Saturday, May 23, 2015

Your Attention, Please

Throughout most of history, the human mind has typically been capable of doing more than we demand of it. Having spent most of its existence straining to contain its energies in relatively peaceful small communities, people were limited by a lack of information, relatively isolated, with not much but their own powers of observation and minimal education to occupy themselves. We can hardly imagine it now. Their lives were mostly their family and work, usually a farm or some simple labor, plus maybe religion and limited surrounding community. Distant places were truly distant, as travel was expensive and dangerous, thus correspondingly rare. While life has not always been simple, you can see why some might come to the conclusion that all men are created equal: men have been equal enough, given how little has been required of them.

That was then, this is now: the most common issue we deal with today is overstimulation, too many demands on our focus. We really can't focus on more than one thing at a time: multitasking is bullshit. And yet we have cellphones filled with programs running simultaneously, we drive at highway speeds while radio and billboards bombard us with advertising, messaging everywhere. All this information is begging for us to notice it, and it isn't simple information like the shape of a plant or the rustle of leaves indicating a predator, the input our systems were designed to absorb. This is layered, deeply contextual linguistic and symbolic information, far more demanding of our neurons.

This is the new reality, unlike the old reality. This is among the most important ways in which our time is really, truly different than any before. Instead of running around with brains and senses overbuilt to handle the information of the natural world that surrounds us, we are running around in totally man-made circumstances, overloaded with data which our brains only half-process, coming from senses strained for bandwidth. A balance has shifted radically. Which brings us to the relatively new world where attention is a scarce resource.

The idea of an "attention economy" goes back to Herbert Simon in the 1970's, with this quote:
“ an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it."
I've been talking about the attention economy obliquely for two years on this blog, but now it's time to start hitting it directly. Some of what I post here is from my economics thesis, which was not even close to complete but pulled the issues into order. In this post, I'll focus on the problems that have not been discussed elsewhere, and deal with them in further posts. There is a lot to say, and this is just the beginning.

We have to start by knowing where the attention economy is, as a scholarly subject.

The Ideological Divide 

Since the concept of the attention economy has only been around a few decades, most of its developments and views are very contemporary. Most work has come about since the 90's, and you can find a good, fairly brief guide in Tiziana Terranova's Attention, Economy, and the Brain.

The topic started to gain traction when the internet became a thing, and there were a lot of blowhard pronouncements about the new, unlimited virtual frontiers that the internet would bring, and even more predictions of a humanity being united by the web on an individual level, entering in a new era of peace, equality, and prosperity. The technology was supposed to undermine conventional economics.

Obviously, this didn't happen. Conventional economics were reinforced, and if anything, we merely have more problems to deal with. Quite a few academic publications came out to explain it.

Two sides have developed in attention economy literature, and those sides correspond to fairly predictable left-right ideology. None of the literature actually discusses it in terms of political continuum, but the split is absolutely there.

The first side is represented by the most mainstream of books on the attention economy, Davenport and Beck's The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. This book places the attention economy in a commercial context, both in the way that businesses vie for your attention, but also in the way that businesses allocate the attention of their employees effectively, toward greater productivity and creativity. It also firmly establishes attention as a currency, and clearly explains the logic behind the view: attention is the means of exchange for information, it's scarce, it's more or less universally valued, and it can be invested.

There are a number of authors associated with this conventional view of attention issues, including William Ocasio, Michael Goldhaber, and Katherine Hayles. Their efforts go to streamlining conventional systems to deal with externalities, particularly distraction.

Employers have a very obvious reason to try and get attention from consumers and avoid employee distraction. In order to sell anything, you have to get customers into your store and looking at your product. That's what the entire field of marketing does, obviously. And of course, it's incredibly costly to business for its working employees to get pulled in and out of focus, worse than expected according to research on cognitive function.

On a deeper level, the proliferation of marketing tactics like spamming have created questions about ethical use of the internet. Obviously, spam and pop-ups feel like an unwanted intrusion into your surfing, but the lines are fuzzy; use of the unstructured medium of the internet has started bringing about new laws trying to set boundaries on when and how you can be contacted, and completely new, radical ideas have come about to deal with "information pollution". Ronald Coase, the economist who created the finest work on market structure known to the field, said years ago that such issues could be handled by modifying property rights and treating information overload as an externality. Goldhaber - creator of the term "attention economy" - seemed to approve of the notion of "attention bonds", basically the idea that marketers would warranty the value of their message to ensure it isn't a waste of your time.

