Attention Economics

by Yule Heibel on August 14, 2006

It’s 8:30 on a brilliantly drought-sunny summer morning, and I’m in the park at Dallas Road, taking my dog for a walk in the dogs-off-leash area. In front of me, below the cliffs, lies the ever-frigid Juan de Fuca Strait. I hear a woman conversing very loudly on the hillside that rises up behind me. She is in the middle of what in spring is a deep sky-blue meadow of camas flowers, speaking as distinctly and as comfortably as if camas grow from her living room carpet. Perhaps they do. It occurs to me that the pitch of her voice also resembles a TV announcer’s used to speaking to unseen masses. Next to her is a man, holding a bicycle. She is telling him about some relationship — how she told a man what’s what, and why; and what he said; and what she said; and how she told him. He speaks, too, but since he doesn’t enunciate with quite the same level of enthusiasm, I actually can’t hear his voice at all. These individuals are at least 150m away from where I am, which makes my being able to hear the woman speak clearly so strange: my attention is absolutely rivetted to her, I am almost anxious to know what she will say (or do) next.

Suddenly, she becomes agitated, and appears to accost the man holding the bicycle. Precipitously, her anger subsides again, and she says, “The police were here this morning,” the way someone might mention that Aunt Ida called to say hi. Another man arrives, and another, and after a scuffle and subsequent departure of two men, it slowly dawns on me that I am observing a group of transients or homeless people — the camas meadow really is a living room for the duration, and we passers-by shared in domestic entanglements usually hidden from view, behind walls and closed doors.

She is animated, yet oblivious. What matters is that the men around her are paying attention, and they are. So are other people, whether they want to or not. Not that it matters. We spectators will be cheated, for this conversation we’re overhearing isn’t going anywhere. It’s just a dramatic display destined to end, which perhaps accounts for the woman’s obliviousness. Everyone else might feel compelled to pay attention to her, but she doesn’t need to pay attention to us. Her attitude is a curious combination of self-absorption and spectacle, a narcissistic cloaking. Wrapped as she is in such attention-grabbing splendour, why indeed would she need real living room walls to live her life? Her interior mental spaces (such a quaint notion, now), exteriorised on the meadow this morning, are as good as any house, and they’re well-insulated against reproach or introspection.

It’s midday and I jump aside as yet another cyclist careens down the sidewalk. He didn’t hit my dog. He didn’t hit me. But it’s only a matter of time. These gentlemen and ladies (they’re not children, I am refering to adults) feel it is their right to ride on the sidewalk because of course it’s unsafe to share the road with “the man” who evilly controls the roadways with his combustion engine powered deathmobile that sucks the last of the peak oil from Mother Earth’s very teats. As for helmets for cyclists, mandated by law? Not for these free spirits: why bother when socialised medicine will pick up the bill for any cranial injury that may occur? The important thing is to make a show against power, to Speak. The. Truth. To. Power. If a couple of pedestrians get run over in the process, that’s collateral damage. (Incidentally, some especially crotchety and unbalanced senior citizens and other malingerers unwilling to walk on their own power, riding on their damnable SUV-style mobility scooters, are just as hateful and just as selfish. They’re a menace to pedestrians, but they think that because they’re “handicapped” — or so overweight as to be unable to walk — they should get special dispensation to zoom motorised down pedestrian walkways. Bloody bother.)

The cyclist (and to a lesser extent the “mobility scooter”) reminds me of that strange young woman in the park: They’re attention sinks, they are literally the black holes of other people’s attention, oblivious to the exchange they’re having with other people. What matters is their strange universe, and that it gets some attention: your silly desire for attention (perhaps as oblique and selfish as not wanting to be run over on the sidewalk) is utterly irrelevant. You must pay attention to their world(s). At the same time, my impression is that they are the servants of their worlds, not vice versa. There’s little, on their part, in the way of control or mastery — it’s all about another world, which, like a falsely pathetic Tamagotchi, has to be kept alive through the attention given to it. One wonders what benefit that world is to anyone, but the question can’t be voiced. Attention must be given, that’s the key.

