“Attention discourse” is how I usually refer to the proliferation of essays, articles, talks, and books around the problem of attention (or, alternatively, distraction) in the age of digital media. While there have been important precursors to digital age attention discourse dating back to the 19th century, I’d say the present iteration probably kicked off around 2008 with Nick Carr’s essay in the Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” And while disinformation discourse has supplanted its place in the public imagination over the past few years, attention discourse is alive and well.
I don’t intend for the label “attention discourse” to come off pejoratively or dismissively. In fact, I’ve made my own minor contributions to the genre. It was a recurring theme on the old blog (e.g.), and it was the subject of an installment of this newsletter just last summer. And I still think that the fate of attention in digital culture is a topic worthy of our considered reflection. More recently, however, I’ve been reconsidering the approach I’ve taken in the past to the question of attention. You can think of what follows as a report on the fruits this reconsideration as it now stands.
As a point of departure, let’s begin with a recent column in the Times by Charlie Warzel, who, I should note, comments frequently on the dynamics of the attention economy. In this particular piece from February, Warzel profiles Michael Goldhaber, whom he calls “the internet prophet you’ve never heard of,” which, I confess, was certainly true for me. As Warzel recounts the story, Goldhaber was a physicist who sometime in the 1980s had an epiphany about the nature of attention in an age of information glut (and do note that this epiphany predates the rise of the commercial internet).
The epiphany, simply put, was that we live in an attention economy, a term Goldhaber did not coin but which he seems to have done a great deal to popularize, chiefly with a 1997 essay that appeared in Wired. Here is a key paragraph from that essay:
Yet, ours is not truly an information economy. By definition, economics 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.
A bit further on, Goldhaber notes that “the attention economy is a star system, where Elvis has an advantage. The relationship between stars and fans is central.” But the average person is not altogether cut out of the attention economy, far from it. “Cyberspace,” Goldhaber explains, “offers a much more effective means of continuing and completing attention transactions, as well as opening up more possibilities to almost everyone. Whoever you are, however you express yourself, you can now have a crack at the global audience.”
Goldhaber goes on to argue that attention will, quite literally as I read him, become the real currency of the internet age, by which he means that it will eventually displace money. This portion of his argument seems to have missed the mark, although the entanglement of money and attention has certainly been borne out. Others will be better qualified to judge the financial aspects of Goldhaber’s vision of attention as currency.
Needless to say, developments in the NFT markets suggest some interesting lines of inquiry, something Warzel explored in his most recent column. There, Warzel walks us through some of the most recent trends among those who are, in fact, earning their livelihood by transforming attention into money. At the frontiers of attention monetization we find, for example, “a platform called NewNew, which wants to build a ‘human stock market,’ where fans can vote to control mundane decisions in a creator’s day-to-day life.” As I was composing this piece, a story about an artist who sold a portion of their skin as an NFT also crossed my feed [correction: it was a tennis player].
Clearly, there is a profoundly dark side to this vision of unfettered monetization. Frankly, it’s hard to read this as anything more than a form of voluntary indentured servitude. Beyond that, as Anil Dash explained to Warzel, “The gig economy is coming for absolutely everyone and everything […] The end game of that is the GoFundMe link posted beneath a viral tweet so they can pay for their health care. Being an influencer sounds fun until it’s ‘keep producing viral content to literally stay alive.’ That’s the machine we’re headed toward.”
In his 1997 essay, Goldhaber had anticipated some of these disturbing dynamics. “Already today,” he observed at the time, “no matter what you do, the money you receive is more and more likely to track the recognition that comes to you for doing what you do. If there is nothing very special about your work, no matter how hard you apply yourself you won't get noticed, and that increasingly means you won't get paid much either.”
Coming back to the piece with which we started, Warzel summarized Goldhaber’s thinking about the attention economy this way:
Every single action we take — calling our grandparents, cleaning up the kitchen or, today, scrolling through our phones — is a transaction. We are taking what precious little attention we have and diverting it toward something. This is a zero-sum proposition, he realized. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.
And, as we noted at the outset, Goldhaber was especially keen to point out that the value of attention is defined by its scarcity.
Not that long ago, I would’ve pretty much assented to this whole line of thought. Indeed, I know that I have also spoken and written about attention as a scarce resource that we ought to take great care in how we allocate it. I would have had no problem at all with Howard Rheingold’s principle, cited by Goldhaber, that attention is a limited resource, so we should pay attention to where we pay attention.
