The Economy of Attention
Decline of material wealth
What is more pleasant than the benevolent notice other people take of us, what is more agreeable than their compassionate empathy? What inspires us more than addressing ears flushed with excitement, what captivates us more than exercising our own power of fascination? What is more thrilling than an entire hall of expectant eyes, what more overwhelming than applause surging up to us? What, lastly, equals the enchantment sparked off by the delighted attention we receive from those who profoundly delight ourselves? - Attention by other people is the most irresistible of drugs. To receive it outshines receiving any other kind of income. This is why glory surpasses power and why wealth is overshadowed by prominence.This is also why it is becoming popular in our affluent society to rank income in attention above money income. When rising numbers of people are able to afford the insignia of material wealth, then the desire for distinction will create a demand for attributes which are more selective than a large money income. In accordance with the law of the socialisation of luxuries, such attributes will be found among privileges which are still élitist. The undisputed common denominator of present-day élites is prominence - and prominence is nothing but the status of being a major earner of attention. When material wealth is spreading in an inflationary way, then the socialisation of this still élitist status is imminent.
I hear the objection that the socialisation of prominence is impossible, as this is a contradiction in terms. Prominence is an essentially distinguishing quality. In contrast to material wealth prominence cannot become a mass phenomenon. And yet: never has there been so much prominence as today; never has there been such fussing with familiar faces. Today, not only those are prominent who are on their way to the summits of fame and power; the prerequisite no longer is high birth, or the gift of great talent, or some valiant deed. Today one becomes prominent through a standardised career. The first step consists of nothing but somehow finding one's way into the media. Since media presence is the initial requirement, it is best to make one's appearance in the form of a picture, or better, on television. The career has passed its first hurdle when the impression one gives is commented upon, if one's appearance is talked about. At this point, a mechanism is set in motion which is needed for the rise, if that is to be successful. For, the new entry must in turn benefit the medium, he or she must promise to increase its circulation figures or TV ratings.
Circulation size and TV ratings are measures of the attention drawn by a particular medium. They also measure a medium's financial success; and the financial motive could, by itself, be sufficient to indirectly promote the prominence of everything which increases the medium's attractiveness. However, one would miss the point if one were to limit one's view to the pecuniary aspect. A medium's financial success in turn depends on its ability to be used as marketable advertising space. The supply of advertising space is an offer to attract attention via a service rendered. The effectiveness of this service is measured in terms of circulation figures or TV ratings. This is why the income in attention ranks above financial success, also with respect to the medium itself; and this is also why everything increasing the medium's attention income will be promoted, published, cultivated by it. Everything which is promoted, published and cultivated by the media is, by definition, prominent.
And, lo and behold, what is best for a medium's attention income? Very simple: as much prominence as possible. People enjoy nothing more than looking at faces shining with publicity. Nothing increases circulation more than as much gossip as possible about the world of the stars. Nothing increases viewing figures more than the commotion around the stars themselves. Therefore gossip columns are beginning to appear among serious commentaries and features; therefore, too, the tabloid press finds it worthwhile to report on surveys identifying the most frequently cited researchers. Therefore, too, prime time family television hours are absolutely packed with prominent individuals. Therefore, primadonnas promote Rolex and soccer idols recommend Budweiser - already, television and publishing programmes without well-known faces are beginning to be regarded as élitist.
Nothing seems to attract attention more than the accumulation of attention income, nothing seems to stimulate the media more than this kind of capital, nothing appears to charge advertising space with a stronger power of attraction than displayed wealth of earned attention. The media would have to invent prominence if it did not exist already; they would have to create their candidates out of nothing if they were not recruitable already. Prominent individuals are needed en masse if one wants to make the attraction of attention a mass business. The solution to the riddle of the miraculous increase in prominence lies in the media's ability to collect and deliver the critical quantities needed to run gathering attention as a mass business.
Media and prominence
The media are by no means just shunting places of information. They are a system of channels supplying information in order to gather attention in return. A television appearance means much more than just the dissemination of information. Through it, it becomes technically possible to multiply one's personal presence and to send one's reproductions into people's living-rooms to collect donated attention. The media's power of producing prominent individuals is only limited by the suggestive capacity of this collection service.
