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The Attention Economy

The Attention Economy and Personal Sovereignty

In this edition we turn our Kaleidoscope and let the light shine through to illuminate a central challenge of our time crystalized by the question poet Mary Oliver asks, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”  To which we would add, and who will make that choice?

Responding to the many existential threats and related crises that our world faces today requires that we each, to the greatest extent possible, develop personal sovereignty – our ability to make meaning of the world and respond as our own hearts and minds would have us do. And we need to be able to do this in a world where large countervailing forces are at play.  Hence our focus on The Attention Economy, where what is bought and sold is our attention.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution most humans lived in an Agrarian Economy where the limiting commodity was arable land.  The energy which turned the wheel of the economy was human and animal. Society was organized in a socio-economic system called feudalism.

 Beginning in the mid-1700’s, a series of scientific discoveries and technologies arose in Western Europe that ushered in The Industrial Revolution.  Freed from total dependence on land and biological life and driven by new energy sources, specifically coal and oil, the scarce commodities in the economy became capital and technical know-how.  The governing set of practices, values and patterns of socio-economic behavior we call capitalism arose

With the invention of the computer in the mid-twentieth century and the exponential growth in computing since then, super-charged by the Internet, came the Knowledge Revolution.  Today, information is cheap, prevalent, and a driving force of our economic activity. The scarce commodity amidst the abundance of data and information is human attention.

It was a huge revelation to me when I came to understand the business model of television.  I had thought they were in the business of producing shows.  When I realized that the shows are not what is for sale, it is the viewers’ attention, the truth of the phrase, “If it’s free, you are the product” finally hit home.

So, what is the nature of this now-precious ‘commodity’ that has made Taylor Swift a billionaire and allows football players to earn up to $55 million a year?”

Let’s begin with a simple definition.  “Attention is the concentration of awareness on some phenomenon to the exclusion of other stimuli.” (Wikipedia) I concur with Oliver Burkeman (whose book I reviewed this month as a guest reviewer for “Billy’s Book Bag”) that our very “experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been.” (Four Thousand Weeks p. 92) Ponder this:  in The Attention Economy the stuff of our lives is for sale.  The question becomes who decides where you put your attention? Who or what is sovereign?

The answer, according to psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, is that we are. In the most unfree of circumstances we do have one remaining freedom– the freedom on what we place our attention.

Today we find ourselves in an asymmetrical battle for control and use of that attention.  Artificial Intelligence and the algorithms being used in social media and other platforms are designed to usurp our sovereignty and have us place our attention where they would have us.  We are challenged to be responsible for our attention, while engaging with technologies that operate at a speed our brains can’t match. Quoting Burkeman again, the Attention Economy is “essentially a giant machine for persuading you to make the wrong choices about what to do with your attention, and therefore with your finite life, by getting you to care about things you didn’t want to care about.”  (Burkeman p. 94).

If it is true, as Frankl claims, that “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response,” then cultivating that power is more important now than ever.  This means that to claim our sovereignty we must develop a practice of paying attention to our attention, a topic to which we will return in a future Kaleidoscope.

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