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 thantheir compassionate empathy? What inspires us more than addressing ears flushed with excitement, whatcaptivates us more than exercising our own power of fascination? What is more thrilling than an entirehall of expectant eyes, what more overwhelming than applause surging up to us? What, lastly, equals theenchantment sparked off by the delighted attention we receive from those who profoundly delightourselves? - Attention by other people is the most irresistible of drugs. To receive it outshines receivingany other kind of income. This is why glory surpasses power and why wealth is overshadowed byprominence.
This is also why it is becoming popular in our affluent society to rank income in attention above moneyincome. When rising numbers of people are able to afford the insignia of material wealth, then the desirefor distinction will create a demand for attributes which are more selective than a large money income. Inaccordance with the law of the socialisation of luxuries, such attributes will be found among privilegeswhich are still élitist. The undisputed common denominator of present-day élites is prominence - andprominence is nothing but the status of being a major earner of attention. When material wealth isspreading 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 cannotbecome a mass phenomenon. And yet: never has there been so much prominence as today; never hasthere been such fussing with familiar faces. Today, not only those are prominent who are on their way tothe summits of fame and power; the prerequisite no longer is high birth, or the gift of great talent, or somevaliant deed. Today one becomes prominent through a standardised career. The first step consists ofnothing but somehow finding one's way into the media. Since media presence is the initial requirement, itis best to make one's appearance in the form of a picture, or better, on television. The career has passedits first hurdle when the impression one gives is commented upon, if one's appearance is talked about. Atthis point, a mechanism is set in motion which is needed for the rise, if that is to be successful. For, thenew entry must in turn benefit the medium, he or she must promise to increase its circulation figures orTV ratings.
Circulation size and TV ratings are measures of the attention drawn by a particular medium. They alsomeasure a medium's financial success; and the financial motive could, by itself, be sufficient to indirectlypromote the prominence of everything which increases the medium's attractiveness. However, one wouldmiss the point if one were to limit one's view to the pecuniary aspect. A medium's financial success inturn depends on its ability to be used as marketable advertising space. The supply of advertising space isan offer to attract attention via a service rendered. The effectiveness of this service is measured in termsof 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 attentionincome will be promoted, published, cultivated by it. Everything which is promoted, published andcultivated 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 aspossible. People enjoy nothing more than looking at faces shining with publicity. Nothing increasescirculation more than as much gossip as possible about the world of the stars. Nothing increases viewingfigures more than the commotion around the stars themselves. Therefore gossip columns are beginning toappear among serious commentaries and features; therefore, too, the tabloid press finds it worthwhile toreport on surveys identifying the most frequently cited researchers. Therefore, too, prime time familytelevision hours are absolutely packed with prominent individuals. Therefore, primadonnas promote Rolexand soccer idols recommend Budweiser - already, television and publishing programmes withoutwell-known faces are beginning to be regarded as élitist.
Nothing seems to attract attention more than the accumulation of attention income, nothing seems tostimulate the media more than this kind of capital, nothing appears to charge advertising space with astronger power of attraction than displayed wealth of earned attention. The media would have to inventprominence if it did not exist already; they would have to create their candidates out of nothing if theywere not recruitable already. Prominent individuals are needed en masse if one wants to make theattraction of attention a mass business. The solution to the riddle of the miraculous increase inprominence lies in the media's ability to collect and deliver the critical quantities needed to run gatheringattention as a mass business.
Media and prominence
The media are by no means just shunting places of information. They are a system of channels supplyinginformation in order to gather attention in return. A television appearance means much more than just thedissemination of information. Through it, it becomes technically possible to multiply one's personalpresence and to send one's reproductions into people's living-rooms to collect donated attention. Themedia's power of producing prominent individuals is only limited by the suggestive capacity of thiscollection service.
It was only gradually that the media acquired this power. The mechanical reproduction of the writtenword, of sound and images was just the technological starting point. Also, it was not demand forinformation as such which made the media big. What did make them big and is ensuring their furthergrowth 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 havedeveloped in any significant way. If only material certain of commercial success had been published inbooks and periodicals, today's literary scene would look different from the way it does. Solely the factthat authors calculate in the currency of attention can explain their willingness to toil for the bestexpression of an idea in return for starvation wages. The ingeniousness of the publishing trade's businessidea lies in splitting up the returns in terms of financial and attention currency. The production conditionsof our literary culture are such that the publisher gets the money and the author gets the attention. If, inaddition, the publisher acquires fame and the author wealth, this - in economic terms - is surplus profit: itwould 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 authorworking for attention wages cannot avoid being delicate in this respect: only attention earned forsomething one personally identifies with counts as personal income. This is why the desire for attention isso closely linked with that for self-fulfilment. However, what furthers self-fulfilment, rarely moves themasses. One will only move them by closely observing what the general public wants to read, listen to, orwatch. Their desire for sensation must be satisfied, catchy tunes must be put on the air, pictures must betouched up to strike the eye. Producing something for this observed taste indeed also requires creativeminds. But those must be of the kind that is willing to serve a foreign cause. And this willingness must beaddressed by money.
