seconds. No dialogue greater than 10 words. No plot that isn’t in Dot Point form. Same with adverts and (un)reality TV shows.

    I always look for an evolutionary reason for our behaviour. Because there is a mix of concentration spans in humans, what benefit is there to a nomadic hunter / gatherer tribe to have such a mix. A few “scientific” types to build better stone axes and a majority “worker bees” to go from job to job. I don’t know. Any thoughts on why this trait clearly exists within Homo Sapiens.

    I have very little interest in Twitter Gate, or a storm in a Twitter cup over a so easily done misinterpretation of 140 characters. To me, there is more important stuff, like consuming some great bit of research and trying to understand it at the layman’s level. Then incorporate the evidence in future decision making. But that’s just me.

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  • Let me just deal with the issue of old-fogeyism, which is surely a very likely cause of dissatifaction with new tech and kids. For me this is absolutely not the case.

    I’m a technologist and inventor. I love this stuff. My (now late teen) kids and I got smart phones, tablets and quaint old laptops as soon as we could manage it. They are on eat as much as you can contracts and conversations, in person and by phone are multimodal with “chatted” references and links to illustrate points flying back and forth. Nothing is claimed that isn’t checked. Mutual discoveries and finding new stuff during conversations draw these out into a whole new category of conversation. I really love it.

    My kids also love books. Foyles/Amazon feed us on a weekly basis. My point is I see a huge difference between the use of social media with many of their friends and how their friends use social media and how deadening it can be and how adult and trained interactions can be.

    Maybe the upsides of the tech outweigh the bad, but I do suspect there is a very particular problem of intellectual investment becoming a weakened idea because of instant gratification. Nor is this new, but two and a half minute distractions are now two and a half seconds and clicks, being money in the bank, like to keep that right forefinger working and Gag9 happy.

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  • I certainly can’t prove this, but I suspect there will always be a segment of children who will be able to delay gratification without much teaching, just as there seem to be natural readers among young children, and perhaps there is DNA behind this. In my own family, children with the same parents have shown remarkably different development with regard to reading and education, and setting long term goals.

    Having said that, I think one’s attention span can be ‘damaged’ so to speak, by the ready availability of immediate satisfactions. Having completed a Ph.D and written a ton (both dreary academic analyses and light fiction) i consider myself a long-term-goal high achiever. Nonetheless, I read hardcover comic books with delight, watch the videos on the plane instead of reading my book, and zip through Facebook posts, and even this RD site, looking for ‘hits’ of things that will tickle me, like cookies for the mind. So I think even long-term delayers do their homework only when there’s nothing good on television.

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  • 29
    jag1859 says:

    Yes religion has numerous apps, games etc to pollute the minds of children with. So it is very important for atheist groups to counteract the religious pollution with rational thought backed up by scientific evidence. So I think games that encourage critical thinking is great. Even better is an app explaining how to bring people from belief to rational thought. Lets hope there will be more atheist apps, webcasts and the like.

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  • 30
    Ted Foureagles says:

    I’ve always been a voracious reader, but in school I was seldom reading what was expected or required. Our class might be on English Literature while I was consumed with E.O. Wilson’s books on the social behavior of ants or a history of the American Civil War. I wasn’t at the time interested in the classics, and so my tl;dr resource for writing book reports was Classic Comics. I could read them the night before the report was due, get the gist of the story line, and from that craft a passable book report. For classes where we got to choose the book on which we reported, I usually made them up. It was quicker and easier than developing a report on a real book, and teachers then didn’t have the ability or time to quickly check sources. I got a few 100% grades for reports on books that didn’t exist.

    Tip to students taking this tack, and I’m not suggesting that you do: Carefully craft your opening statement to appeal to your teacher’s biases. This puts you on the positive side of them and shapes the teacher’s further judgment of your work. It requires some careful observation, but not so much that you have to actually read the material. End with observations that are plausible and just vague enough to be un-checkable or at least difficult to dispute. I think the word for that is “deepities”.

    It would probably take less effort just to read the damn book. It would certainly be more honest. Since I left school (after the 9th grade) I have become more honest. I no longer try to bullshit anyone when I speak or write. Oh, I may not remember everything just as it was when I tell a story, and so craft certain things to better fit the narrative. I don’t change things that I really do remember, but a story needs continuity, and often that’s achieved by filling in gaps with things basically made up or partially known. That doesn’t make the story dishonest, but it does stretch credibility, much like doing a book report on Homer’s Odyssey from a half-hour reading of Classic Comics.

    That’s my Boomer Generation take on tl;dr. Obviously, I lack the ability to be concise.


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  • I have several objections to this. Firstly the new wave of atheism has predominantly been an online one, uniting a fragmented peoples over distances too large to form social communities similar to Church Groups. Thus it is an technology based movement dominated by technology literate young peoples.

    Having not seen the acronym tl:dr used until now, I don’t believe that it is as pervasive as Peter Suggests. It seems in part this article is a journalistic exaggeration of a problem perhaps in order to promote himself and his group to the secular community.

    [Link to user’s website removed by moderator]

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  • I have one, reluctantly. Not out of some holier than though Luddite tendency (the presumed reason of the Smartphone obsessed) but simply for most of the reasons noted here. I have a young teenage daughter however and a cell phone (albeit very far from a Smartphone – I quite politically incorrectly refer to it as my retard phone) is de rigueur, particularly since her mother bequeathed upon her one of her older iPhones; don’t get me started.

    Amusingly the phone I had before my current IQ deprived phone was a flip phone I had for years. It had gotten to the point where the antennae and flip hinge had eroded significantly to the point where the phone was held together with tape and skillful handling. At a friend’s insistence she photographed it in its tortured state and posted it on her Facebook feed. The best comment: “uh, is that powered by coal?”

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  • too late; didn’t realize

    Good one.

    A technology school (not yet accredited) in Florida recently constructed a bookless library. Will buildings with paper books travel the same path as newspapers, i.e., to Oblivionsville?

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  • Ted Foureagles

    . we got to choose the book on which we reported, I usually made them up. It was quicker and easier than developing a report on a real book, and teachers then didn’t have the ability or time to quickly check sources. I got a few 100% grades for reports on books that didn’t exist.

    That’s some admission! It sounds like an awful lot of work, as you’d have to invent the storyline (in keeping with the teacher’s prejudices) and write a sensible report! You would have needed great creative resources to keep it all together. As a matter of fact, it sounds like a really great class exercise.

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  • Whenever I encounter a really, really long post I suspect it’s a case of hypergraphia indicating temporal lobe epilepsy. I recall such a post in the dim, distant past. The poster wrote page after page of text book quality explanation and analysis, though did not respond to any comments made along the way. He was a man with a mission? Sometimes it takes a while for the penny to drop when reading such posts.

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