[iDC] A primer on the Attention (Centered) Economy

Jonathan Beller jbeller at pratt.edu
Thu Oct 22 15:02:00 UTC 2009

In response to the invitation, my comments appear below Michael  
Goldhaber's provocations.

Jonathan Beller
Humanities and Media Studies
and Critical and Visual Studies
Pratt Institute
jbeller at pratt.edu
718-636-3573 fax

On Oct 21, 2009, at 10:01 PM, Michael H Goldhaber wrote:

> Dear all,
> It would appear that most of the people on this list who have voiced  
> an opinion firmly believe both that capitalism remains essentially  
> the only current “mode of production” and that the attention economy  
> is, if anything at all, only a not very interesting sub-species of  
> the former. This is not how  I have understood things for quite a  
> few years now. What follows then is a rough and incomplete primer on  
> how I see what I shall refer to as “the attention (centered)  
> economy,”  — a new, post-capitalist class system, differing in its  
> essence from capitalism. I have emphasized features that I think  
> demonstrate why some views expressed on this list, or in  
> correspondence off list with me, are mistaken. The views I  
> challenge  include the notion that attention flows through the  
> Internet chiefly to corporations, that attention only has  
> significance if somehow monetized, that it is ultimately capitalists  
> who exploit attention, and that money remains far more basic than  
> attention. Obviously in such a brief introduction I can hardly hope  
> to convince anyone, but I do hope that this will at least open some  
> to reconsider the issues more fully. So to begin:
> 1. Attention (from other humans)  is needed by every human being. In  
> fact, no  infant can possibly survive without it.  Many children, at  
> a very young age, clearly evince a desire for as much attention as  
> they can get. Whether that desire remains as they grow older is a  
> psycho-social issue. But many adults clearly want attention, and  
> because of its immaterial nature there is no limit as to how much.  
> [I have explored the meaning of attention much more fully here: http://goldhaber.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2007/Chap_3_3.19.07.pdf 
>   ]
The infant's need for attention does not prove anything, any more than  
an infant's need for food would prove that such a need places him or  
her outside of the capitalist economy. Ditto for shelter, water,  
medicine, education, or, for that matter, a Porsche. The point is that  
with the rise of capitalism each of these use-values becomes available  
only as a commodity, that is, it must be accessed via exchange-value.  
Lack of the general form of social wealth, i.e., money, means that the  
infant does without basic necessities. Witness the 2 billion  
dispossessed. What were once solely animal or even human-social needs  
are encroached upon as capital penetrates the life-world. Piece by  
piece aspects of traditional societys, of the commons, are subsumed,  
and simultaneously new needs are invented. It is for this reason that  
people are talking about attention now -- it is a new frontier for  
capital encroachment, aka, commodification. I say new, but the  
cauldron has been bubbling during the entirely of the long 20th  
century while technologies for the organization simmered to a boil.

> 2. However each of us has only limited capacity to pay attention.  
> Everyone's attention combined is thus also finite. As attention- 
> seeking technologies increase, and as social prohibitions against  
> seeking  an audience weaken by example, the competition for it  
> grows. [I have discussed the Internet in this light here: http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/519/440 
>  .]
Seeing attention as a finite resource subject to zero-sum logic is  
already evidence that you are conceptualizing it as if it were a  
commodity. That's because it has become one -- another natural  
resource undergoing privitization. The very perception of attention in  
this framework is a result of material changes in the organization of  
social life, changes which are on a continuum with the history of  
capitalized media. I know from your ungenerous review of The Cinematic  
Mode of Production that you read over some of these ideas already but  
did not think much of (about?) them. Nonetheless, one would be hard- 
pressed to separate the emergence of attention grabbing technologies  
from NASDAQ. Notice that in rags like the New York Times the arts  
pages have become business pages and that the business pages are all  
about media and technology. When one was dealing only with the cinema,  
it was possible to imagine and hope that cinema was something other  
than an attention engine mining spectators for capital. Now however  
the monetization of screen-time is fundamental to a vast number of  
business models. As you know, I call this understanding of the  
transformed conditions of value transfer "the attention theory of  
value." The claim is that it supersedes the labor theory of value but  
reduces to it at sub-light speeds.