While I remain quite sympathetic to the spirit of this line of thought, it now seems to me that the framing of the problem is itself part of the problem. To begin with, we might do well to stop thinking about attention as a scarce resource.
After he published a burst of spirited and prophetic works of social criticism in the early and mid-70s, Ivan Illich decided that it was time to re-evaluate his own critical approach. Despite their obvious faults, the industrial age institutions Illich targeted in his scathing critiques proved to be more resilient than he anticipated, and not necessarily because they were, in fact, useful, just, and sustainable enterprises. Rather, Illich came to the conclusion that we remained locked into these inevitably self-destructive institutional structures because they were, as David Cayley explained, “anchored at a depth that ‘rabble-rousing’ could not reach, even if it were as lucid and rhetorically refined as Illich’s critiques had been.” Illich began referring to the “certainties” upon which modern institutions rested. These certainties were assumptions of which we are barely aware, assumptions which lend current institutional structures a patina of inevitability. These certainties generated the sense that people couldn’t possibly do without such tools or institutions, even if they were, in fact, relatively modern innovations. And in this next phase of his career, Illich set out to trace the origins of these certainties, which, in his view, were anything but.
Chief among these certainties was the presumption of scarcity. In fact, in 1980, Illich announced his intention to write a history of scarcity. That history never materialized, but a number of pieces of that larger work Illich was working toward were published in a variety of contexts.
The presumption of scarcity undermined the more hopeful possibility of a convivial society, which Illich had outlined in Tools for Conviviality. However, by the time he published Shadow Work in the 1980, Illich had been encouraged by the growth of small pockets of conviviality in a variety of communities across the globe. But he also worried that these outposts of more convivial social arrangements were threatened by the encroachment of formal economic structures, which were necessarily premised on the idea of scarcity. As Illich put it, he wanted to defend “alternatives to economics” not simply “economic alternatives.”
What Illich sought to defend was what he called the “vernacular domain.” Of his use of the word vernacular, Illich explained, “I would like to resuscitate some of its old breath to designate the activities of people when they are not motivated by thoughts of exchange.” The term, as he meant to use it, “denotes autonomous, non-market related actions through which people satisfy everyday needs—the actions that by their own true nature escape bureaucratic control, satisfying needs to which, in the very process, they give specific shape.”
As Cayley explains in his invaluable guide to Illich’s thought,
By naming a vernacular domain, Illich hoped to do two things: to endow activities undertaken for their own sake with a specific dignity and presence and to distinguish these activities from things done in the shadow of economics. He wanted to highlight that portion of social life that had been, remained, or might become immune to the logic of economization. By offering a name, he hoped to secure for those pursuing alternatives a place to stand—a respite from management, economization, and professionalization where new commons could take shape.
At this point, I suspect you have a good sense of where this is going. Attention discourse proceeds under the sign of scarcity. It treats attention as a resource, and, by doing so, maybe it has given up the game. To speak about attention as a resource is to grant and even encourage its commodification. If attention is scarce, then a competitive attention economy flows inevitably from it. In other words, to think of attention as a resource is already to invite the possibility that it may be extracted. Perhaps this seems like the natural way of thinking about attention, but, of course, this is precisely the kind of certainty Illich invited us to question.
I can hear the rejoinders taking shape, of course: But attention is scarce. Right now I’m giving it to your writing and not to something else. I have only so many waking hours, and so much to which I must or would like to give my attention. At any given moment, I’m likely to find my attention divided and fragmented. Etc.
Given the intuitive force of these claims, further variations of which I suspect you can readily supply, is the claim that we have all the attention we need even plausible?
As I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to think that it is, but we may need to reevaluate more than just how we think about attention in order to see it as such.
So here is a proposition for you to consider: you and I have exactly as much attention as we need. In fact, I’d invite you to do more than consider it. Take it out for a spin in the world. See if proceeding on this assumption doesn’t change how you experience life, maybe not radically, but perhaps for the better. And the implicit corollary should also be borne in mind. If I have exactly as much attention as I need, then in those moments when I feel as if I don’t, the problem is not that I don’t have enough attention. It lies elsewhere. (There is an additional consideration, which is that I’ve failed to cultivate my attention, but, again, this is not a question of scarcity.) In any case, I obviously can’t make any promises, but, you may find, as I have of late, that refusing the assumption of scarcity can be surprisingly liberating.
