Your attention please

The idea that the attention-economy landscape itself, however beneficial to those who navigate it successfully, is actually poisonous to human interaction and civilized culture is only starting to be recognized.

There has been much talk over the last five or six years about the so-called “attention economy,” the widely accepted term that posits that the scarce resource around which national and world economies now revolve is time itself, and that therefore people’s attention is in some important way the new “currency.” Many companies, in particular tech companies, have happily embraced this concept, and openly strategize about how best to succeed in this hyperactive landscape, in which gaining and holding your attention via your smartphone seems to be everyone’s primary corporate goal.

The idea that the attention-economy landscape itself, however beneficial to those who navigate it successfully, is actually poisonous to human interaction and civilized culture is only starting to be recognized. For an articulate discussion of the problem, I urge you to check out the work of a non-profit group called the Center for Humane Technology, starting here: The leaders at CHT have thought deeply about the problems baked into this attention economy of ours and how we might collectively begin to address them. For you podcast fans, I also recommend their podcast, called Your Undivided Attention.

I’m completely on board with everything they talk about, and will not try to improve upon their general critique of a society that has handed over the cultural reigns to algorithms that have created, across our culture, in CHT’s words, “a race to the bottom of the brain stem”–what they also refer to as “human downgrading.” They talk about the damage this is doing to the social fabric via blatant problems such as the ease with which misinformation and/or hate speech spreads on YouTube and Twitter. This is obviously troubling, all the more so because the social media companies involved have long been hiding behind the weak and by now irrelevant “We are not responsible for what users upload” argument. It’s irrelevant because the problem is far less about what users are uploading than what the platforms themselves are algorithmically and vigorously choosing to amplify in order to keep eyeballs on their apps.

What I’d like to do is take all that as a background to talk about a subtler problem, but one I think worth considering. Among the less-often-discussed casualties of the attention economy are those of us who, by inclination, don’t have “being noticed” as a continuous goal and/or don’t feel the need to have significant numbers of people paying attention to us at all times. This doesn’t mean we don’t have reasons to engage in conversations, to speak our minds about things that are important to us, and to want people to listen to us when we’re talking. It does mean that we have no interest in the kneejerk style of attention-seeking that is continually going on all around us. We don’t need to share all the photos and experiences that so many reflexively share, apparently in search of the validation of being “liked.” Some of us understand that the tiny gesture of putting a finger on a like button is not a reward we need to seek with lab-rat tenacity.

Doesn’t everyone want more followers? (Actually, no)

This lack of interest in gratuitous attention-seeking cuts so much against the norm of a culture that has embraced the reality of its attention economy as to seem bizarre. Doesn’t everyone want to be noticed as much as possible? Doesn’t everyone want more and more followers?

Actually, no. We might want to remember that at earlier moments in our culture, up through the end of the 20th century, this lack of interest in receiving widespread attention was relatively normal. Back then, one had to make a definitive effort to attract attention. While many no doubt appreciated the occasional ability to bask in the glow of recognition of a job well done, I’m pretty sure that only a limited number of people lived lives that were grounded in and/or seriously dependent on ongoing attention-seeking. In theory people feeling that need gravitated towards certain specific occupations (actor being one, self-help guru another), while everyone else went along living their regular lives, devoid of very much attention, and no worse off for it (in fact, as I see it, better off).

In a culture overtaken by social media landscapes and mores, it becomes far less obvious that people still exist who are happy without a lot of attention or notice but–news flash–some of us are still here. And boy do we find this endless attention-seeking going on all around us really depressing; I think we are the ones who may be feeling even more battered than most by what digital technology is doing to us and our friends and families. For instance, as a non-attention-seeker, I find it all the more hurtful when a loved one, standing nearby, has his or her attention swiped away by a random phone notification–a notification inevitably coming from either someone not in the room who is nevertheless actively seeking attention or an app the entire purpose of which is to grab and keep attention as often as possible. It’s more hurtful to me because I don’t live with that same motivation, I am not captivated by that same value system. So the isolating moment of being ignored for a notification becomes more globally isolating, in that I ongoingly see less and less in our daily cultural reality that validates my own concept of what constitutes healthy interaction between human beings (and, I should note, what previous generations of humans routinely thought of as healthy interaction). In my mind, I deserve attention because I am a worthwhile human; according to our 2019 culture, I deserve attention when I successfully seek it out.

Can you see the vicious cycle being created? With so many people trained by social media to be consciously projecting their thoughts and activities into the maw of the attention economy, it’s become difficult to earn the attention of others on the merits of what it is you’re trying to say, even within your own personal network. In this way, long-standing rules of the capitalist marketplace have infected our non-commercial relationships. By which I mean that in the marketplace, it’s always been about being the best attention-grabber. We use the word “marketing” to describe that very thing. Here in the 21st-century, fomented by digital technology, this behavior has slipped beyond the bounds of the commercial, to the point where today it often seems that, however consciously or not, people feel compelled to “market” themselves in their own social worlds, and to require being marketed to. What are photos on Facebook of your trip to the Bahamas but an effort, conscious or not, to market yourself in a certain way to a certain group of people? The product you are marketing—this ideal version of yourself–isn’t (usually) something you are asking people to purchase with dollars and cents, but with the currency of their time/attention. (Notice we have always considered “attention” as something one can “pay.”)

It’s one thing for the most-advertised product to be the one that sells the most. It’s another thing–at least, to me–for the most attention-seeking people to be the ones who are paid most attention to. Remove qualitative considerations from the equation of supposedly social interactions and things just get silly and off-putting at best, culturally corrosive at worst.

