The TLDR Effect
We all have to act on incomplete information.
Posted March 24, 2019
A 2017 study of aggregated data from 309 Reddit users over one year found that 73% of users voted articles up or down without having actually read the content. This means that the vast majority of Reddit users vote based on the article title alone, without any attention to the actual content of the piece. The study authors attribute this finding to “cognitive fatigue” on the part of the users: so much information flows past users that they do not have the bandwidth to process it all. Michelle Byrne at Motherboard points out that that the sample size of the study is small for a site with over 200 million users, but it is disturbing that so much online activity could be so surface-level.
As anyone who has been on Reddit knows, the first poster often puts up a “TLDR” short for “too long, didn’t read,” message, a short summary or abstract of the article to which the link refers. Sometimes these TLDR messages are even written by bots that extract the presumptively most important information. This begs the question of whether or not most of our information online is a TLDR version of the informative content that we believe ourselves to be absorbing or digesting. Much of our information processing represents no more than a surface skimming of the information available, no matter how thoughtful or well-presented.
This assumes a good faith attempt on the part of the reader, even with no deliberate disinformation or manipulation, which we know proliferates on social media, whether from foreign governments or corporate influence. The internet is a place of half-truths told to people who are only half paying attention. Little wonder, then, that the social fabric seems to be fraying around the edges, as the right scapegoats immigrants and LGBTQ people, while the left fragments into warring factions. We don’t have solid, informed discourse on which to base substantive debates. The paradox is that these disconnects come as we have access to more information than ever before in human history. In fact, because we have so much information, we find it difficult to process it all.
It might be tempting to think that all of this misinformation and disinformation comes about because of the internet and social media, and that we should therefore embrace some sort of neo-Luddite position. But, in fact, the world comes to us as mediated even before what we refer to as “media.” We do not, in fact, ever have smooth and unbroken perception of the world, nor do we, at any point, have an exhaustive knowledge of our surroundings. This was made clear by the greatest of the British philosophers, David Hume. If I could give a quick TLDR of Hume’s position, he said that the faculty of imagination smooths the gaps in our perception of the world, giving us the illusion that we perceive things in a whole and seamless fashion.
Right now, you are reading this article on some sort of screen, most likely mobile but possibly desktop. Notice that you cannot see the part of the room behind you or the underside of your chair. And yet you do not think that the part of the room that you cannot see simply blinks out of existence when you can’t see it. This is because you have a mental schema of the room in which you sit as well as a schema of your own body as it is arrayed in space. You don’t need to go out in the hallway to make sure that the hallway is still there. Your habits of thinking provide for you a kind of shorthand map of the space around you. These mental schemas work pretty well most of the time: so much so that we barely notice they are there.
Today’s cognitive science can make Hume’s account even more precise. We intuitively believe that our eyesight captures everything directly and in real time, but nothing of the sort takes place. As you read these lines, your eyes are darting around the screen, non-linearly taking hundreds of snapshots of your visual field. As Ray Kurzweil explains in How to Create a Mind, these snapshots are then condensed into packets which are sent through the optic nerve to the occipital region of the brain. This happens in much the same way as you zip files on your computer so that they can be sent more easily. The image itself is split in half and inverted, and yet you do not perceive the world as split into left and right hemispheres, both due to the pre-processing provided by the brain and the familiarizing effect of our habitual interactions with the world.
Some simple examples demonstrate that there are, in fact, gaps in our everyday perception. Magic tricks work because they happen too quickly for our vision to process the simple deception. We don’t have the processing speed necessary to accurately detect sleight of hand, as our minds are geared more towards motion detection, which was a valuable skill for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. What works for hunting prey does not work for playing the three card monte or deciding which cup holds the hidden ball. Precisely because you are watching the hands, you do not see the ball or the card that stays still.
You may have seen the Simons and Chabris selective attention test video, in which a group of people in black and white t-shirts pass balls around as they walk in circles. The video primes viewers to count the number of times that the balls are passed. Upon first viewing, almost no one notices the person in a gorilla suit who walks right into the middle of the frame. This sort of attentional blindness is a commonplace part of our experience even before we bring in ideological bias: we simply don’t have a comprehensive view of the world, even in everyday life.
To take this a little bit further, the human range of vision is itself very limited. We can’t see ultraviolet light, as bees can, or detect infrared the way that our telescopes do. We have expressions like, “it’s as plain as day,” or “it’s as obvious as the nose on your face,” but human eyewitness accounts are actually quite unreliable. Our legal systems once considered eyewitness testimony to be the most valuable evidence, but now hundreds of inmates have been acquitted based on DNA evidence that contradicted false testimony.
All of this should lead to a certain epistemological humility, even at the level of everyday perception. We experience only a very small sampling of the reality available to us, and we make leaps in judgment all the time. Two people witnessing a car wreck on the street can have completely different accounts of what they saw transpiring right in front of them. Little wonder, then, that we can’t agree on the much more abstract issues of politics and ideology. We all live within our own TLDR view of the world, and necessarily so.
Does this mean that all interpretations are equally good, and that we should just let go of the idea of the truth entirely? Of course not. It only means that we have to make the best possible use of the available information, and that we ought to make careful use of the facts that we do have. Suppose a tiny boat is caught in a gale with only a small, analog compass for guidance. Sure, it would be better to have a full suite of instruments available, including GPS, but that one compass is better than nothing. In the absence of complete information, the good captain would guide the ship to safety using the best information available at the time.
In our personal lives and in society as a whole, we make decisions based on partial and limited information. Because of the dangers that we face--from climate change to political corruption to concentration of wealth—we cannot afford extreme skepticism. Because of the huge quantities of information available, we have to return to a normal sense of trusting expert opinion. A climate scientist’s view of glacial melt simply carries more weight than that of a television pundit, because he or she has devoted an entire career to studying the problem. Those who are experts in any field have a responsibility to make their TLDR version of reality as accurate as possible for the layperson. We need both detailed studies and thumbnail sketches, and we should try to make these two versions match one another as much as possible.
We should all beware of the rhetorical sleight of hand which suggests that we should not act in the absence of complete and exhaustive information. The tactic here, of course, is to kill action entirely through delay. This sort of gambit happens all the time in politics, and it is equally important to guard against this vicious deferral in discourse around health and wellness. We can’t wait for the perfect solution: we have to work with the information that we have to make our personal and collective lives better. Good information today is better than perfect information tomorrow. Reality rewards those who take positive action in complex situations.