Compromise thus earns its money. One can make a good living on the salaries paid in the entertainmentindustry. Journalism also feeds the members of the profession. The attention incomes earned in showbusiness and publishing are sizeable. However, in those branches they are clearly proportional to therespective money incomes. The attention drawn by an appearance in a film, on radio or television, or inthe 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 ofpeople in front of printed pages or screens, the respective medium itself must attract both money andattention if it is to reach the masses unfailingly. The newspaper must be read because it exists; one mustwatch television because television exists. Put more succinctly: the papers and screens must become aseparate, naturally perceived stratum of social reality. They must compete with the unmediated view ofreality. They must impose themselves as fixed items in attention budgets. They will only do so, if themedium 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 figuresand ratings create a fund of expectable attention of which suppliers may freely dispose. Control of thechannels means being able to re-lend the mass of attracted attention. Those offering space in printedmedia 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 onlygroup 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 forthe respective medium.
The asyemmtrie of the attention economy
However, being commercial enterprises, the media also have the choice of turning the attention they catchinto hard cash. They can rent out their territory as advertising space. Indeed, through this commercialactivity they may gradually make themselves independent of the sale of information sent out on tour tocatch the eye. The leading mass medium, private television, finances itself exclusively by selling theservice of catching attention for anything whatsoever. The fact that prominent individuals, especiallyennobled for the purpose, assist in rendering that service brightly illuminates another facet of the brilliantbusiness idea.
Brilliant business ideas are seldom equally beneficial for all sides. The attention which the media re-lend isunilaterally donated by the people sitting in front of pages or screens. People pay their attention to thesupplier in return for finding out what they like. The relationship between the attention invested by thesuppliers and that collected in return is strictly asymmetrical. The suppliers disseminate information in theform of technical reproductions, while the consumers pay with live attention for each copy. Only throughthis asymmetry is it possible to collect such masses of donated attention, which is what makes a mediumattractive for those appearing in it and which allows the media their lavishness in conferring the modernpeerage 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 forattention were unfair in principle. But if the attraction service is organised on an industrial scale, theninadvertently the social disparity between those rich and those poor in received attention increases. Onemay 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 equaldistribution. It only increases the original slant. As old as mankind is, as old - no, much older - areindividual differences in the talent of capturing the attention of others. There have always been shiningfigures, celebrities, who effortlessly engaged everybody's senses and hearts. And there have always beenforgotten, overlooked ones who sacrifice their self-esteem to attract just one glance. Also, naturaldifferences in talent have always been intermingled with social privileges or deprivations. In order not todemand too much of the media one must acknowledge that something like the capitalisation of attentionincome 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 moneyearned. However, there is a secondary way of accumulation not open to money. The fine differencebetween money income and attention income lies in the fact that in the case of attention it is not irrelevantfrom whom it emanates. We evaluate the attention we catch not only according to the duration andconcentration of its expenditure, but also according to our own esteem for the person from whom wereceive it. Attention coming from people we admire is most precious; it is valuable coming from those weesteem; it counts little coming from people towards whom we are indifferent; and attention may evenassume a negative value coming from people we despise or fear.
The secondary way of accumulationthus makes use of the fact that our esteem for another person depends to no small degree on the attentionincome this person receives from third parties. The dependence of personal esteem on income is commonknowledge in the case of money. But a high attention income also increases a person's charm. If thatperson is liked by everyone, if he or she is well-known or even famous, then there must be somethingspecial about him or her. Whatever the reasons for this person's general recognition, the attention I myselfreceive 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 originalaccumulation of attentive capital. This is the first form of social reinforcement of the naturally unevenincome opportunities. It happens in the sphere of social perception, but still remains, as it were, at thelevel of social instinct. It does not yet require any institutional shape or cultural encoding. Probably, thiswas already taking place among wolf packs or hordes of apes. Nevertheless, it was the starting point forthe 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 theattention I pay to others is valued in proportion to the amount of attention earned by me, then anaccounting system is set in motion which quotes something like the social share prices of individualattention. 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 ofsomebody's attentive wealth thus becomes a source of income for oneself. Simple proximity toprominence will make a little prominent.