It was only gradually that the media acquired this power. The mechanical reproduction of the written word, of sound and images was just the technological starting point. Also, it was not demand for information as such which made the media big. What did make them big and is ensuring their further growth is the ingenious business idea of offering people information in order to get hold of their attention. Without the attention income promised by publication, not even the publishing trade would have developed in any significant way. If only material certain of commercial success had been published in books and periodicals, today's literary scene would look different from the way it does. Solely the fact that authors calculate in the currency of attention can explain their willingness to toil for the best expression of an idea in return for starvation wages. The ingeniousness of the publishing trade's business idea lies in splitting up the returns in terms of financial and attention currency. The production conditions of our literary culture are such that the publisher gets the money and the author gets the attention. If, in addition, the publisher acquires fame and the author wealth, this - in economic terms - is surplus profit: it would not be necessary to keep the system going.
It is exactly this mixed calculation which lies behind the transition from publishing organ to mass medium. A mass medium must not be delicate in its choice of means in catching attention. By contrast, an author working for attention wages cannot avoid being delicate in this respect: only attention earned for something one personally identifies with counts as personal income. This is why the desire for attention is so closely linked with that for self-fulfilment. However, what furthers self-fulfilment, rarely moves the masses. One will only move them by closely observing what the general public wants to read, listen to, or watch. Their desire for sensation must be satisfied, catchy tunes must be put on the air, pictures must be touched up to strike the eye. Producing something for this observed taste indeed also requires creative minds. But those must be of the kind that is willing to serve a foreign cause. And this willingness must be addressed by money.
Compromise thus earns its money. One can make a good living on the salaries paid in the entertainment industry. Journalism also feeds the members of the profession. The attention incomes earned in show business and publishing are sizeable. However, in those branches they are clearly proportional to the respective money incomes. The attention drawn by an appearance in a film, on radio or television, or in the press, is always partly also directed towards the respective medium as an institution or brand. For, just as attentive and financial remuneration must be brought together in order to assemble masses of people in front of printed pages or screens, the respective medium itself must attract both money and attention if it is to reach the masses unfailingly. The newspaper must be read because it exists; one must watch television because television exists. Put more succinctly: the papers and screens must become a separate, naturally perceived stratum of social reality. They must compete with the unmediated view of reality. They must impose themselves as fixed items in attention budgets. They will only do so, if the medium in question unfailingly presents what people want to see, listen to, read.
If the offer meets the general taste, if enough money and attention are spent on keeping people in line, then the medium acquires an additional quality also for those appearing in it. Secure circulation figures and ratings create a fund of expectable attention of which suppliers may freely dispose. Control of the channels means being able to re-lend the mass of attracted attention. Those offering space in printed media or transmission time become able to elevate somebody to prominence in the same way as, historically, successful conquerors could raise somebody to peerage by conferring fiefs. They are the only group in society able to freely dispose of the most highly valued resource. And, like emperors and kings, they may increase their own fame by sending out their followers, thus endowed, on further conquests for the respective medium.
The asyemmtrie of the attention economy
However, being commercial enterprises, the media also have the choice of turning the attention they catch into hard cash. They can rent out their territory as advertising space. Indeed, through this commercial activity they may gradually make themselves independent of the sale of information sent out on tour to catch the eye. The leading mass medium, private television, finances itself exclusively by selling the service of catching attention for anything whatsoever. The fact that prominent individuals, especially ennobled for the purpose, assist in rendering that service brightly illuminates another facet of the brilliant business idea.
Brilliant business ideas are seldom equally beneficial for all sides. The attention which the media re-lend is unilaterally donated by the people sitting in front of pages or screens. People pay their attention to the supplier in return for finding out what they like. The relationship between the attention invested by the suppliers and that collected in return is strictly asymmetrical. The suppliers disseminate information in the form of technical reproductions, while the consumers pay with live attention for each copy. Only through this asymmetry is it possible to collect such masses of donated attention, which is what makes a medium attractive for those appearing in it and which allows the media their lavishness in conferring the modern peerage of prominence.
