Attention Stewardship

Some people saw the thrashing idscape in which we tribulate coming from a long way off. And they called it “the attention economy.”

A recent New York Times opinion column by Charlie Warzel reminded me that as easy as it has been to trace some of the more dangerous effects of the attention economy to events of the last decade, some people could tell where things were headed long, long before that. One of them was Michael Goldhaber, a theoretical physicist and, as Warzel grandly introduces him, “the internet prophet you’ve never heard of.” Well, he had me at internet. And prophet. And never heard of.

Goldhaber has been writing about the attention economy for decades. In fact, back in 1997, he wrote an essay for WIRED about how the transactions of our dollars-and-cents economy would not only begin to include exchanges of attention, but would eventually be replaced entirely by them. For a population just getting to know the internet, the idea that attention would matter more than money was preposterous. For us who now know it well, it’s remarkably on-point.

Looking back, it’s fascinating — and more than a little bit concerning — to note that Goldhaber’s own pessimism was far more accurate than his optimism. He earnestly predicted that attention would replace money because “attention can’t be bought.” Well, it turns out that it very much can. And as utopic as a moneyless future sounds, a future in which attention replaces money as our currency seems obviously worse when you consider what Goldhaber got right. He warned that the pressure individuals would feel to both attract and give attention would metastasize into a wide-spreading erosion of culture. Goldhaber believed that simple human psychology predicted this. He wrote, “Our abilities to pay attention are limited. Not so our abilities to receive it. The value of true modesty or humility is hard to sustain in an attention economy.” In a recent conversation in preparation for Charlie Warzel’s op-ed, Goldhaber echoed the same point: “When you have attention, you have power, and some people will try and succeed in getting huge amounts of attention, and they would not use it in equal or positive ways.”

We’ve all lived and suffered that truth, especially acutely over the last few years, haven’t we? Warzel sums it up this way, “Attention is a bit like the air we breathe. And it feels as if our attention has become polluted.”

Warzel connects Goldhaber’s early warnings to their latest effects, including the attempted insurrection on January 6th. The mob may have been after many different things, but the one thing every participant seems to have had in common was a desire for attention. The event itself, he writes, was “the result of thousands of influencers and news outlets that, in an attempt to gain fortune and fame and attention, trotted out increasingly dangerous conspiracy theories on platforms optimized to amplify outrage.” Implied here is something I’d been observing as an increasingly rapid contagion of anti-truth since the day Donald Trump descended his escalator to declare his intention to destroy the country: that conspiracies and accusations of conspiracy are products, not byproducts of the attention economy. They’re not something to believe in, but merely material to exchange for attention. In an inversion of assumptions about meaning, it’s no longer relevant whether a person believes what they are saying as long as it is understood why they are saying it. Lies can be quite expedient.

That the attention economy is oversupplied with bile and bullshit is a compound problem. It’s obvious that the effects of peddling and buying lies can be profound. People can lose their grips on reality. Systems upon which many rely can fall apart. The equity of hundreds of years of history can dry up in a moment. These are the agonies of our public reckoning with how technology, truth, and treason have mixed and mingled in recent years. But we may get past this very shared and public struggle with truth and technology and still suffer the erosion of culture that Goldhaber warned about. Culture, after all, is bigger than political partisanship, bigger than sovereign nations, bigger than infrastructure, bigger than multinational corporations. Culture is a tapestry of ideas, beliefs, and agreements. And as powerful as any idea or belief or agreement may be, each relies upon attention.

Goldhaber also wrote, “When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.” That is such a simple statement, but it’s no less profound. It explains why thousands of articles go unread as you read this one — simple, indeed — but also why the aggregate of billions of equally simple exchanges of attention lead to the grand murmurations of culture.

If attention is an economy, then, in theory, it should follow a simple law of supply and demand just like any other economic system. In other words, the value and supply of attention should settle at a point where the there’s enough attention to meet demand. The problem is that while such a balance can be expected of bars of gold or even shares of a videogame retailer’s stock, attention works by its own rules that upend the law of supply and demand. There will never be enough attention to meet demand.

Goldhaber puts it this way:

“The attention economy is a zero-sum game. What one person gets, someone else is denied. The size of the attention pie can grow as more and more people join the world audience, but the size of the average slice can’t. Real attention to you, meaning minds focusing on you, is always limited by the number of minds there are. The more minds, the more attention - but also the more who might want attention. The total available attention per capita (per mind) is simply not going to change.”

These very words that I have written and that you are now reading provide a good example of what Goldhaber is talking about. You’re reading this. That’s good for me. But that also means there are billions of things you’re not reading. That’s not good for the people who wrote them and whatever attention they hoped to get from you. Meanwhile, every moment that you spend paying attention to me is not only a moment you’re not paying attention to someone else, it’s a moment you’re not spending doing something that could get you attention. That’s where the law of supply and demand breaks down. Attention can’t be stored up or mass produced; it’s an inherently temporal matter. The more attention we pay, the less we can get.