It is in this secondary market that social ambition thrives. It is this stock exchange of attentive capital thatgives precise meaning to the expression "vanity fair" . However, the simple quest for recognition shouldnot be called social ambition. Vanity is more than a healthy appetite for being noticed. Ambition is thehustle for a better position. The megalomania fed by somebody's notion of being endowed with superiortalent may not be called ambitious. Ambition grabs any small chance. And chances arise abundantly in theheat dissipated by large amounts of capital. Diverting it to one's own grindmill does not require authenticbrilliance but simply a touch of mercantile mentality. One may work one's way up in the economy ofattention just by persistently keeping at the heels of those who are better off, just by being constantlyseen in their vicinity. And if those at the summit are unreachable, there is the lower gentry besides higharistocracy.
Ambitious social risers take their clues from what is next best. They utilise small differences in the shareprices of attention grabbed from above to immediately sell their own attention more dearly to equals ornot yet equals. And if, additionally, their vanity is great, there will be side benefits which, given a littlegood will, can be extrapolated into windfall profits. Vanity, as observed above, is more than merely astrong appetite for attention by others. It contains an inclination for prettifying calculations that convertreceived attention into self-esteem. Vanity is, in the first place, not choosy about the where from andwhat for of attention but secondly it is quick in taking shortcuts from the path running via third partiesthat is normally prescribed for crediting income to a person's renown. Vanity has little regard for socialcontrol. It prefers to engage in self-deception, even more so since that is not always distinguishable fromself-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 thebusiness 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 whoare on the rise receive a bonus, those who are going down suffer an extra cut. This is the sphere ofpromotion by cheerleaders and annihilation by rumour, something not missing in any vanity fair. Hiredapplause has paved the way for many a career; ridicule in the press has extinguished more than just strawfires. However, as shady as the details of the speculation business may be, the larger volumes of capitalcannot 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. Aperson's presence in a medium, calculated in terms of duration or space of presentation, measures theinvestment made by the respective medium. The volume invested corresponds to the expected amount ofattractive power which this person will contribute to the medium. The relationship between the expectedamount and successful attraction is, in economic terms, nothing but the relationship between the price ofa company's shares and its operating results. Since it is the expected amount of attention whichdetermines a person's presence in a medium, the media themselves are not only reloading points of themass business in attention, they also act as exchanges assessing the value of capital denominated inattention currency. On the other hand, elbowing for a place in the media is not only motivated by thesizeable 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 ofthe two functions described above comes into play. Thus, simple reloading of medially collected attentiontakes place when letters to the editor are printed, anniversaries are announced on radio, or whenindividuals from the audience are presented in quiz shows. In those cases a few people will experiencereceiving everybody's attention, but that will make little difference to their personal prestige. The attentionthey get will generally not be the starting capital for any later career. Being presented just makes themexperience 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 thiscategory belongs the boom in founding new scientific journals whose sole purpose it is to create a forumfor 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 tohave 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 thestuff any more, it has also become common practice to publish the same contribution with slightvariations under various titles. And since nobody checks the publications lists for their substance anymore, 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-exchangefunction 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. Bluffingreaches its limits in the ability of the whole to keep functioning. In this sense the attention economy iseven very typical. It largely organises and stabilises itself. And its naturalness is so profound that few haveintellectually taken note of its extensive and firmly established existence.