> 3. If you and I were in the same room, having a conversation, and I  
> were saying these same words (and you were interested) you would of  
> course be paying attention to me. Even if we happened to be sitting  
> in Starbuck’s your attention would still go chiefly to me and not to  
> Starbuck’s, Inc. In reading this, likewise, you are paying attention  
> to me, the writer of it, and very little directly to your computer  
> screen, to your computer’s manufacturer,  to your Internet Service  
> Provider,  to the phone or cable company, to thing.net, or even to  
> just to the words. (You read Shakespeare, Doris Lessing, or Marx,  
> rather than just books they happen to have written. In reading, the  
> publisher is of very little importance to you, though the publisher — 
> and others in the distribution channel — possibly made a profit when  
> you or someone  bought the book.)  Thus, it is irrelevant that  
> attention via the Internet passes through corporate sites or to say,  
> articles or blog posts on corporate-owned media. Attention still  
> goes primarily to the authors of the individual articles, etc. In  
> general, our attention can be thought of as primarily going to other  
> humans  or, at times, to ourselves.
We might not have the same conversation in starbucks as we would "in a  
room" or on a list serve. McLuhan's point, "the medium is the  
message" (and is therefore relatively content indifferent) is not well  
understood. It's not that people don't say stuff. The important issue  
for him is that the medium alters the sense-ratios and this alteration  
has far-reaching consequences that are neither matters of choice, nor  
matters of indifference. As he argues, the Gutenberg revolution, with  
it's fragmentation and standardization of language, was on a continuum  
with Newtonian calculus and (following Polyani) the rise of political  
economy as a semi-autonomus realm exercising its dominion over the  
social register. It was also what was responsible for the rise of  
individualism and nationalism -- the two great givens of the modern  
conception of history. So maybe we think we're just talking, but our  
blindness to the medium does not vitiate its function. Regis Debray's  
definition of ideology: "The play of ideas in the silence of  
technologies." In other words one must look at the technological, and  
therefore the historical conditions of possibility when evaluating a  
transmission, be it a text-message, a novel, or a nation.

> 4.  It is actually quite difficult to pay attention to a corporation  
> as such,  rather than to, say, a particular spokesperson or at times  
> the person who motivates the particular actions of the corporation  
> (e.g. Steve Jobs). Even TV fanatics are unlikely to watch just a  
> network, as opposed to a specific program with a relatively small  
> number of important creators behind it. Likewise, who attends or  
> watches a tennis match to see a particular brand of ball, racket or  
> tennis clothes?
This individuation has been analyzed as in my comment above as well as  
in terms of the cult of personality, characteristic of both celebrity  
and the charismatic dictators of fascism. When the compensation for  
individual castration (lack of individual agency, i.e., not enough  
attention being paid to an individual's desire) is secured not through  
identification with stars or with powerful dictators but through an  
identification with commodities (cars, lipsticks, the latest must-have  
gadget), you get what Baudrillard calls candy-fascism, what might be  
thought of as the individuation of the commodity. Debord calls this  
"the abundance of dispossesion."

> When a corporation’s executives want to attempt to increase sales  
> through getting consumer attention, they normally have to go through  
> a complex rigamarole, involving for instance the creative people at  
> ad agencies, and much more in the same vein. For instance,  
> advertisers try to place commercials as close as possible to  
> programs that draw attention; even then, they must also try to have  
> the ads themselves be interesting, which often has little to do with  
> what is being sold. If the corporation could just get attention on  
> its own, why does it not just put its name on the TV screen?
The point exactly. The programs are actually programs -- programs for  
the capture of attention by capitalists.

> 5. If you have enough attention you can get pretty much whatever you  
> want, including but not limited to money, should you want that. An  
> anonymous  capitalist who loses all her money is out of luck, but a  
> star (read: substantial attention getter) if without money, can  
> still  usually get more attention and through that a very generous  
> helping hand from her fans (who are usually net attention payers).  
> Stars exist in practically all fields, from entertainment to more  
> serious arts to academics to sports to politics to journalism  and  
> on and  on — including even business.
So attention is the new value-system, but it works just like the old  
value-system. For the most part, I agree. What is important here is to  
look at the transformations of the value-form, the emergent categories  
of actually existing political economy. These are not a break with  
capitalism but a developmental result of its intensification. Its  
planetary expansion outward into the built and formerly "natural"  
environments, as well as its corkscrewing inward into the soul, the  
psyche, the body, and now into the genetic material.