An inevitable consequence of this asymmetric exchange is the social redistribution of attention incomes. The media make one stratum wealthier and exploit another one. It is not as if exchanging information for attention were unfair in principle. But if the attraction service is organised on an industrial scale, then inadvertently the social disparity between those rich and those poor in received attention increases. One may speak of outright exploitation when the addiction to television becomes epidemic.
To be sure, the redistribution effect of media consumption does not act upon an originally equal distribution. It only increases the original slant. As old as mankind is, as old - no, much older - are individual differences in the talent of capturing the attention of others. There have always been shining figures, celebrities, who effortlessly engaged everybody's senses and hearts. And there have always been forgotten, overlooked ones who sacrifice their self-esteem to attract just one glance. Also, natural differences in talent have always been intermingled with social privileges or deprivations. In order not to demand too much of the media one must acknowledge that something like the capitalisation of attention income existed long before the media came into being.
Market and accumulation of the attention income
Of course, the attention one enjoys cannot be saved and invested as would be possible with money earned. However, there is a secondary way of accumulation not open to money. The fine difference between money income and attention income lies in the fact that in the case of attention it is not irrelevant from whom it emanates. We evaluate the attention we catch not only according to the duration and concentration of its expenditure, but also according to our own esteem for the person from whom we receive it. Attention coming from people we admire is most precious; it is valuable coming from those we esteem; it counts little coming from people towards whom we are indifferent; and attention may even assume a negative value coming from people we despise or fear.
The secondary way of accumulation thus makes use of the fact that our esteem for another person depends to no small degree on the attention income this person receives from third parties. The dependence of personal esteem on income is common knowledge in the case of money. But a high attention income also increases a person's charm. If that person is liked by everyone, if he or she is well-known or even famous, then there must be something special about him or her. Whatever the reasons for this person's general recognition, the attention I myself receive from him or her reflects, to a certain extent, this person's fascination for all the others.
The social crediting of somebody's earned attention to his or her prestige constitutes the original accumulation of attentive capital. This is the first form of social reinforcement of the naturally uneven income opportunities. It happens in the sphere of social perception, but still remains, as it were, at the level of social instinct. It does not yet require any institutional shape or cultural encoding. Probably, this was already taking place among wolf packs or hordes of apes. Nevertheless, it was the starting point for the self-reinforcement of prominence in the media which we experience today.
If the attention due to me is not only credited to me personally but is also registered by others, and if the attention I pay to others is valued in proportion to the amount of attention earned by me, then an accounting system is set in motion which quotes something like the social share prices of individual attention. What is important, then, is not only how much attention one receives from how many people, but also from whom one receives it - or, put more simply, with whom one is seen. The reflection of somebody's attentive wealth thus becomes a source of income for oneself. Simple proximity to prominence will make a little prominent.
It is in this secondary market that social ambition thrives. It is this stock exchange of attentive capital that gives precise meaning to the expression "vanity fair" . However, the simple quest for recognition should not be called social ambition. Vanity is more than a healthy appetite for being noticed. Ambition is the hustle for a better position. The megalomania fed by somebody's notion of being endowed with superior talent may not be called ambitious. Ambition grabs any small chance. And chances arise abundantly in the heat dissipated by large amounts of capital. Diverting it to one's own grindmill does not require authentic brilliance but simply a touch of mercantile mentality. One may work one's way up in the economy of attention just by persistently keeping at the heels of those who are better off, just by being constantly seen in their vicinity. And if those at the summit are unreachable, there is the lower gentry besides high aristocracy.
Ambitious social risers take their clues from what is next best. They utilise small differences in the share prices of attention grabbed from above to immediately sell their own attention more dearly to equals or not yet equals. And if, additionally, their vanity is great, there will be side benefits which, given a little good will, can be extrapolated into windfall profits. Vanity, as observed above, is more than merely a strong appetite for attention by others. It contains an inclination for prettifying calculations that convert received attention into self-esteem. Vanity is, in the first place, not choosy about the where from and what for of attention but secondly it is quick in taking shortcuts from the path running via third parties that is normally prescribed for crediting income to a person's renown. Vanity has little regard for social control. It prefers to engage in self-deception, even more so since that is not always distinguishable from self-fulfilling prophecy. If one succeeds in making others take one's self-overestimation for real esteem, then what we have is actually not a case of self-deception but one of successful speculation. And the business of gathering attention is always speculative.