Yet again the internet promotes surface over depth

I think this reduces to my eternal bugaboo here in the digital age, which is the problem of surface versus depth–more specifically, the defeat of depth at the hands of surface. Seeking attention is a surface-level occupation, dependent as it is, especially here on the internet, on immediate visual impact: the photo that stuns the eye, the video that amazes (or appalls), the headline that grabs the reptile brain by the tail. (I’ve discussed this in more detail back in 2011, in “It’s called it viral for a reason,” and more recently, in 2017, in my essay “Music delivery and the empathy vacuum.“) Worthwhile human interaction, conversely, requires depth, and depth by definition requires time for absorbing and considering. You get to depth via behaviors that are effectively the opposite of scrolling–by staying with something, exploring it beyond its immediately apparent attributes. Not that something or someone can’t have both surface appeal and gratifying depth–of course this is possible. In fact, one would think this could in theory be a logical outgrowth of our attention economy: as it becomes commercially important for people to be spending time with your product/site/brand, in theory this could mean really diving in depth into an experience.

But the social media companies that dominate our online experiences, aggregators by nature, have no vested interest in giving us an experience of depth, not since they have perfected an internet landscape based on the endless scroll of a feed coupled with the dopamine hit of being “liked.” The way to increase time on an aggregator’s site is to offer an endless parade of surfaces combined with a quick (i.e., surface-level) method of interacting with these surfaces.

The surface versus depth problem is built into our digital environment, perhaps because of where the issue is ultimately grounded, which is in automation versus human deliberation. Depth is rooted in the human soul, which is to say in the ultimate mystery of each individual’s consciousness and interiority. Digital decisions, relentlessly based on data and effected at a black-or-white, zero-or-one inflection point, have no depth at all. Getting back to the matter at hand, this is what most troubles me about all the fast-paced attention-seeking that has come to dominate our interactions. In following the cues of the social media companies, we are collectively downgrading our humanity by aligning ourselves with the methodology and approach of the digital realm. Surrendering to surface interactions, surface concerns, surface attractions, we steadily lose what distinguishes us as thinking feeling beings.

In the current environment, someone like me is barely paid attention to–my Facebook posts unironically tell me that they are reaching zero people; my thoughtfully curated playlists get maybe 30 listens in an environment dominated by playlists listened to thousands of times. This can feel discouraging. One might easily think that our culture has reached a place where those of us not oriented towards attention seeking are pushed aside entirely, rendered as irrelevant in an attention economy as those without money to spend are in a financial economy.

But I have another idea about this. Assuming we collectively still do want to exist as a civilized culture, we must also therefore assume we can muster the wherewithal to combat the ruinous forces currently undermining the social goodwill required to maintain a free and functioning democracy, epitomized by a president who is both ignorant and hateful (never a good combination, although not an uncommon one). Because, to be blunt, if we can’t overcome this socio-political moment we will not continue as a civilized culture. It’s impossible to move forward with such rampant misinformation and surface-level interactions fueling such degraded behaviors, of which mass shootings are the most horrific example. (You’ll note that the most recent crop of mass murderers are young men who are in part motivated by the attention they’ll receive posthumously from those who approve of their cold-blooded exploits. Think about how warped but inevitable that attitude becomes in an attention economy.) So, assuming we can do this, assuming we figure out how to rescue ourselves, it is going to be necessary, as part of this course correction process, to break ourselves free of the trance induced by attention-economy operations such as Facebook and YouTube.

And guess what? There’s a population of people out here who have already figured this out. Don’t get me wrong, we’re still struggling with how to exist within a culture that has generally lost its capacity for nuance and informed discourse, but at least we haven’t imbibed the “look at me!” Kool-Aid that is operating like a slow-working poison in our collective bloodstream. We don’t need to be noticed as a perpetual state of being. This leaves us with a paradox, to be sure–the idea that those least interested in being noticed are going to have to teach everyone else how to stop requiring so much attention. How, exactly, can we do this?

I think the answer starts with what comes naturally to us: remaining silent. I don’t mean silent in the sense of not expressing ourselves, but I do mean silent in the context of the attention economy–which is to say, silent in the face of a culture that burns through people’s private concerns in that exact place where an all-consuming search for attention and profit-hungry data mining intersect. Because all that attention that people think they are seeking? In the end, the only ones truly being rewarded are the people pulling the technological strings. The Facebook model is instructive: allow everyone to believe they are just sharing things they like with people they know, then let the algorithms take over and watch the profits role in for the pipeline owner while our humanity is ongoingly degraded via privacy invasions and lowest-common-denominator amplification procedures. And then–an unhappy bonus!–watch the bad actors swoop in and wreak havoc on a culture being flayed by misinformation and rancor, which serves to ratchet up people’s need to participate, share, and argue. Rinse and repeat.

Being silent in this context is resistance. If people could learn to be silent in this way, refusing to put their words and pictures and emojis and links into the attention economy pipeline, a lot of it would rather quickly and thoroughly dry up. If people could learn that it’s far more important and rewarding to talk to one person, face to face, or ear to ear, or even screen to screen, than to broadcast to some imaginary audience, the pipeline would dry up. Civilization could re-group, re-orient towards actual collective well-being. Trolls would lose their maleficent sway over our national discourse. And–imagine this–we could at long last begin to harness the communicative power of internet technology in a way that benefits humankind rather than rewards those who embody our worst collective inclinations.

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