It’s evening and I visit a newly-formed internet forum about the city I live in. It includes a regular contributor who has already been kicked off another forum for posting inappropriate material. He gets up to his usual tricks and gratuitously posts a photo of a woman’s midriff clothed in nothing but a thong. Her pubic hair is shaved off, she looks simply ridiculous, like something inbetween; but clearly, without the pubic hair markers, unthreatening enough for a man who, while getting on in years, has obvious castration anxieties. His post has absolutely nothing to do with the thread’s topic, but this person needs to draw attention to himself, if necessary by inviting his homies to join him in masturbating in public (more on this in a moment). The actual contents of his vapid forum postings aren’t important; what matters is that his postings stand out because of the liberal addition of pussy shots. This gets him the attention he clearly is addicted to.

These individuals, seemingly so different, are participants in the attention economy: as information increases (go on, tell me more — uurghh! — about how and why the police stopped by this morning, what colour thong you like on what colour skin, and show me more regarding your attitude on sidewalk safety), what becomes scarce is attention. Unless you get in my face with it, I won’t care about you or your world. The really seriously scary and sad thing is that neither will you! Which could well be why you feel this need to get into my face. (Note: these are not aspects discussed in the papers I’m pointing to via the links — they all focus on the web and business. But think about it… This is psychological, too.) You might think you’re doing it because you’re “alternative” or “contrarian” or “out of the box,” but you’re actually doing it because like every other worker drone in the sad sad worker drone hive, you are hooked to the economy. Its current flow is attention. You might think you’re dropped out and have “chosen” to live as an outlaw, but you’re still part of the system. In environmental psychology, the concept has far wider applicability than just web-based business apps. And for an inkling of what artists can do with attention (namely, create veritable “attention traps”), read Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention; Style and Substance in the Age of Information.

So: with your outrageous behaviour, you’re not escaping the system at all, least of all its economic predations. In fact, you’re quite possibly its worst exponent.

Take public masturbation, for example. (Stop me, I feel a joke coming on….)
Frank Furedi writes a biting little article in spiked-online called Maybe self-loving does make you blind. Furedi is intent on skewering the narcissicism underlying a recent event held on August 5th: England’s first Masturbate-a-Thon Event presented by the Center for Sex & Culture. The event was a challenge to the original Masturbate-a-Thon, which of course came from the US. Furedi deftly slaps down (sorry, couldn’t resist) the pretensions to public health that underpin this event: masturbation is safe, it’s not risky, it’s good for you (no arguments from me on that front, but competitive masturbating? C’mon!). Furedi points out that this mental-health pablumspeak is part and parcel of taking the risk out of life, making it as safe as houses — whether your house is a camas meadow or an internet connection or your personal mobility scooter, I might add. And I think he’s on to something. But I also think there’s a deeper connection to the attention economy here, too.

Economic life is dangerous and risky. At the very worst, you could starve to death, and many people do, every minute of the day. Most of them couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the attention economy as discussed in relation to a surfeit of information, however, because their efforts at staying alive are focussed on more basic stuff, like a dearth of sustenance. Here in the West, on the other hand, surfeited with information, attention is our daily bread: o give us this day… Ask anyone who has managed to glue the eyeballs and ears of passers-by to her tales of woe on a camas meadow, or has grabbed your attention with semi-porn on public forums, or has nearly blithely run you over on the sidewalk because he’s getting your attention with his “statement” against the oppressive, imperialist Man-and-His-Rules. Or ask the folks who have masturbated in public. Competitively. It’s an economy: you gotta compete. These people are starving: they need your attention.

So, one and all: let’s give the economy a loving hand (we really can’t get away from it anyway) and feed the masses…

Oh, and just to add another ingredient to this pot I’m cooking up, which suggests that the attention economy is a spice that infiltrates every dish, from mental health to pocketbook wealth, feeding even those who think they’re on a diet: take a look at this blog entry, which looks critically at Wikipedia and asks, “…what are the consequences of giving so much search-engine driven attention to information of such broad scope from a single project?”

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