This intellectual ignorance is in so far remarkable as the immaterial component of the economic processhas already reached the apex of its phase of full industrialisation. The economy of attention not only looksback on an ancient pre-history, it also has a long industrial history. It was pre-industrial as long aspublication technologies were either of the handicraft type or, respectively, had not yet permeated theentire economy. Attention economy reached its early industrial phase when the first, relatively simpleinformation and communication technologies developed. The technology of printing, radio broadcastingand sound film for the first time assembled critical amounts of anonymously donated attention, turningthe 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 fullindustrialisation since the advent of television. There, the secondary, i.e. the viewers' aspect of realityspecially created to attract attention, is beginning to compete with the primary aspect, directly perceivedreality. During this last phase, most of the freely disposable, i.e. consuming attention passes through thevarious media; popularisation, i.e. mass production of prominence, arises. And during this phase there arealso 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 thisindustrial superpower. We allow the media quite naturally to dispose of the major portion of our mostprecious good, indeed we even enjoy delivering our attention to the spectacle going on. At last there is notonly bread, there also games in over-abundance. To be sure, there are most striking differences betweenwhat 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 orreservation 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 indignationat the medium. Instead of being annoyed about the disproportion between the prominence of persons andthe substance of their presentation we call television stupid. The objectivity of the medium has suchoverwhelming power over human comparisons that it would seem ridiculous to react with feelings of envyor jealousy to the unjustified distribution of attention. In the media the supra-personal rules of distributionpractically become a completely anonymous mechanism of which all of us are part and whose method ofaccounting 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 thematerial base in our mental superstructure. It is a great pity that the old reflection theory is so completelydead that it can no longer enjoy this fact. However, imagine how the old warriors would rub their eyes ifthey saw what has happened to the old relationship between basis and superstructure! According tomaterialist doctrine, the mental superstructure is only a dependent reflex of the material productionconditions. This doctrine claimed to have put the idealist world view, which had been standing on itshead, back on its feet. But what are those conditions doing now? They are standing on their head out oftheir own accord. Idea-economy has taken the lead. However, the production conditions were indeedwhat brought about the reversal. Not at all just by volume of attention turnover are the media bigindustry.
The media's supply keeps growing. What is thus expanding is not just their contribution to the nationalproduct, and their attention turnover. What is expanding is the aspect of reality especially produced toattract attention. For quite some time has it not been clear whether the reality extracted from pages andscreens is not already dominating the directly perceived one. What is clear is that a major part of sociallyperceived 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 tothem. But it would be naive to believe that it is all that easy to distinguish between fact and fiction. Forattentive beings like us, only that which retains our attention is real. This in turn does not mean thateverything 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 realevent, or to prevent an idea from exerting real power. Anybody in love knows about the unruliness ofimaginative processes, any jealous person knows the relentlessness of recollections. It is in the stratum ofsuch 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 usthan 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 higherdegree 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 thescreens, will leave its imprint and will influence style. Everything appearing in the media must undergo ahighly professional process of styling and testing. This process means that a new forge of reality isforming, quite comparable to the role played by factories when they first came into being. It is true thatthe new process only produces semblances. However, semblance and substance are not distinguishablefrom one another because the latter can be physically touched. Through old habit we have come toconsider the haptic, firm, in a generally perceivable sense public world, as actual reality, and to considerthe world of transmitted images and published views as a phantom world of semblance. Often enough weoverlook that immediate reality is not what we perceive as an assembly of touchable, solid things, but thatwhich attention forms out of the stimuli activating our sensitivity. Everything appearing beyond thiselementary stratum of perceivability has invariably been selected and actively shaped.
Media presentation shifts some of this subjective constitution of reality to the outside. The techniqueemployed is to detach the pattern of stimuli from compact materiality. Technological progress in mediapresentation consists in detaching those patterns of stimuli with increasing perfection, so that they can bemanipulated independently of the originals with increasing ease. The technology of this detachmentprocess is what the new reality factories are operating with. It is logical that at the end of this path thedetour 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 immaterialcapitalism and excursions to virtual worlds are just consumption- and leisure phenomena. In theproduction sphere, material processes are still prominent. In the creation of value added the media areonly one sector among others. In fact, material production has never been as enormous as today, not onlyregarding its economic value but also with respect to the ecological costs involved. Its enormousness issuch that it overburdens the regenerative potential of ecological resources in a disastrous way. To denythe preponderance of the material aspect of economic life could amount to playing down this catastrophicdanger.
The first objection is wrong, the second one leads in the wrong direction. As powerful as the materialeconomy's growth may have been in absolute terms, equally strong - and at the same pace - has been thedrop in the relative share of manual labour in the production of value added. It is one of the mostsignificant economic changes of this century that the service of rendering attention has overtaken all otherproduction factors in economic importance. At the same time it has become the guiding principle ofeconomic rationality that the turnover of materials and energy must be reduced. The sheer magnitude ofmaterial turnover does not point to any superiority but is a sign that the current material economy cannotcontinue in its present form.