Such ideas view interactions as exchanges of attention in a classical economic sense, and that context is used to flesh out social phenomena like the publishing industry and celebrity influence. It's explanatory and occasionally jumps into bigger questions than business and a conventional view of individual justice, but at the same time, tepid.

What these ideas have in common is a common perception of property rights and institutional structure as viable and valid concepts, to be respected and, perhaps, responsibly regulated. That perspective often ends up sounding like trendy, gimmicky, New Business buzzword spouting which hides a multitude of sins: it assumes that businesses have the prerogative to control their employees' behavior, including what they focus on, and also assumes legal individualism is the fundamentally correct paradigm within which to understand the questions of justice, while also trying to balance that individualism with the systematic needs of business and order. That's a conservative outlook.

But then there's the other side.

The high theory of the attention economy is basically owned by liberationists. The names change here: Now we have Bernard Steigler, Martyn Thayne, Jonathan Beller, Maurizio Lazzaratto, and Christian Marazzi. The latter two come from the Italian Post-Fordist movement and are deep socialists. This is as leftist as leftist gets.

Marazzi gives a taste of this kind of treatment in his book Capital and Language. He portrays the post-internet New Economy as attention capture on a grand scale, where people are essentially distracted from fundamental questions of justice by increasing demands on their minds, the separation between working and leisure time vanishing, individual lives more fully harnessed by the machinery of business and finance for profit and power.

Marazzi, along with other thinkers in this vein, sees platforms like Facebook as attention assemblages, a form of intellectual framework which engrosses the user and structures their worldview, including expectations and communicative norms. It has positive feedback (although rarely a "dislike" button), a goal of increasing interaction and connectedness, and artificially created groups both open and closed. Artificial currencies like "thumbs up" and pageviews dominate. So on the web, the exchanges that mark normal, non-commercial relationships become a part of the zeitgeist. Lots of these platforms promote certain content based on a combination of your previous activity and broadly popular activity, directing you based on where you've been and where the writers of some corporate algorithm would like you to go.

While you are immersed in this world, the corporate class has swapped your pension for a 401K which was lost after you reinvested it in the company. The boundary between employee and management, the Fordist labor division, vanished. And financial crises that had nothing to do with you eroded your position in society.

Marazzi focuses on how these assemblages distract people from social justice issues, but things go much deeper when you read Lazzaratto and Beller. The latter uses cinema as a social metaphor, calling our participation in these assemblages the cinematic mode of production. We communicate en masse, directed by capital; we view entertainment en masse, integrating it into our lives; we become consumers by social training that's nearly inescapable. Steigler called this "the proletarianization of the life of the mind". From this perspective, the entire edifice is geared towards taking the "natural" shaping of values, the desire for acceptance, and the creation of engaging content that happens in the social sphere, and directing it along capitalistic lines.

At the core of this kind of thinking is a nearly conspiratorial belief that the attention of the individual is being hijacked by self-interested institutional forces, a nefarious denial of freedom that softly forces everyone to become a depersonalized node in a machine. So intense is this point of view that Lazzaratto tried to revive Michel Foucault's idea of "biopolitics" to describe the shaping of the individual identity through institutional means.

For these people, the attention economy means social control.

Those are the two sides you can look at, if you want to investigate this subject. If you read all this and take it in as a body of work within a field, you can't help but to feel that something is missing on the liberationist side, or its' just gimmicky tactical manipulation on the conservative side.

A Complete Blank

I can tell you what's missing, easily enough. There is a complete the lack of concern for attention economics is in the realm of academic philosophy. We have a huge glut of philosophical literature coming out of universities. Go onto the big database - JSTOR - and it lists 134 academic journals on philosophy alone, most of which publish about a dozen essays quarterly. But there is no scholarly literature - none - regarding how the individual should allocate their attention. Ethics should be all over this subject, but because of how we view the relationship between ethics and freedom, there is none whatsoever.

There is a body of philosophical work focused on attention in the sense of how it works. Epistemologists love the topic, ever since William James started analyzing it over a century ago. The most recent publications sound promising: one by Sebastian Watzl from the University of Oslo called "The Philosophical Significance of Attention", and Wayne Wu's simply titled collection "Attention (New Problems in Philosophy)".

