The Pathologies of the Attention Economy
The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 16
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. I am fated, it seems, to periodically return to the subject of attention. I will at least try to keep these periodic reconsiderations of attention a few months apart. In this case, I selectively trace the history of attention discourse back to the 19th century in order to observe a pattern we should take into consideration whenever we talk about the “problem of attention” and when we try to do something about it. And while this pattern emerges out of a consideration of attention, I think the pattern more generally characterizes our techno-economic milieu. In any case, I hope your attention is repaid should you choose to give it to this essay.
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Allow me to take you on a brief historical journey with Yves Citton’s The Ecology of Attention as our guide.1 The goal of the journey is two-fold. First, to trace a trajectory which might illuminate our situation. Second, to observe a particular pattern worth considering.
If you’re reading this, you likely know that over the last decade a great deal of attention has been paid to the problem of attention: a wide array of books, articles, essays, and documentaries have appeared to chronicle the disordered state of attention in an age of digital distraction (or something like that). As a matter of convenience, I sometimes use the phrase “attention discourse” to refer to all of this talk about attention.
The curious thing about attention discourse is that it has been with us for longer than most would guess. Clearly, this most recent iteration is directly connected to the rise of digital media, but previous waves of attention discourse have preceded the advent of digital technology. Many of you reading this will be old enough to remember, for example, an earlier cycle of attention discourse in the 1980s centered on the rise of attention deficit disorder (ADD) diagnoses, which were sometimes linked in the discourse to electronic not digital media, specifically television.
We’ll come back to ADD/ADHD before we’re done, but let me get on with the historical sketch first.
Citton reminds us of Michael Goldhaber, who, in a series of essays in the late 1990s, argued that a new “attention economy” was emerging alongside the traditional economy of goods and services. “Ours is not truly an information economy,” Goldhaber claimed. “Economics,” he went on to explain,
is the study of how a society uses its scarce resources. And information is not scarce—especially on the Net, where it is not only abundant, but overflowing. We are drowning in information, yet constantly increasing our generation of it. So a key question arises: Is there something else that flows through cyberspace, something that is scarce and desirable? There is. No one would put anything on the Internet without the hope of obtaining some. It's called attention. And the economy of attention—not information—is the natural economy of cyberspace.”
Early in 2021, Charlie Warzel drew our attention to Goldhaber’s predictions and opened his column by describing Goldhaber as “the internet prophet you’ve never heard of.” I’m sure this came as no surprise to Goldhaber, who appears to have sensed that in the attention economy, fame would be even more short-lived than it was in the tele-visual age. Incidentally, I wrote an installment of this newsletter in response to Warzel’s discussion of Goldhaber’s predictions—this is, after all, the way the discourse works. In any case, that earlier installment, “Your Attention Is Not a Resource,” is, in my view, still pretty good.
As Warzel and Goldhaber acknowledged, the phrase “attention economy” dates back to an even earlier age. As Citton noted, Herbert Simon is widely regarded as “the father of the attention economy. At a conference in 1969, Simon observed that ‘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.’” (Incidentally, this is an important principle, which seems deceptively obvious but the implications of which are not always taken into account. Shifts from scarcity to abundance radically alter whatever natural or social landscape we happen to be considering. For example, many of the debates about journalism often fail to reckon with the basic fact of information superabundance.)
Before coming back to Citton’s survey, I’ll insert what I consider to be two mid-century literary contributions to attention discourse. The first is a 1961 short story written by the American author, Kurt Vonnegut. “Harrison Bergeron” is set in a dystopian future where equality is enforced by totalitarian means. The physically gifted, for example, were burdened with weights so as to neutralize their natural advantages. The advantages of the intellectually gifted were neutralized by other means.
Of one such character the narrator explains that “he was required by law to wear [a radio in his ear] at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.” Upon reading this story a dozen years ago, it immediately struck me as an Orwellian anticipation of what, in fact, played out along Huxleyan lines. Our regimen of stochastic distraction tends to be freely chosen rather than tyrannically imposed.