Quotations of the share prices of attention are not only influenced by a person's current attention income, they also incorporate expected future attention income. The observed trend is extrapolated. Those who are on the rise receive a bonus, those who are going down suffer an extra cut. This is the sphere of promotion by cheerleaders and annihilation by rumour, something not missing in any vanity fair. Hired applause has paved the way for many a career; ridicule in the press has extinguished more than just straw fires. However, as shady as the details of the speculation business may be, the larger volumes of capital cannot avoid going public.
The official quotation of the share price of personal capital is a person's presence in the media. Circulation figures and ratings document in black and white the income of the presented persons. A person's presence in a medium, calculated in terms of duration or space of presentation, measures the investment made by the respective medium. The volume invested corresponds to the expected amount of attractive power which this person will contribute to the medium. The relationship between the expected amount and successful attraction is, in economic terms, nothing but the relationship between the price of a company's shares and its operating results. Since it is the expected amount of attention which determines a person's presence in a medium, the media themselves are not only reloading points of the mass business in attention, they also act as exchanges assessing the value of capital denominated in attention currency. On the other hand, elbowing for a place in the media is not only motivated by the sizeable immediate returns, it also serves the purpose of nursing the share prices of attention.
The economy of attention has a long industrial history
It is instructive that there are extreme cases in the media scene demonstrating what it means if only one of the two functions described above comes into play. Thus, simple reloading of medially collected attention takes place when letters to the editor are printed, anniversaries are announced on radio, or when individuals from the audience are presented in quiz shows. In those cases a few people will experience receiving everybody's attention, but that will make little difference to their personal prestige. The attention they get will generally not be the starting capital for any later career. Being presented just makes them experience very shortly how it feels when everybody is watching you.
There is also the other extreme case where share prices are nursed without anybody watching. To this category belongs the boom in founding new scientific journals whose sole purpose it is to create a forum for the founder and a small circle of conspirators which will allow them to expand their publications lists. A publications list measures somebody's presence in scientific discussion, which is why it is tempting to have personal control over access to such a forum (and why, accordingly, prestigious journals prevent it). Since, however, the pro domo foundations are proliferating to such an extent that nobody is reading the stuff any more, it has also become common practice to publish the same contribution with slight variations under various titles. And since nobody checks the publications lists for their substance any more, either, it would be more than strange if with such help many an ass did not obtain a professorship.
These examples show ex negativo how closely related the wholesale function and the stock-exchange function normally are. However, they also show that in the attention economy, like in the real economy, faked deals and black markets thrive. This does not make the economy as a whole any less real. Bluffing reaches its limits in the ability of the whole to keep functioning. In this sense the attention economy is even very typical. It largely organises and stabilises itself. And its naturalness is so profound that few have intellectually taken note of its extensive and firmly established existence.
This intellectual ignorance is in so far remarkable as the immaterial component of the economic process has already reached the apex of its phase of full industrialisation. The economy of attention not only looks back on an ancient pre-history, it also has a long industrial history. It was pre-industrial as long as publication technologies were either of the handicraft type or, respectively, had not yet permeated the entire economy. Attention economy reached its early industrial phase when the first, relatively simple information and communication technologies developed. The technology of printing, radio broadcasting and sound film for the first time assembled critical amounts of anonymously donated attention, turning the star cult into a mass phenomenon. It was then that the business of attraction became professionalised, that deliberate eye-catching became industrial in advertising. We may speak of a phase of full industrialisation since the advent of television. There, the secondary, i.e. the viewers' aspect of reality specially created to attract attention, is beginning to compete with the primary aspect, directly perceived reality. During this last phase, most of the freely disposable, i.e. consuming attention passes through the various media; popularisation, i.e. mass production of prominence, arises. And during this phase there are also first indications that attention income is beginning to have greater weight than money income.