The pecuniary expression of the productivity of service-rendering attention is the share of mental labourin 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 andmental instead of physical capital. Mental labour presupposes education. Education basically meansinvesting attention in oneself. Its simplest economic measure is the amount of time invested in educationalactivities 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 thathas crystallised from its live creative state and is, in that sense, also capitalised attention. Only that part ofknowledge which is accessible to the general public is public capital. Its analogue on the material side isthe 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 thephenomenon of prominence. This view would be as erroneous as thinking that only received attention isscarce 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 througheducation may also be considered as a kind of dividend. But in this case it is the investment of one'sattention in oneself which is the important aspect. However, education is also a kind of capitalisation ofother 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 whichtotal mental labour is divided up between its direct productive application and its reinvestment in theproduction and transmission of knowledge. The long-term optimisation of this ratio has become thecentral condition for keeping a national economy at the top in international comparisons. The optimal rateof mental capital formation has greater weight than the rate of real capital investment. It is also moreimportant 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 awhole. It also reaches back into history. Its origins go back to the period when the service sector began toexpand 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 asnon-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 bymachines and the increasing need for organisation in the production and distribution of goods whichdemonstrated that the service of rendering attention was not only a productive contribution, but was infact pivotal to the enforcement of economic rationality.
The growth of the tertiary sector was alimented by the mechanisation of physical labour and by growingprosperity. Mechanisation shifts human labour to activities like planning and supervision as well as tomarketing of the steadily increasing minimum turnover. Prosperity makes demand for goods moreexacting and ties it more closely to the complementary demand for presentation and consulting. Thegrowing complexity of both leads to higher requirements regarding the organisation of information anddecision 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 thegeneral rise in wages, and especially with the rising share of highly qualified mental labour. Mental labouris particularly expensive because of the education dividend. What was needed, therefore, was theintroduction of some technology that would unburden mental labour by substituting its more mechanicalcomponents.
This was achieved by information technology. Computers replace attentive by electricalenergy. They emulate mental labour in that they move information instead of heavy matter. Since theirintroduction, de-materialisation has shifted from the object of labour to the instrument employed. Thisdoes 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 largerscale. Information - this is also the singled out pattern of stimuli from which we construct, perceiving, ourhaptic, firm world. It is infinitely easier and more energy-saving to change such patterns, to move themaround, shape them, knead them, assemble them and send them round the world instead of their materialoriginal. However, the perception we construct from those manipulated stimuli is virtual reality. If theinformation processing capacity in human attention moves over to machines, this means that not onlydevelopments in the media are drifting towards the colonisation of virtual space. The tendency ofvirtualisation 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 importanceof occupations in the information sector suggests the emergence of a new, quarternary sector of theeconomy. In any case, the predominance of that which is material seems to be crumbling throughout theentire spectrum of the economic process. The totality of this transformation goes much further thansuggested by the phrase information society. Information is the still physical aspect of the trans-physicaleconomy 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 ofmind. Attention is the medium in which everything must be represented that is to become real for us asexperiencing creatures. Each attentive creature is the centre of its own individual world. This world existsas 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 receivingsomebody'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 accessto the world of another being's attention. By receiving another being's attention, however, the receivingone becomes represented in that other being's world. And it is one's representation in the other being'sconsciousness which makes the desire to be noticed so irresistible. It is not just that vanity cannot getenough of this. All of us are in the throes of the question how we appear to others. We cannot bear notplaying any role in the other being's consciousness. The human soul already begins to suffer if it does notplay the leading role in another soul. It is permanently maimed and ends in bitterness if it does not receivea 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 sidewhich is noticed. But if caring attentiveness comes from people whom we esteem, and if we receive it forqualities 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 observationthat people enjoying material prosperity venerate nothing so much as their own magnetic hold on otherpeople's attention is not surprising. New and astonishing is just the fervour with which professionalbusiness sense devours the liberated mental energies. It is only the display of power wielded by the sphereof media-channelled attention that is shocking in the discovery of this new economy.
However, toocritical a view of the present cultural state might overlook that the replacement of money as life's reservecurrency entails the chance of a possibly life-saving change in values. We have known quite long andsufficiently well that every day of hesitation to withdraw from the battle of matériel which we are wagingagainst (our own) nature will heap deplorable misery on future generations. However, full knowledge andthe guiltiest conscience have so far only moved dwindling minorities to changing their ways. It is probablyillusionist to expect that the necessary reorientation of economic activity will be brought about by massabstinence. If the way out of materialism is not found in abstinence, then it must be sought in hedonismitself. Within hedonism I see no other emergency exit but the one of self-activated de-materialisation ofthe 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 futureecologically non-harmful lifestyles? Could the transformation of economic competition into a sharperbattle 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 thesequestions too lightly.
First published in German, in "Merkur", no. 534/535. Translation into English by Silvia Plaza.http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/5/5567/
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