Inventing Attention

by Rob Horning

16 March 2011

Attention seems more like a product, something that marketers purchase from entertainment media. Attention is not ours to spend; it's instead a state of being that makes us sellable.

“Needing to Be Noticed: Understanding the Market in an Attention Economy,” a paper (pdf) by Anthony Olcott of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, raises some interesting questions about the idea of an attention economy, some of which I would rephrase in a more quasi-Foucauldian vein. Olcott wants to know how to measure the return on investment for attention spent, so that individuals could determine how to invest attention rather than merely expend it. But I wonder if our awareness of attention as a quantity to spend is the problem, burdening us with a kind of reflexivity that cannibalizes our experience of being engrossed in an activity.

Some other, related questions: Is attention a currency, a good, or both simultaneously? Is our attention manufactured, produced, by the goods that demand it? In other words, does entertainment produce attention as a fungible quantity in our understanding as well as then absorb that quantity? More broadly, does the discourse about the so-called attention economy structure our attention as currency? Attention is not something we can ever accumulate or store, so to think of it as currency is misleading. It seems more like a product, something that marketers purchase from entertainment media. Attention is not ours to spend; it’s instead a state of being that makes us sellable.
Olcott brings up the received wisdom that our sense of the scarcity of our attention is a product of the sudden information surfeit, which has made us aware of how little time we have for the information we want to consume, or—the same thing—the elasticity of our curiosity when information becomes cheap. Olcott has even attempted to quantify this: “the flow of information clamoring for attention has been increasing at somewhere between 30 and 60 percent per year for the past two decades, while our ability to absorb information has been growing at only about 5 percent per year (and that primarily through our growing tendency to multitask, or do several things superficially rather than one or two things deeply).”

Our perceived flow of information is, of course, a matter of the effectiveness of the filters in place for us. Many of the filters earlier generations took for granted, the ones imposed by the absence of real-time communications and efficient transmission and storage, have now been eradicated by the advent of internet and digital media. Analog media imposed stringent limits on what amount of information was transmissible and storable. As Olcott puts it, “When technology made the threshold of entry into communication high, the amount of attention relative to the amount of information to which it could be paid was relatively large.” That made the limits of our media-consumption time irrelevant. But now the analog limits are gone. We become aware of time as a problem, our attention as bounded, limited—and then in its palpable scarcity, we realize more fully its potential to be alienated as a commodity. That is, we become aware of its value, and we want that value to be convertible into other forms of value (as capitalism trains us to expect).

Relative to the automatic filtering imposed by those analog limits, the ones we are forced to impose on ourselves seem arbitrary. They require self-discipline; they seem theoretically optional, perpetually negotiable. The open-endedness makes us feel the information flow as “overload”—it is never simply settled as what it is, and requires continual decisionmaking from us, continual reaffirmation of the filters we’ve chosen. My RSS feed demands more from me than a newspaper, because I’m responsible at a meta level for what information it brings me; before, my decisionmaking would end with the decision to buy a paper. Now I have to tell myself I have enough, even as the culture tells me that in general, too much is never enough, and “winning” is having more. As a result, I start to feel cheated by time because I can’t amass more of it. I become alienated from it rather inhabiting it, which makes me feel bored in the midst of too many options. The sense of overload is a failure of our focus rather than the fault of information itself or the various media. Calling it “attention” in the contemporary sense and economizing it doesn’t repair focus so much as redefine it as a shorter span, as inherently fickle and ephemeral.

Brokering my own attention span is my attempt to reassert control. I will spend my attention wisely and get the most out of it by investing it wisely in things that will “reward” it. But I fear that expecting to profit from paying attention is a mistake, a kind of category error. Attention seems to me binary—it is engaged or it isn’t; it isn’t amenable to qualitative evalution. If we start assessing the quality of our attention, we get pulled out of what we were paying attention to, and pay attention to attention to some degree, becoming strategic with it, kicking off a reflexive spiral that leads only to further insecurity and disappointment. Attention is never profitable enough, never sufficient.

It seems to me that serendipity is a better attention-management strategy, a more appropriate way to deal with those times when we can no longer focus and become suddenly aware that we need to direct our attention somewhere.

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