A mental capitalism
At this point, one wonders how our archaic emotional life has managed to come to terms with this industrial superpower. We allow the media quite naturally to dispose of the major portion of our most precious good, indeed we even enjoy delivering our attention to the spectacle going on. At last there is not only bread, there also games in over-abundance. To be sure, there are most striking differences between what those people in there and what we in front of them are receiving in the way of caring attentiveness. The medium not only enlarges differences, it also neutralises them. It diverts feelings of objection or reservation away from persons on to itself, the medium. Somehow it happens that we extend interest, liking and fascination to the persons who appear, but that we direct our rejection, objection, or indignation at the medium. Instead of being annoyed about the disproportion between the prominence of persons and the substance of their presentation we call television stupid. The objectivity of the medium has such overwhelming power over human comparisons that it would seem ridiculous to react with feelings of envy or jealousy to the unjustified distribution of attention. In the media the supra-personal rules of distribution practically become a completely anonymous mechanism of which all of us are part and whose method of accounting inadvertently assumes the effectiveness of an automated payment system.
What we have is mental capitalism. To all appearances, there exists a nearly perfect reflection of the material base in our mental superstructure. It is a great pity that the old reflection theory is so completely dead that it can no longer enjoy this fact. However, imagine how the old warriors would rub their eyes if they saw what has happened to the old relationship between basis and superstructure! According to materialist doctrine, the mental superstructure is only a dependent reflex of the material production conditions. This doctrine claimed to have put the idealist world view, which had been standing on its head, back on its feet. But what are those conditions doing now? They are standing on their head out of their own accord. Idea-economy has taken the lead. However, the production conditions were indeed what brought about the reversal. Not at all just by volume of attention turnover are the media big industry.
The media's supply keeps growing. What is thus expanding is not just their contribution to the national product, and their attention turnover. What is expanding is the aspect of reality especially produced to attract attention. For quite some time has it not been clear whether the reality extracted from pages and screens is not already dominating the directly perceived one. What is clear is that a major part of socially perceived reality is highly synthetic, as it is especially produced for use in the fight for attention.
Of course people know about the pre-structured and fiction-permeated share in what the media present to them. But it would be naive to believe that it is all that easy to distinguish between fact and fiction. For attentive beings like us, only that which retains our attention is real. This in turn does not mean that everything we imagine or think of is real for us. We are very well able to distinguish between perception, recollection and imagination. But we are not as easily able to stop some recollection acting like a real event, or to prevent an idea from exerting real power. Anybody in love knows about the unruliness of imaginative processes, any jealous person knows the relentlessness of recollections. It is in the stratum of such phenomena that the media are poaching for attention.
There is nothing more real than images which stick to the mind. Nothing exerts greater power over us than that which forces us to take attentive note. Everything to which we inadvertently pay attention, inadvertently exerts some effect on us. And everything that captures our attention is real to a higher degree than the background. To be sure, there is little in the media which sticks to the mind. Luckily, there is no obligation to pay attention, either. But there is enough which attracts, which caters to laziness, which may be taken in on the side. And everything in which attention gets entangled becomes, first of all, real in a subjective sense.
The obligation to address a large audience, indeed to keep a whole television nation in front of the screens, will leave its imprint and will influence style. Everything appearing in the media must undergo a highly professional process of styling and testing. This process means that a new forge of reality is forming, quite comparable to the role played by factories when they first came into being. It is true that the new process only produces semblances. However, semblance and substance are not distinguishable from one another because the latter can be physically touched. Through old habit we have come to consider the haptic, firm, in a generally perceivable sense public world, as actual reality, and to consider the world of transmitted images and published views as a phantom world of semblance. Often enough we overlook that immediate reality is not what we perceive as an assembly of touchable, solid things, but that which attention forms out of the stimuli activating our sensitivity. Everything appearing beyond this elementary stratum of perceivability has invariably been selected and actively shaped.
Media presentation shifts some of this subjective constitution of reality to the outside. The technique employed is to detach the pattern of stimuli from compact materiality. Technological progress in media presentation consists in detaching those patterns of stimuli with increasing perfection, so that they can be manipulated independently of the originals with increasing ease. The technology of this detachment process is what the new reality factories are operating with. It is logical that at the end of this path the detour via material reality need no longer be made and that virtual reality is produced directly.
