The arrival of virtually every new cultural medium has been greeted with the charge that it truncates attention spans and represents the beginning of cultural collapse—the novel (in the 18th century), the comic book, rock ‘n’ roll, television, and now the Web.
It's unclear to me how this disproves the base charge. Imagine, for instance, putting forth this argument:
The arrival of virtually every social development since the 1960s--the rise of no-fault divorce, the birth-control pill, the spread of legalized abortion, the delay of first marriage--has been greeted with the charge that it depresses fertility rates.
Every one of those developments in fact was greeted with the argument that they would depress fertility. And sure enough, the American fertility rate has fallen steadily. Just because people keep lamenting new factors contributing to a phenomenon, doesn't mean the phenomenon doesn't exist. Pace Cowen, is there anyone who thinks television hasn't corrupted intellectual life?
If Cowen wants to argue that the internet is a net good for cultural life, that's fine. People on the internet love to hear that! And best of all, it's a non-falsifiable proposition.
I'd just ask this: We're almost two decades into the internet now. What towering works has it produced that will be read in 20 years? What intellects has it pushed forward that were hitherto ignored? Where is the web's Irving Kristol or Isaiah Berlin or Richard Neuhaus? Or even William Buckley?
The answer, of course, is that there isn't one. The web gives us Glenn Reynolds and Matt Yglesias and Kathryn Jean Lopez and Andrew Sullivan. I suspect that this is not an accident.
Update: Damon Linker takes another shot at the kind of intellectual rigor which the internet fosters.