I’m not sure to what degree Vonnegut was specifically interested in or responding to dynamics in the ecology of attention, but Ray Bradbury, writing a few short years earlier does seem to be more keenly attuned to the dynamics that characterize contemporary attention discourse. The only time I’m ever really tempted to drop an “Actually …” on someone is when I feel compelled to say, “Actually, Fahrenheit 451 isn’t really about censorship.” I’ll resist the temptation to go down that path here. Suffice it to say that all the action in the book is triggered by one simple question: “Are you happy?” For our purposes here, I’ll also note that Bradbury’s book is about an imposed and willful alienation from the world effected by media technologies. One scene in particular speaks directly to the question of attention. In it, the protagonist is trying desperately to commit to memory a passage of a book he must shortly surrender to the authorities. But his efforts are undone by an incessant advertising jingle blaring over the loudspeaker on the train he is riding. I think of this scene whenever I’m pumping gas and the screen on the pump starts up with a series of 20 second video ads.
The explicit link Bradbury drew between attention and advertising is a good segue back to Citton’s account of the history of attention discourse. Citton introduced me to the work of Gabriel Tarde, a French sociologist who died in 1904. Two years before his death, Tarde published Economic Psychology, which anticipated the dynamics of what we know as the attention economy.
Here is Citton summarizing Tarde’s insights:
Tarde understood immediately […] the extent to which advertising, necessary for the absorption of excess goods coming from industrial overproduction, needed to be considered in terms of attention: ‘Interrupting attention, fixing it on the thing being proffered, is the immediate and direct effect of advertising.’ He sensed perfectly the contagious implications of this: ‘it is not just the fourth page of newspapers that is made up of advertisements. The whole body of the paper is a one big continuous and general advertisement.’
Then there is this intriguing tidbit from Tarde about the need, as Citton puts it, for “new tools – capable of measuring the attentional flux – which simultaneously indicate and structure our daily interactions”:
‘The need for a fameometer becomes even more apparent when celebrities of every kind are more abundant, more sudden and more fleeting, and when, despite their habitual impermanence, they do not fail to be accompanied by a formidable power, since they are a good for the possessor, but a light, a faith, for society.’
One might frame the expansive digital data-gathering apparatus as a response to just this need for a “fameometer” (one imagines that this was, in French, a more elegant term).
There’s one more insight from Tarde via Citton that is worth mentioning and with which we can begin to transition from the trajectory to the pattern. Describing Tarde’s work again, Citton observes that “problems of attention are intimately connected with the establishment of the ‘machinofacture’ peculiar to the industrial mode of production, imposing on the worker an ‘exhaustion of attention [that] is a new subtler form of torture, unknown to the crude purgatories of earlier times.’”
That last rhetorical flourish may ring a bit hollow in our ears and, of course, conditions have not remained static in the ensuing century, but the underlying dynamic has remained relatively consistent. When we push back to the origins of attention discourse in the nineteenth century, we find that attention becomes a problem to be theorized in the context of, first, the need to market a new abundance of consumer goods and, second, when new forms of industrial labor required new modes of discipline to treat the “inattention” of the worker tasked with performing the same repetitive actions throughout the workday.
These roots of attention discourse are also highlighted in Jonathan Crary’s Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (1999). As Crary documented, much of the early research on attention in the nineteenth century was initially “bound up in the need for information on attention in the context of rationalizing production.” But, as he goes on to add, “even as early as 1910 hundreds of experimental laboratory studies had been done specifically on the range of attention in advertising.” Typical articles included “The Attention Value of Periodical Advertisements,” “Attention and the Effects of Size in Street Car Advertisements,” “Advertising and the Laws of Mental Attention,” and “Measuring the Attention Value of Color in Advertising.”
Crary argued that since the late nineteenth century, we have been confronted by “a constant re-creation of the conditions of sensory experience, in what could be called a revolutionizing of the means of perception.” According to Crary, the “problem of attention” was
a problem whose centrality was directly related to the emergence of a social, urban, psychic, and industrial field increasingly saturated with sensory input. Inattention, especially within the context of new forms of large-scale industrialized production, began to be treated as a danger and a serious problem, even though it was the very modernized arrangements of labour that produced inattention.
Thus, Crary argued, “it is possible to see one crucial aspect of modernity as an ongoing crisis of attentiveness, in which the changing configurations of capitalism continually push attention to new limits and thresholds, with an endless sequence of new products, sources of stimulation, and streams of information, and then respond with new methods of managing and regulating perception.” While the particulars have evolved over time, I think we will find that this pattern has remained relatively consistent. Consider how Citton frames the problem of ADD or ADHD in the 1980s and 90s.