In order to defend the doctrine of the superiority of what is material, one might argue that immaterial capitalism and excursions to virtual worlds are just consumption- and leisure phenomena. In the production sphere, material processes are still prominent. In the creation of value added the media are only one sector among others. In fact, material production has never been as enormous as today, not only regarding its economic value but also with respect to the ecological costs involved. Its enormousness is such that it overburdens the regenerative potential of ecological resources in a disastrous way. To deny the preponderance of the material aspect of economic life could amount to playing down this catastrophic danger.
The first objection is wrong, the second one leads in the wrong direction. As powerful as the material economy's growth may have been in absolute terms, equally strong - and at the same pace - has been the drop in the relative share of manual labour in the production of value added. It is one of the most significant economic changes of this century that the service of rendering attention has overtaken all other production factors in economic importance. At the same time it has become the guiding principle of economic rationality that the turnover of materials and energy must be reduced. The sheer magnitude of material turnover does not point to any superiority but is a sign that the current material economy cannot continue in its present form.
The pecuniary expression of the productivity of service-rendering attention is the share of mental labour in the production of value added. In all developed societies it surpasses that of physical labour. However, mental labour differs from physical labour both in that it employs attention instead of physical energy and mental instead of physical capital. Mental labour presupposes education. Education basically means investing attention in oneself. Its simplest economic measure is the amount of time invested in educational activities by a pupil and a teacher which incorporates interest accrued from "human capital".
The aim of education is the acquisition and application of knowledge. Knowledge is reified attention that has crystallised from its live creative state and is, in that sense, also capitalised attention. Only that part of knowledge which is accessible to the general public is public capital. Its analogue on the material side is the public capital of infrastructure.
The emergence of a new, quarternary sector of the economy
It would, therefore, be completely wrong to think that the capitalisation of attention is limited to the phenomenon of prominence. This view would be as erroneous as thinking that only received attention is scarce and expensive. This is the case, but it is also true of one's own self-generated attentive energy. That energy can be accumulated through investment in oneself. A higher income attained through education may also be considered as a kind of dividend. But in this case it is the investment of one's attention in oneself which is the important aspect. However, education is also a kind of capitalisation of other persons' attention, if one thinks of the teachers' contributions.
In economic terms, the decisive question in discussing the capitalisation of attention is the way in which total mental labour is divided up between its direct productive application and its reinvestment in the production and transmission of knowledge. The long-term optimisation of this ratio has become the central condition for keeping a national economy at the top in international comparisons. The optimal rate of mental capital formation has greater weight than the rate of real capital investment. It is also more important than physical resources, regardless of even excellent endowment with them.
The tendency of de-materialisation has for quite some time taken hold of the economic process as a whole. It also reaches back into history. Its origins go back to the period when the service sector began to expand to the detriment of the producing and extracting industries. Tertiary services - like agency, administration, sale, consulting - are goods in the shape of attention paid. They used to be classified as non-productive by the economists of former times because they did not produce anything material, nothing which filled one's stomach. It was the drastic lightening of the burden of physical labour by machines and the increasing need for organisation in the production and distribution of goods which demonstrated that the service of rendering attention was not only a productive contribution, but was in fact pivotal to the enforcement of economic rationality.
The growth of the tertiary sector was alimented by the mechanisation of physical labour and by growing prosperity. Mechanisation shifts human labour to activities like planning and supervision as well as to marketing of the steadily increasing minimum turnover. Prosperity makes demand for goods more exacting and ties it more closely to the complementary demand for presentation and consulting. The growing complexity of both leads to higher requirements regarding the organisation of information and decision circuits.
This organisation remained untouched by mechanisation until the advent of a new kind of technology. The mechanical unburdening and substitution of labour in this sphere became more urgent with the general rise in wages, and especially with the rising share of highly qualified mental labour. Mental labour is particularly expensive because of the education dividend. What was needed, therefore, was the introduction of some technology that would unburden mental labour by substituting its more mechanical components.
