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.
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 Atheist, The 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 deepities, fallacies, 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.