But what if you don’t care about getting attention? This is a question that should be asked. It’s easy enough to say that the internet, and specifically things like social media, have trained us to desire and seek attention more and more rapidly than we did before. I’m willing to accept that as true. But I don’t think we can say that every one of us has been affected in the same way, or that the desire for attention has increased equally across all of humanity, or that the form attention takes and the means by which we seek it is a singular thing. Of course it is not. Though there are people willing to do all kinds of things simply for attention, not all of us go to such lengths. But even so, we do seek attention and we do pay it out. Our transactions may be much more mundane than a streamed coup, but they exist nonetheless and they are a finite resource.

That makes me wonder whether, through the frame of the attention economy, we are seeing its mechanics all wrong.

In the zero-sum attention game, the reader, you, gives the writer, me, your attention. You only get what I have written, for as long as you’re reading it. But by these terms, I stand to get “more.” There could be thousands of you reading this at the same time. Though I can’t store your attention on the shelf, I can still get more than I pay out. If I’m a good writer, I “win” the game. Is that really the best way to think of this? After all, surely you stand to gain something, too. In the zero sum attention game, I am the beneficiary of your attention. But what if we chose to reverse that? What if we chose to see the beneficiary of the attention economy not as the recipient, but as the one paying attention?

Perhaps, then, we might think differently about information. We might begin to care more about its value than its volume.

René Girard was a widely influential thinker who certainly would have agreed. Girard is probably most famous for his thinking about the nature of human desire. He proposed that it’s not a singular phenomenon, but an aggregate effect. His mimetic theory suggests that what you and I want is not original, but derives from what others want — that desire is an imitation. Mimesis is mimicry.

Naturally, this is a fiercely debated point. Even right now, you may be thinking of half a dozen things that you’ve chosen for your own reasons, perhaps even at the resistance of others. That something as obviously personal as desire is really just the imitation of someone else’s desire seems, on its face, to be absurd. Is your favorite breakfast cereal really the end of an infinite regress of desires, and if so, originating with whom? That I can’t answer. Perhaps there’s a Girard scholar out there who can.

But the more interesting thing about Girard’s theories is the broader idea that, as this incredibly robust Reddit explanation puts it, “secrets may exist in far more abundance than we realize AND YET…There are reasons we don’t see them. And those reasons involve the details, mechanics and implications of Girard’s theories. How we focus our desire and our attention is less under our control than we realize.”

Regardless of the question of origin in Girard’s theory of desire, the mechanics of how desire and attention work together to influence people are obvious. This is why fortunes can be created within hours of a photograph of a celebrity wearing something interesting being published online. Desire can be created and contagious. (So can consent, as Noam Chomsky once wrote.) Desire is also diverse. We can want and pursue ideas just as we can things. And desire is just one manifestation of the mind — one form of attention. There are many others. But if the attention economy shepherds our attention (and clusters it) then the objects of our attention must be worthwhile. Otherwise, we miss out. We flippantly call this FOMO, but there is a gravity to missing out.

The more we, as a culture, unify our attention, the bigger the void into which most things will disappear. Girard’s theory suggests that attention, like any product of desire, will ultimately fall into a pattern of mimesis; rather than the so-called long-tail of distribution so often associated with the internet creating a diversity of attention, we’ll instead have a steady snowballing of attention as more and more of us are captivated by the same things. Fewer ideas attended to by the minds of humanity means, in the long run, fewer ideas known about and fewer ideas in existence.

I find that to be a stirring admonition. Few would disagree that a poor information diet does not a healthy mind make. Noted: Let’s keep our reality TV viewing to a minimum. But these two ideas — the information economy and mimetic theory — intersect at the responsibility we each have to use our attention wisely. To care about what we consume so that we are the beneficiaries of attention no matter if we are giving or receiving it. To care less about receiving attention simply for attention’s sake. To consider our acts of attention as acts of stewardship not just over our own minds, but over the culture of which we are a part.

I shudder at the thought of a realm of unknown ideas — the dark matter of the mind undiscovered by us because our attention is elsewhere. But that feeling quickly turns to wonder when I realize that I can control my attention. If not entirely, as Girard believed, surely more than I do as a docile doomscroller and streaming grid-wanderer. It’s worth noting that Goldhaber, who thought about this deeply decades ago, has spent the majority of the years since accumulating a very scant online profile. His attention has been elsewhere.

Where would our attention be if we remained truly connected to the thought that each choice we make builds the future? Or that each idea we consider might shed light on one that has been waiting among that dark matter to be discovered?

Written by Christopher Butler on February 19, 2021,   In Essays

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