> 6. Without getting at least some attention, a person is likely to  
> fare very poorly. Even people without jobs or money, on the other  
> hand, can still very often get enough attention to be kept alive.  
> Thus it is a complete mistake to think of money as more primary than  
> attention. The money system and the attention system are different,  
> but both rely on what is immaterial to allow material wants to be  
> satisfied. (You can’t live by eating gold or dollar bills or credit  
> cards, after all.) In fact attention is much more intrinsic to human  
> existence than money, and thus, once it is possible to seek it and  
> obtain it over wide networks, it can easily come to dominate.
Try getting attention if you don't have capital to invest. I pass  
people begging on the subway far more often than I like, and I'm not  
the only one. I am ashamed to confess that, often as not, I attend  
carefully to not acknowledging my debt to this person as a member of  
my own species, as a relative, a brother or a sister. All too  
carefully I attend to myself, to making sure that I continue to be  
able to participate in the system of socially structured attention and  
indifference such that I do not jeopardize my own well being, or, and  
this is awful to say, my own sense of my entitlement. But when some  
hottie steps out of the pages of GQ or Cosmo and into the train (which  
doesn't happen too often since most of them take cabs), I pay my dues  
like everyone else, honoring their spectacular achievement of self- 
production and warding off my own abjection. Are these non-capitalist  

> 7. Now we come to the question of classes. For reasons I will not  
> address here, I think Marx was right to suggest each class system   
> is essentially dyadic, with the two classes of each in clear  
> relationship with each other, one being dominant and the other  
> dependent. A new class formation generally originates in a situation  
> in which an older class dyad dominates.  The new classes, partaking  
> as they do at first of the old milieu, at first do recognize their  
> own distinctness  and explain themselves even to themselves  
> according to the older formation, though not necessarily in simple  
> ways. Thus a member of the nascent star class may see herself more  
> as a worker or more as a capitalist (that is assuming she gives any  
> thought to such questions) and a fan can also identify either way.  
> Further, these identifications are not constant. Whether recognized  
> or not, the new class system is in conflict with the old, for it  
> relies on building up fundamentally different kinds of relations.  
> The combination of different identifications and the underlying   
> conflict lead to complex and changing alliances and/or oppositions  
> among all the four classes involved.
Ken Wark has interesting things to say here in A Hacker Manifesto, as  
do Hardt  and Negri and those who use the sign "multitiude" as a new  
figure for what was structurally "the proletariat." The fact that  
there are struggles within a unified system (the world market) is not,  
however, a guarantee that current forms of subjectification are the  
pathway out of it. The world-market has become expert at creating  
subjects who fight for market niches -- indeed this is a structural  
necessity at a variety of levels. However, one must ask, within this  
algorithmic system of expropriation and hierarchization that  
necessarily intensifies capital accumulation on one side and  
dispossession on the other, are their progressive strains that point  
to exist strategies, to forms of refusal, or to overthrow? In a world  
in which revolution has become a commodity among others, what forms of  
detournement are possible? This for me is one of the important  
questions of our time.

> 8.If valid, of what value is the foregoing analysis, beyond  
> intrinsic interest?
I think I answered that.

>  A. It facilitates a level of both clarity and nuance in examining  
> various key trends and situations that would otherwise be difficult  
> or impossible to comprehend.
> B. Recognizing the possibility of a post-capitalist class society  
> open up thinking that has in some ways been frozen ever since Marx.
> C. The existence of the attention (centered) economy changes both  
> the concept and the understanding of possibility of a basically   
> egalitarian society, of the kind that critics of capitalism are  
> presumably after.
> D. It is possible that in the very complexity of the underlying  
> struggle for dominance between the capitalism and the attention  
> (centered) economy there might be room for  a new humane socialism  
> to emerge. [See also http://www.well.com/user/mgoldh/Technosocialism.html 
>  .].[I have argued here  http://goldhaber.org/blog/?p=80 that the  
> attention economy is in fact increasingly dominant already; the  
> argument is necessarily impressionistic, but I think has some  
> heuristic value.]
> Best,
> Michael
> -------
> Michael H. Goldhaber
> PH  1-510 339-1192
> FAX 1-510-338-0895
> MOBILE 1-510-610-0629
> michael at goldhaber.org
> alternate e-mail:mgoldh at well.com
> blog and website: http://www.goldhaber.org
> alternate:http://www.well.com/user/mgoldh/
> alternate blog: http://mhgoldhaber.blogspot.com
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