Amidst the ceaseless hand-wringing about how the Internet is shortening our attention spans, distracting us from more important things, destroying our capacity to think, and ruining our children, it’s nice to occasionally hear a sensible rebuttal. In The Tweets for the Web, Tyler Cowen offers such relief , stressing that while current culture is tending toward shorter bits of information, the result is actually increased attention span, as we are now following our specialized mix of our favorite weblogs (and other preferred media bits) every day for years at a time.
Cowen also succinctly refutes the claim that today’s multitasking society is made inefficient by a perpetual haze of technological distraction. “Multitasking is not a distraction from our main activity, it is our main activity.”
Perhaps the most convincing part of the whole essay is the analogy of contemporary culture to a long-distance relationship:
A long-distance relationship is, in emotional terms, a bit like culture in the time of Cervantes or Mozart. The costs of travel and access were high, at least compared to modern times. When you did arrive, the performance was often very exciting and indeed monumental. Sadly, the rest of the time you didn’t have that much culture at all. Even books were expensive and hard to get. Compared to what is possible in modern life, you couldn’t be as happy overall but your peak experiences could be extremely memorable, just as in the long-distance relationship. [...]
Today, our relationship to culture has become more like marriage. It enters our lives in an established flow, creating a better and more regular daily state of mind. True, the art world has in some ways become uglier, or at least it sometimes appears so. But when it comes to how we actually live and feel, contemporary culture is more satisfying and contributes to the happiness of far more people.