Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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TL; DR

Res Publica

August 2013

by Jake Ewing

We are the generation of now. Everything about modern society is so unthinkably fast. Just look at how we obtain data today. It used to be enough to talk about how quickly one might access the endless information found on the internet. Indeed, nearly anything that one could desire to know can be discovered through a quick Google search. But now, even this process is considered slow. What if your question arises when you’re away from home? What if your personal computer isn’t immediately available to you?

Five years ago, you would’ve had to wait until you got home to make your incredibly convenient discovery. But not today. Now, smart phones can get you the answer no matter where you are. The question you had, the probably meaningless bit of information you desired, is at your fingertips thanks to your phone. The internet is the world’s largest database of knowledge ever created, and most people now carry it with them at all times.

There’s something incredibly profound about this. The amount of information amassed on the internet would’ve been unthinkable to anyone living just a few decades ago. And while the proliferation of knowledge over the internet is incredibly convenient, it has not arrived without its dangers. For example, you might be able to find an article that gives the answer to a question you are pondering. But now, this is not enough. In today’s world – a world in which we all drown in rapid, endless information – that answer has to be pre-packaged, easily understandable, and more than anything, brief.

Nowhere is this more evident than on Twitter, where users have the ability to “tweet” a message that is 140 characters – not letters, characters – or less. This usually amounts to a sentence at most, maybe two entire thoughts if expressed with the fewest characters possible. Like the rest of the internet, it is an incredibly fast way to give and receive information. Years ago, it might have been suspected that anything said in less than 140 characters probably wouldn’t be very important, but not today.

Not only does every major news network use Twitter to distribute information – they also report on information found there like any other piece of news. Every presidential candidate has a twitter. Every journalist has a twitter. Every celebrity has one, and every athlete, too. Twitter has permeated every bit of the media. It is a completely socially acceptable source for news in today’s world.

This trend in information creates a dangerous atmosphere of public discourse that forces arguments to be incredibly concise and, therefore, necessarily underdeveloped. Take any contemporary issue as an example. Public health care, alternative energy, tax reform – can any of these issues be understood in the 140 characters available on Twitter? Can an argument be made on either side of any of these debates in such a small space? Or are they a bit more complicated, perhaps necessitating a three or four page newspaper article to even begin to understand the issue?

Any important issue is going to warrant more space for discussion than a post on Twitter can provide. These debates deserve fully developed, reasoned arguments that might take considerably more time to read than the current generation is willing to give. In a world where a person can go from desiring to know something to knowing it in a matter of seconds, no matter where they are, complicated issues are, unfortunately, expected to follow suit.

The problem is that almost nothing can be fully understood through reading a post on Twitter. Real knowledge has less to do with accessing a high quantity of information quickly and more to do with spending time reflecting on complex arguments, even if it takes a long time. This is because the human mind was not made to be told – it was made to tell itself, through the processes of thoughtful reasoning and careful consideration. It was made to take the information available to it and make its own determination – not be told what to think in one incredibly brief message. It is not a ledger in which data is written down so much as it is a laboratory in which different sources of knowledge are mixed and molded and tested against one another in order to create one of the most profound phenomena in the universe – human thought.

There is an acronym that is now used frequently throughout the internet: “TL;DR,” meaning “too long; didn’t read.” It may seem like a simple admonition of someone who has taken too long to express their idea, but it’s actually a little more insidious than that. It’s not as though the person read the article or essay in question and is offering constructive advice on how to improve the piece by making it more concise. Instead, the reader (or non-reader, I suppose) has judged, solely on the length of the piece, that it is not worth reading. If you want to tell a member of the current generation something, you’d better make it quick. Anything too long – say, a thousand word essay about the dangers of gaining information through incredibly short messages – will be dismissed without a second thought.

I would hope that other members of my generation might read this essay and consider its implications; how complex arguments deserve more room than a text message or a post on Twitter, and how to really understand anything, one must put forth an inconvenient amount of effort and allow the human mind to do what it was designed to do – to think. But if I had to guess, I’d say most of the people who need to read this would take a look at the length of this piece and respond simply, “TL; DR.”

 

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