There are obstacles, of course. Force of habit chief among them. And, as we all know, attention feels scarce to the degree that we yield to the imperatives of telepresence, which is to say the imperatives of being digitally dispersed, of anchoring attention to a plane other than or in addition to that of bodily presence. Relatedly, resisting the assumption of scarcity probably presumes the acceptance in principle of benevolent limits, limits that, far from amounting to constraints to be overcome, are, in fact, the necessary parameters of our well-being. It is also true, of course, that I’m presuming a measure of agency that is simply not available to everyone in equal measure, but even in such cases, the problem is not one of attention scarcity, but of unjust or unequal social arrangements. All of this said, however, it still seems to me that one could get rather far in the right direction by refusing to think of attention as a scarce resource.
But it may be, too, that my initial proposition requires a qualification. Let’s put it this way: you and I have exactly as much attention as we need at any given moment provided that at that moment we also know what it would be good for us to do.
This qualification also stems from Illich’s insights, so allow me to elaborate. His crusade against the colonization of experience by economic rationality led him not only to challenge the assumption of scarcity and defend the realm of the vernacular, he also studiously avoided the language of “values” in favor of talk about the “good.” He believed that the good could be established by observing the requirements of proportionality or complementarity in a given moment or situation. The good was characterized by its fittingness. Illich sometimes characterized it as a matter of answering a call as opposed to applying a rule.
The idea of the vernacular, the preference for the language of the good rather than values, and resistance to the presumption of scarcity are all related in Illich’s thinking. In 1988, in a conversation with David Cayley, Illich says that he has “become increasingly aware of the question: What happened when the good was replaced by values?”
“The transformation of the good into values,” he answers, “of commitment into decision, of question into problem1, reflects a perception that our thoughts, our ideas, and our time have become resources, scarce means which can be used for either of two or several alternative ends. The word value reflects this transition, and the person who uses it incorporates himself in a sphere of scarcity.”
A little further on in the conversation, Illich explains that value is “a generalization of economics. It says, this is a value, this is a nonvalue, make a decision between the two of them. These are three different values, put them in precise order.” “But,” he goes on to explain, “when we speak about the good, we show a totally different appreciation of what is before us. The good is convertible with being, convertible with the beautiful, convertible with the true.”
Interestingly, when Cayley asks Illich if the language of the good is recoverable, Illich responds, “Between the two of us, at this moment, yes!”
Between the two of us. At this moment. There is a personal, even intimate quality about the apprehension of the good. Illich goes on to explain how, in that specific case, it is borne out of their mutual friendship and the conditions of their conversation. To draw this more directly into our present theme, Illich and Cayley each has just as much attention as they need in the moment. The joy of their conversation, the resonance of their encounter, to borrow another formulation, may tacitly derive from the sense that there is nothing else to which they ought to be giving their attention in that moment because their attention is ordered toward the good at that moment.
If I may, in turn, speak about this in a rather personal vein, given the contours of my own life, I feel the tensions we’ve been exploring most acutely in relationship to my children. My guess is that if you are a parent yourself, you may be nodding along in agreement. This has especially been true when I have, like so many others, found myself “working” from home. What better illustration, in my experience anyway, of the contrast between the realm of value and the realm of the good. But the line cannot be as clearly drawn as one might suspect. It is not simply that my work lies in the realm of value and my children in the realm of the good. At a given moment it may be good for me to attend to my work, and at another the good requires that I set my work aside to attend to my children. My point all along has been that I have just as much attention as I need in either case, so along as I can be responsive to what is good and my circumstances enable me to be responsive in this way. The myriad factors that complicate matters do not entail a scarcity of attention.
Re-framings, of course, only get us so far, and I would be happy to hear how this particular reframing of attention serves you, or how it falls short in your view.
There is one other path that I wanted to pursue, but my sense is that it would be good (!) to bring this installment to a close. Next time, however, I will come back to this discussion and consider how attention discourse fails precisely by talking about attention as if it were an abstract resource rather than something that is intimately tied to our bodily senses.
While I don’t take the time to explore these distinctions, I would invite you to consider what exactly Illich might mean when he distinguishes between commitment and decision and between question and problem.