But it's all theory on how attention actually works in the brain, mechanically. Tons of ideas on how you can cast your attention, which has little value for ethics or social philosophy and really belongs in the hard sciences. But there are few serious questions on the concept of agency, and none which approach the attention economy in terms of the ethics behind participating in it. Epistemologists look at attention as a near-mechanical process, which basically upsets the entire Western apple cart of individual autonomy, choice, responsibility, and authenticity.

What if you assume choice? What if you aren't a determinist, at least on some level? Certainly there are a few philosophers who aren't, particularly since so many other philosophical publications try to convince people to change things, especially their minds.

So lots of philosophers assume change and self-direction are possible, but when it comes to where you should direct your attention, there is no systematic theory. That goes for society or for the individual.

So, how should attention be allocated?

In the entire field of philosophy, there is no answer.

The liberationists aren't exactly wrong, but their material is completely negative. They present problems, at least in some sense of the word. They present no solutions.

You can easily say that attention allocation should be aligned towards what you value, and that value is subjective and personal. But this is the most damaging statement possible to the idea of any ethics being objectively correct or superior and would undermine the entire field of social and ethical philosophy if taken at face value.

And it's obviously not that simple anyway. Intuitively, it's better for someone to use their attention on things like learning about public health, finding the most worthy charitable causes, and playing watchdog with public officials, instead of casting their attention towards something frivolous like celebrity gossip or chatroom shit-talking. Attention is a currency, and so its use can be seen like a more immediate analogy for how we use wealth. And there is no lack of philosophical literature on how society should use wealth. Every philosopher has an opinion, and most think their opinions are more than just opinions.

Shouldn't there be a literature on the fair and just distribution of attention, just as there is for a fair and just distribution of wealth?

The Next Step

So you see why I'm knee-deep in this subject.

Here, more than anywhere else, the conservative side has a true ideological advantage over the liberationist, left-wing side. Every organized society has already addressed attention allocation at some point, and most have addressed it the same way.

It's called a hierarchy.

William Ocasio's Towards an Attention-based View of the Firm got as close as anyone has yet... and really, he's not very close. Working hand-in-hand with the logic of institutions informal and then formal, societies have worked towards what they value by placing responsibility on an individual or group within the group and giving them the prerogative to assign roles and tasks to other parts of that group. This is naked attention allocation... and the practical definition of social power. People had to accept this or face the consequences, sometimes violence or ostracism. That's an incredibly ancient arrangement.

It's a complete arrangement, too. Role pervades everything. What we do within institutions, from marriage to business to neighborhood, is regulated by social norms that have been established and refined from that bare logic of specialization and identity millenia ago. We've been selected by our ability to deal with it, had thousands of years to get used to it. There is, despite the hype, no known alternative.

In more recent times, following the normalizing of specialization and large-scale society, particularly in the West, the game changed. Thought became complex, people justified and damned the arrangements in turn, and powerful people realized that tools other than threats could be used if you understood the value systems of the people you dealt with. Symbols gained meaning and power, awareness of self and group more important. As individuals, choice became central to our perception of control. Society has always been an attention assemblage. It reinforces itself daily and affects everything about the individual.

Social structure exists to allocate attention effectively. Everything else stems from this idea.

Attention is the reason you can have a "circle" that expands outward, from friends and family to nation or more abstract notions of a "people". The facet of existence that makes you more bound to one individual than another, the element which gives credence to people being a product of their social environment, that's attention, and attention allocation is the basis for the structuralist understanding of human behavior and society. Being a function of time, attention is also fundamentally scarce and thus zero-sum. The importance of that zero-sum nature, the cooperation and competition it produces, makes the human species what it is.

It's an easy money guess to say that a failure to understand that is why the internet didn't lead to a utopia. And Herbert Simon basically told us so two decades before the web became normal.

The depth and importance of this topic are staggering. Despite what you may have heard, it's not advisable to say that your field makes a huge, paradigm-shifting difference to basically all of the social sciences, a difference so massive that entire fields become one-dimensional studies of petty, conditional interactions of no significance in comparison. But this topic deserves it.

That's how big this is. Attention acts as a currency in most ways, the limited resource we universally exchange for information. But it is also more than a currency. It is prior to all other social currencies. Attention must be exchanged before any other exchange can take place. So attention is actually a meta-currency.

Georg Simmel's old and very long classic The Philosophy of Money takes its time in explaining that money turns subjective values into objective realities through society. Money, once again, is power. So if the formal surface currency of money holds the power to give life to your values, what kind of power does the meta-currency of attention hold?