Citton notes that “ADHDs are rooted […] in a ‘disorder’ (which is individualized, personalized, or more precisely neurologized) and a ‘deficit’ (the neurones do not work quickly enough).” Note the quotation marks around disorder and deficit. “So it is not surprising,” he goes on to write, “that (starting in the USA) the main and most obvious way of ‘managing’ the disease is the broad distribution of Ritalin to a whole section of the young. For a ‘neurological disorder’, a medicinal solution.”
The problem, in his view, is that “this ignores the acceleration in communication, new media apparatuses and information overload; it ignores, in short, the whole evolution of ‘the configurations of capitalism’ highlighted by Jonathan Crary, which ‘continually push attention to new limits and thresholds’.”
Citton’s point at this juncture in his argument is that we should avoid framing the problem of attention as a problem individuals experience independently of their techno-social environment. “From the ‘ongoing crisis of attentiveness’ initiated in populations and lifestyles at least one hundred and fifty years ago,” Citton observes, “only subject-individuals remain who are pathologized for ‘not paying attention to detail’, ‘being distracted by external stimuli’, or ‘having difficulty waiting their turn’.”
He then goes on to starkly frame the outcome of this development:
As a consequence of this individualization of behaviours, we use chemistry to compel our children’s attention (as well as our own), at all costs, to bend to the—unprecedented, completely artificial and terribly invasive—needs of a Janus-faced capitalism, which simultaneously advocates relentless productive discipline and limitless consumerist hedonism.
For my part, I would be hesitant to characterize the situation of every person who has been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD in this way. I’ve learned in listening to others tell their stories over the years that however thick or compelling the theoretical framework may be, it will not account for all of the nuances and idiosyncrasies of human experience.
I do think, however, that we need to consider the pattern Citton and Crary have, each in their own way, identified. I would describe the pattern this way:
We inhabit a techno-social environment manufactured to fracture our attention.
The interests served by this environment in turn pathologize the resultant inattention.
These same interests devise and enforce new techniques to discipline the inattentive subject.
As a more contemporary example of this dynamic, consider the recent experience with online schooling during the pandemic. When schooling was moved online, attention once more became a problem. Of course, many questioned the wisdom of demanding that children, especially young children, sit at a computer for several hours per day. But others saw an opportunity to develop and market various forms of attention monitoring software.
This analysis should at least encourage us to ask new questions about our own struggles with attention and distraction. If there is a “problem with attention,” what are its sources? Do I conceptualize the problem of attention as a failure of the individual, or as a failure of the techno-social environment? Who or what demands my attention and to what end? If I undertake a therapy of attention, in the interest of whom do I undertake it? Do my efforts to discipline my attention simply serve the interests of the system that has generated the problem in the first place, or do they aim at a modest liberation from that system, reaching toward genuine human goods? Can we cultivate the skill of attending to the world for the sake of the world and those with whom we share it?
The most succinct statement of the pattern we’ve been observing was given by the social critic Ivan Illich. “Contemporary man,” Illich observed, “attempts to create the world in his image, to build a totally man-made environment, and then discovers that he can do so only on the condition of constantly remaking himself to fit it.” This dynamic is everywhere on display as soon as you begin to notice it.
We will not by our individual actions undo a techno-social order that is inhospitable to human beings given the sorts of creatures we are (communal, embodied, mortal, etc.). But we can become more alert to how we might have internalized the demands of our milieu and judged ourselves (or others) for supposed failures—failures which are in reality the product of a social order that treats the person as a mere component in a system ordered toward economic ends. Only then might we undertake a meaningful therapy of attention whose rewards may very well be illegible to the order whose demands have structured our attention and, for that reason, be ours to enjoy in earnest.
Rob Horning was the first to draw my attention to Citton’s work back in 2021 after I had just written against framing our attention as a resource. I’ll take a moment to note that Rob was one of the editors of Real Life Magazine, for which I had the pleasure of writing a few years back. The magazine consistently published sharp and insightful pieces on internet culture, and I frequently linked to essays that appeared on its pages. Unfortunately, Real Life recently lost its funding and announced the end of its run. Rob is now writing a newsletter on Substack, “Internal Exile,” which I commend to you.