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The Attention Economy

The watchword of the twentieth century might have been: if you wish to capture the hearts and minds of a generation, dazzles its eyes.

Nowadays, track the gaze.

Nineteenth century: industrial economy. Twentieth century: economy of the spectacle. Twenty-first century: attention economy.

The critic Louis Althusser proposed a short fable about political participation that was often referred to by academics in the twentieth century. Suppose a person were crossing the street and a policeman were to yell “hey, you.” This “hail” only works if the person who is hailed looks back at the policeman, thereby recognizing the policeman’s right to hail him. Even people without guilty consciences tend to look when they are hailed.

We might say that in the twentieth century, the political subject came into being at the moment he responded to the police—being seen seeing. For an example of a “hey, you” still working in our century, see the hilarious identity travails of this cyclist being hailed by the police. Incidentally, at City without Cars (the ungooglable, almost invisible nowtopian disorganization), we recommend the lavish use of parkour in most hail storms.

What about this century? Has the spectacle intensified to a level at which something else is emerging?

At least in the last century you could still recognize the political consumer as an integer. One person, one vote. Four rolls of toilet paper per customer. That sort of thing. Nowadays, however, even murder is conducted in fractions. As the critic Jonathan Beller (who was on to the attention economy a decade before the rest of us academics) points out, “whether we kill part of ourselves while watching TV or whether 8,598 viewers of Fox news are responsible for the death of one Iraqi child, value and exploitation are, like the shares in your pension plans, worked out to the nth decimal in capital’s brutal calculus.” (Cinematic Mode of Production, 9)

Attention is a kind of tribute exacted in increments small enough and dispersed enough that we often fail to notice the loss. In the twentieth century the political subject might have stood up and said, “hey, you want a piece of me? Come get me.” In the attention economy, the system already has. Over and over. It can make you feel sort of…taken.

There are two important principles for negotiating the attention economy, and they only appear to be contradictory. The first is that the state couldn’t care less about you. The second is that it could. If you’re a soldier killed in Iraq because the Pentagon couldn’t be bothered to spring for armor on your vehicle, you illustrate the first principle. If the image of you in a coffin is about to be deployed to capture public attention, you illustrate the second principle. Uncle Sam—fickle fellow—doesn’t want you and he does. It’s a little creepy to think about Sam’s fitful desire for your body, let alone your mind. Have you ever thought about what “uncle” is a euphemism for? And now the guy has access to strip scanners at airport security.

The attention economy is like a computer that tracks your eye movements as a trace. Trace is the little record that you leave, etchings of your personal history like a skein on the matrix. Trace is a good word because it reminds us that the amount of your desire suggested by even trace amounts of interest, such as the vector of a sidelong glance, can be registered. The point is that the attentions of the state come to us not primarily as the Waco-like intrusions of Big Brother, bad as these are, but more insidiously as our rightful heritage as consumers. The sidelong glance can uptick our bashfulness count, and we’ll receive this accounting system with more or less open arms, if we haven’t already.

You think there isn’t a product for bashful? Look at the bottom left of your screen, half-close your eyelids while moving your eyeballs to where you think the upper right corner of the screen is. Slowly raise your lids. You’ve just performed an activity from the lexicon of stock eye movements. Sort of sexy. Properly collated and subjected to a purchasing probability algorithm, your movement is part of a larger dynamic of sales potential. Hey, you heard it here first. But I’m more interested in what such micro-niche latencies auger for the wider sociological future.

The technical term for this is, we’re fucked. But there are things we can do to resist, and these are even more interesting than hiding your penis between your legs when you go through the strip scanner to help gender-bend the guys with the goofy banana-republic insignias all over their uniforms. Are you allowed to board without your penis? I’d just like to take a moment to publicly thank Kip Sternberg, football team captain 1975, for a compelling demonstration of this principle in the locker room of Bedford High, just before the rest of the team towel-flicked me.

