Fierce Assaults on the “Attentional Commons”

People in tech circles often talk about the “attention economy” with knowing nonchalance.  Instead of things being scarce, they note, the real shortage these days is people’s attention.  Hence the ferocious drive to capture people’s attention. 

This analysis is true as far as it goes.  What it fails to address is that the “attention economy” is not really an “economy.”  It is a predatory invasion of our consciousness. Sellers are using every possible technique to colonize our minds and emotions at the most elemental levels in a relentless attempt to prod us to buy, buy, buy.    

Author Matthew B. Crawford made an eloquent case for the “attentional commons” in an opinion piece, "The Cost of Paying Attention," in Sunday’s New York Times (March 8).  “What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common?" he asks.  "Perhaps, if we could envision an ‘attentional commons,’ then we could figure out how to protect it.”

Crawford recounts a series of all-to-familiar intrusions upon our attention:  ads on the little screen used to swipe credit cards at the grocery store…. ads for lipstick on the trays at airport security screening lines…. “endlessly recurring message from the Lincoln Financial Group” along the moving handrail on an airport escalator….the ubiquitous chatter of CNN and TV ads in the airport lounge. 

“The fields of vision that haven’t been claimed for commerce are getting fewer and narrower,” Crawford writes.  He concedes that you can put on headphones or play with your smartphone – but the point is that neither of these strategies prevent a shared social space from being destroyed. Without such spaces, we are deprived of the opportunity to develop certain types of attitudes and relationships.  Our inner imagination and ability to reflect atrophy.  Such subtle, inner virtues that pale in the face of cold, hard cash!

Crawford writes: 

“An airport lounge once felt rich with possibilities for spontaneous encounters. Even if we did not converse, our attention was free to alight upon one another and linger, or not.  We encountered another person, even if in silence.  Such encounters are always ambiguous, and their need for interpretation gives rise to a train of imaginings, often erotic.  This is what makes cities exciting.”

The most insightful part of Crawford’s essay is about the structurally unequality that gives some people access to silence while depriving others of that blessing.  Silence is now a luxury good available only to those who can afford it.  At the airport, wealthier people can retreat to the gracious silence of business lounges.  The rest of us in the “peon section” are subjected to an endless barrage of raucous commercial noise and visual clutter. 

Crawford astutely notes:

“Other people’s minds, over in the peon section, can be treated a resource – a standing reserve of purchasing power to be steered according to the innovative marketing schemes hatched by those enjoying silence in the business lounge.  When some people treat the minds of others as a resource, this is not ‘creating ‘wealth – it is a transfer.”

Of course, the real problem is how to reassert our claims to the attentional commons and make that different ethic stick.  Crawford doesn’t have much to say about practical solutions, alas.  Perhaps because there ARE no easy solutions.

I once bought a remote control culture-jamming device that was able to turn off blaring TVs in public spaces.  A crude bit of electronic subterfuge and self-protection.  I never tried it on the invasive CNN noise in airport lounges, however.  I’m sure it would not have worked.  

What’s really needed is a courageous voice for humanity in the board rooms and executive suites, one that is willing to stand up for our rich interior selves and reject the objectification of humanity into demographic units to be harvested for sales to advertisers.  But I have no illusions that high-minded moral suasion is going to carry the day.  Serious business people are not likely forgo the significant revenues that can be had from enclosing silence and mass attention.  Some other leverage points for change must be found -- such as our civil protests and socially disruptive interventions.

Crawford’s essay reminds me of two great works on this subject, one quite short, the other a book.  The short piece is Ivan Illich’s classic essay, “Silence is a Commons,” which talks about how the arrival of electric-power loudspeakers on the Dalmatian coast where he was raised, and how they dispossessed people without speakers and enclosed the silence that was once the common wealth. 

A book that bears further study, from Crawford and the rest of us, is Malcolm McCullough’s book, Ambient Commons:  Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press, 2013), which takes this whole line of analysis to a much richer place -- the ways in which the design of urban spaces and buildings can create ambient commons or, alternatively, private enclosures of the mind. The subtle structural nature of these enclosures is precisely what makes them so worthy of our attention.