Quick answer: it has the power to create and change those values at the source. It is the currency of your mind, and everyone else's mind. Trying to understand society without understanding attention is like trying to understand a computer without understanding electricity or binary language.

Knowing all this presents a lot of challenges, including the obvious questioning of religion and the legitimacy of authority figures, but when the self is understood as a product of attention just as much as the society, it ultimately reinforces institutions and culture.

And while society rails against any greedy, or at least unseemly, accumulation of wealth, the lustful accumulation of attention is a far greater problem. How can you deny that the time period you live in is characterized by a nearly psychotic rush of huge numbers of people to get others to pay attention to them? They'll pay money by the pile to get you to pay attention. From social media to celebrity douchebaggery, this is our culture, avoiding boredom and loneliness by watching the sensory overload fed by free market competition for your eyeballs. You wish you could control it so you could reduce the flow when you're overloaded and find something good on TV when you're bored, but the grasping flood comes at you in waves, like a stock market boom. The Christians call monetary greed "avarice"; in keeping with the idea, the best way to understand this issue is with the proper name of attention avarice.


Lots of subjects need to be addressed within the context of the attention economy. Eventually, all subjects within the social sciences need a reality check, but on this blog, we're going to start out with a few limited selections:

Gender identity and attention. Men and women operate differently in groups, and the male gender identity in particular is built for operating within a hierarchical order. Thus there are some traits of men which need to be reexamined for their value in distributing attention effectively in both large and small groups. Like a lot of this work, this is going to be an extension on the Efficiency of Being a Dick post.

A few years ago, the dichotomy of hyperattention versus deep attention went through a vogue in the media, then with flawless irony, disappeared from the landscape as we stopped giving a shit and turned our attention elsewhere. It's worth the investment to bring it up again.

Structure and Morality. This is the most pivotal topic currently undiscussed in politics, undiscussed because it seems so irrelevant in an individualist country. But it's not irrelevant at all, particularly when you start looking at the practical problems of attention scarcity.

Your work and its value. Most people would say that engineers, because of their paychecks and the tangible results of what they do, are powerful and respected. And plenty of people talk about the STEM fields and their importance. But engineers don't make the plans; they carry them out, inform the ones making the plans of what's possible. Same with doctors. We need a reality check on what positions in society actually lead to real change and influence, and in the process, we can remind ourselves why so many people are enamored with activism, advocacy, journalism, entertainment, and the risky, low-paying jobs with the potential to really change the world, for better or worse.

There will be a post on the mechanics of attention. The relationship between how we allocate attention and value merits that discussion, and there may even be some math. Yes, fucking math. To model it (see the next entry) and to otherwise rationalize it and make this useful, we need some goddamn math.

Attention and the EGM. The endogenous growth model, AKA the Romer model, is the reigning macroeconomic paradigm that is used by policymakers and by academia at large to understand economic development. What separates the EGM from earlier models - the Malthus and Solow models specifically - is that it proscribes no fundamental limit on expansion, because the key variable is neither land nor capital, but rather technology, reliant on human development and thus education. The attention economy clearly calls this idea into question.

The power of media and mass attention assemblages. This is far from a new subject, and some of the previous contributors - I'm thinking Marshall McLuhan - are brilliant and capable thinkers. But the topic is also shallow and ends up being misunderstood. Attention capture on mass scale is as old as the written word, so religion and education need to be added to the picture. But globalism has indeed changed the game.

Legitimacy and attention scarcity, also known as "why some kind of faith is necessary".

Currency systems, including money, karma, honor, favors, and whatever else comes up. All currency systems work within the attention economy and are based on shaping people's expectations, so what makes each different and which work better?

Peer pressure, social "atmosphere", learning by osmosis. 

Formal and informal hierarchy, how they work, mechanisms and underlying vulnerabilities.

Attention, agency, and structure: there is a strong need to reconcile the ideas of individualism and the structural nature of the attention economy. The relationship between individual and society can find definition in these parts.

There is obviously a lot more to talk about than just that list, but we'll get to it as we have the time. There is also a lot to talk about in the nature of liberalism, but that's not one post, it's a few. Politics can creep in at any time, because politics is - unfortunately - everywhere. Attention is an obvious bridge between the subjective and objective, so keeping opinion from fact is perpetually tricky. Academia can't tell the difference between fact and opinion, so I'm not going to promise anything disembodied.

But I'll try to make it compelling, if you have the attention span to get through it.