As the state and the subject become more interpenetrated, the duality of the I/thou relationship is diminished accordingly, and the subject assumes many of the disciplinary functions of the state as an instinct rather than having them brought to bear as an external force. Can you picture Homer Simpson slowly, zombily, and sensuously saying cho-colate? Relax, dude, you practically are the state.

It is against this background of the mutually imbricated attentions of the state and the self that our appeal is made to stop paying attention to the overt nonsense of the state apparatus. This is very different from, as one of my readers put it, abstaining from voting and “hoping the state notices the obscure point you’re making.” We’re long past that now. We’re not hoping the state notices anything. We’re not sending it postcards, not posting upbeat reminders on its refrigerator (filled, in any case, with the corpses of empire) exhorting it to recall old ideals, or to stop eating so much. We’re not writing graffiti in its margins as if we recognize its right to marginalize. In fact, we don’t need to find the state at all. It has our address.

Thinking that we should appease the electoralist system (Western parliamentary democracies and their China-style tyranny partners) to prevent something terrible happening is a thought licensed by the distancing mechanisms that arose with the inaugural instincts of electoralism itself. You look around and think, hmm, things are basically functioning, no soldiers in the streets, democracy may not be great but at least it takes the garbage out. But this is a view from the gated community. Something terrible has already happened. Electoralist systems ship their problems elsewhere because the system is designed for distance from the ground up and from the core to the periphery. The fact is that things are not basically functioning, unless you mean it’s okay that 40,000 children die every day from hunger and its complications but they’re not dying on your street. Everywhere you look in the world, electoralist states and their unelected deputies, their badges slightly askew (we all know the list of perps, the corporate lobbyists and the IMF and the World Bank and the UN and the subsidies rigged to look like free trade, not to mention the unelected IRS boss screwing your small business a thousand ways to Sunday), are throwing their weight around. The whole rotten road to hell carefully paved not by evil people but by the good intentions of people thinking that, sure, nothing good has happened yet, but maybe this time if I vote something will come of it. Maybe this time the “choice”—electable scumbag/unelectable good guy—will somehow change. The intention economy is in synch with the attention economy.

Those of us who have not lent our names to this havoc, who have not hailed the chief brigand nor any of his lackeys, who have been the most powerful force for good on the planet, should recognize each other more. We should stop allowing ourselves to be called apathetic by a system that manages to combine anarchy and apathy in its every bloody, thoughtless footfall.

If we wish to do good in the world, we can do it, here, now. If we wish to be good, be. We no longer need to beg the functionaries and hacks of the system to notice us. We’re adults now. We don’t have to appeal to that silly simulacrum of parenthood—government—to know how to be in the world.

This isn’t to say that bureaucrats, petty and pettier, won’t attempt to wreck our neighborhoods, steal our goods, exact tributary, corrupt our sons and daughters, make deals with green spokespersons to foul our air and water and to greenwash evildoers. But it is essential to see that henceforth they must do it as interlopers, not as the demon we have let in our front door, and whom we have courted and petted. And their anarchy must be named. Their apathy must be named. The system is radical and revolutionary and destructive. We who believe in staying out of foreign entanglements, who believe in neighborhoods and in children and in living gently upon the earth, in what Chris Carlsson calls Nowtopia, we are not the radicals.

If voting and product fetishization are the two official means of recognizing the power of the system to hold your attention, there are still countless ways to be included even if you don’t buy The Great Distraction and if you don’t buy Gucci. We will undoubtedly fail in increments too numerous to name, but we will also often succeed in being here now. It is not always possible to tell, as the truculent and perversely affectionate state moves inside our heads, which increment is them and which is us, our very selves. More reason not to grant the lavish integer of attention the state craves by sending our selves to Washington with that procrustean curse of equivalence, one ‘man’ one vote.

—Dufferin Grove watershed, Toronto

DAVID Ker THOMSON teaches at the University of Toronto. This article is a portion of his ongoing book project, A. A has received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant, a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities grant, and a Princeton Association of New England grant (from Princeton University for work at Harvard). A portion of A appeared in South Atlantic Quarterly in January of 2009, expletives deleted. He can be reached at: dave.thomson@utoronto.ca

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