This was achieved by information technology. Computers replace attentive by electrical energy. They emulate mental labour in that they move information instead of heavy matter. Since their introduction, de-materialisation has shifted from the object of labour to the instrument employed. This does not mean that the mind, or indeed attention, have leapt across to the machines. It means, however, that a potential is forming which may contribute to eventually replacing the material economy on a larger scale. Information - this is also the singled out pattern of stimuli from which we construct, perceiving, our haptic, firm world. It is infinitely easier and more energy-saving to change such patterns, to move them around, shape them, knead them, assemble them and send them round the world instead of their material original. However, the perception we construct from those manipulated stimuli is virtual reality. If the information processing capacity in human attention moves over to machines, this means that not only developments in the media are drifting towards the colonisation of virtual space. The tendency of virtualisation emanates just as much from economic pressures to substitute increasingly expensive labour, as from an ecological need to reduce the materials and energy balances.
De-materialisation and virtualisation have become common concepts also in production. The importance of occupations in the information sector suggests the emergence of a new, quarternary sector of the economy. In any case, the predominance of that which is material seems to be crumbling throughout the entire spectrum of the economic process. The totality of this transformation goes much further than suggested by the phrase information society. Information is the still physical aspect of the trans-physical economy of attention. Attention is far more than just the ready supply of information processing capacity. Attention is the essence of being conscious in the sense of both self-certain existence and alert presence of mind. Attention is the medium in which everything must be represented that is to become real for us as experiencing creatures. Each attentive creature is the centre of its own individual world. This world exists as many times as there are conscious beings.
Attentiveness as such is more than, and of ontologically higher order than, anything appearing to or in it. Dedicated attentiveness imparts dignity to the person receiving the attention. This alone makes receiving somebody's benevolent attention a most highly valued good for creatures who are attentive themselves. Receiving alert attentiveness means becoming part of another world. No attentive being has direct access to the world of another being's attention. By receiving another being's attention, however, the receiving one becomes represented in that other being's world. And it is one's representation in the other being's consciousness which makes the desire to be noticed so irresistible. It is not just that vanity cannot get enough of this. All of us are in the throes of the question how we appear to others. We cannot bear not playing any role in the other being's consciousness. The human soul already begins to suffer if it does not play the leading role in another soul. It is permanently maimed and ends in bitterness if it does not receive a generous minimum income of attentiveness. And it is its highest bliss to bathe in caring attention. Applause may, of course, sometimes come from the wrong side, and it may sometimes be the wrong side which is noticed. But if caring attentiveness comes from people whom we esteem, and if we receive it for qualities of which we are proud, there can hardly ever be too much of it.
Thus, the modern cult around one's own attractiveness did not need to be invented. Also, the observation that people enjoying material prosperity venerate nothing so much as their own magnetic hold on other people's attention is not surprising. New and astonishing is just the fervour with which professional business sense devours the liberated mental energies. It is only the display of power wielded by the sphere of media-channelled attention that is shocking in the discovery of this new economy.
However, too critical a view of the present cultural state might overlook that the replacement of money as life's reserve currency entails the chance of a possibly life-saving change in values. We have known quite long and sufficiently well that every day of hesitation to withdraw from the battle of matériel which we are waging against (our own) nature will heap deplorable misery on future generations. However, full knowledge and the guiltiest conscience have so far only moved dwindling minorities to changing their ways. It is probably illusionist to expect that the necessary reorientation of economic activity will be brought about by mass abstinence. If the way out of materialism is not found in abstinence, then it must be sought in hedonism itself. Within hedonism I see no other emergency exit but the one of self-activated de-materialisation of the economic process and the imminent change in values concerning different kinds of income.
Is the economy of attention thus an already practically experienced preliminary stage of future ecologically non-harmful lifestyles? Could the transformation of economic competition into a sharper battle for attention ultimately be the "cunning of reason" which will save us? Are we perhaps - unknowingly and without wanting it - on the right track? We should not take looking for answers to these questions too lightly.
First published in German, in "Merkur", no. 534/535. Translation into English by Silvia Plaza.