3 min read

TL;DR -- Or not?

I just read a long article. I pretty well knew what the article was saying shortly into it. About halfway through I was pretty sure that there was no new insights to be gained from further reading. At that point I decided to stop reading, but I couldn't stop. I began the process of closing out the article, and then, for a small moment, I encountered a fierce internal battle: should I really stop there?

In the end, I didn't stop there, and I finished reading the article in its entirety. The PhotoReader or speed reader in me scoffs at the action. I just wasted time on something that didn't give me any new information and didn't really improve things much. Is that the end of the story?

I don't think so. Human beings already struggle to communicate. In our modern society, the epidemic of information overload does not help this situation. As a result, many people have internalized the TL;DR behavior. If the article is long, they don't care, and they don't read. As a result, the only things they do read are those which they can quickly read and absorb in a moment. Sometimes, they might read a longer article. Sometimes, they might actually do more than just shallowly peruse said article and actually think deeply about it. And even more rarely, they will actually critically analyze their own understanding of the article in a proper analysis that eventually drives them to determine whether they really do understand something or not. But that's rare, and to reach that state of comprehension desire, someone's words must not only appeal to them, but must continue to appeal to them throughout a long and arduous mental review process.

Does this mean that someone can absorb more information? No, it doesn't change their ability to absorb information. Instead, it simply shifts their mental energy onto shallower information that contains less density. Instead of spending most of their time trying to deeply understand what others are saying around them, they spend most of their time deciding whether they care to pay attention to someone else or not.

The obvious benefit here is that such a filtering reader can, in short, touch more data points than could someone who spent a good deal of time on each. This broad processing rate surely appeals to the modern taste. But at what cost?

The cost is misunderstanding, false understanding, and a perception of absorbing and dealing with more information, when in reality, you're just spending your time choosing not to absorb information. People rarely communicate in the clearest and most concise manner possible. People also rarely start with the same background foundation from which to read a given article. The opportunity for misunderstanding is already high to begin with. Couple that with the modern demand that anything you write must be short and easy to immediately grasp, and the result is usually a form of intentional miscommunication. Advertising and political campaign artists master this form of communication, so that they can say very little, while still leaving the recipient engaged and feeling like something meaningful was just digested.

And if we practice rejecting someone's words without really understanding their full weight and import, we're practicing a form of condemnation and arrogance on those around us. We give people only a small amount of our attention, because we'd rather be spending our efforts on things we feel are more important than they are. In the end, people are important, and we should seek to understand those around us. We certainly shall never improve our capacity to absorb and understand those around us deeply if we approach every conversation and every written treatise with the goal of ignoring everything that is said as quickly as reasonably possible, which is of course what the TL;DR philosophy really encodes.

What is the alternative? Step 1, deprioritize efficiency in favor of understanding. Instead of trying to get as much done as possible, try instead to make everything you do of quality and insight. Be careful, considered, and thoughtful. Along with this goes patience and humility. That doesn't mean that you introduce inefficiency just for its own sake, but it means that you work efficiently to understand, rather than to dismiss. Step 2, make life easier on others by working to improve your capacity to communicate clearly and precisely in as few words as possible.

I doubt that I shall ever succeed in convincing a wide group of people that either step is worth their time. After all, I'm already 9 paragraphs into a simple article, and the crowd I wish I could reach probably won't read past the first paragraph, if that. But for those of us, including myself, who think this sort of practice worthwhile, then we should continue in our efforts to make our writing communicate clearly. The saying goes, "Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler." In other words, we should seek to write in a manner so concise and clear that we communicate our ideas efficiently, without eliminating the idea and substituting instead its faint impression.

In the end, sacrifice time for understanding. Our writing should feel like poetry, with the clarity of mathematics.