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

Michael H Goldhaber mgoldh at well.com
Fri Oct 23 06:41:10 UTC 2009

I'm not sure I extended an invitation nor did I intend to provoke, but  
rather to offer some substance for reflection.
Let me however reply to  Jonathan Beller's too rapid (and, in my view,  
largely off the mark and usually off the point) conclusions.


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 blog: http://mhgoldhaber.blogspot.com

On Oct 22, 2009, at 8:02 AM, Jonathan Beller wrote:

> In response to the invitation, my comments appear below Michael  
> Goldhaber's provocations.
> Jon
> Jonathan Beller
> Professor
> 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,
>> G: 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 
>>   ]
> B: 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.

G: Let me spell out to a greater extent what I meant by what I thought  
was already quite clear. It may come as a surprise to Beller, but  
infants are incapable of buying anything. An infant's only ability to  
survive is through getting attention, either by crying, laughing,  
gurgling or whatever. Attention does not have a definite exchange  
value under capitalism, so Beller simply misses the entire point,  
which was not to "prove  anything" but to lay the groundwork for  
explaining the rise of the new kind of economy.

> B: 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.
G: to some extent this is valid, but something else takes place, and  
that is that capitalism inadvertently opens up space for the new post- 
capitalist class relations — just as feudalism did before. Feudalism  
created zones of peace in which commerce could expand greatly.  
Capitalism does something similar   partly by introducing new media  
just because it can. (New products and services are introduced in the  
hope they will become new needs, but that is not a given.)   As one  
medium after another was invented, individual attention seekers  
succeeded in developing themselves as stars in opposition to capital.  
Capitalists surely would have been happy to pay movies stars no more  
than ordinary workers, but they found they could not get them at those  
prices, to cite just one example. And without some sort of star, no  
>> G: 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 
>>  .]
> B: 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.

G:Attention is not a resource, and most definitely not a commodity.  
Commodities come in uniform and indistinguishable units, and sell for  
definite prices. Attention can not be bought at any definite price,  
nor is one person's attention at one time  equal either to that same  
person's attention at a different moment nor to anyone else's  
attention. Resources can generally be replaced by other resources and  
also each kind tends to be uniform, which again is not the case with  
attention. If Beller means these points metaphorically, then I think  
he is making the mistake of  conflating metaphorical and deductive  
truths. The fact that the (hoped-for) monetization of attention is the  
basis of various business models, demonstrates the struggle now  
extending between the two systems, but does not in any way demonstrate  
capitalism's dominance (and certainly not total dominance) or even the  
models' general success. The confluence of the arts and business pages  
of the Times, while an (dare I say unusually) accurate observation by  
Beller, can rather be explained by the growth of importance of star- 
fan relations, that is of the attention economy as a reality that the  
old economy tries to deal with, but with very mixed success at best.

By the way, having been asked to review Beller's book, I read it over  
with great care so as to give it every benefit of the doubt; so I deny  
being ungenerous, though honest in my assessment. Beller's book is  
devoted to the notion that cinema from the beginning "min[ed ]  
spectators for capital," a point I think he did not prove at all, some  
of his argument seeming to me extremely absurd; now he wants to say  
this mining has only succeeded more recently, but that is still by no  
means demonstrated, and I think quite mistaken. (Demonstrating the  
idiocy of some capitalists, the distributors of the journal that  
contains  my review insist on charging an absurd $29 to read just the  
review  online. Who do they imagine would pay so much for a short  
review? If anyone wants to see what I wrote, let me know and I will  
send you a draft for free .)

>> G: 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.
> B:We might not have the same conversation in starbucks as we would  
> "in a room" or on a list serve.

G: No, not exactly the same conversation, but still as I said, chiefly  
the same attention flows would occur.

> B: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.

G: I am of course well aware of McLuhan (see my article on "The  
Mentality of Homo interneticus: Some Ongian  Postulates" here: http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1155/1075 
   But Beller rather proves my point as he quotes various academic  
stars including McLuhan as if they were able to say very much the same  
thing regardless of technology. Academic stars get some of our   
attention through their ability  to say things in striking or  
illuminating fashion. As far as attention flows go, media do make some  
difference, but not quite as much as or in the way that Beller thinks.  
(I recently read a Trollope novel on-line; one difference with reading  
it in book form is that the on-line novel did not remind me of its  
presence as blatantly as a book on my night table might, but it's  
connection with Trollope's works that I had read in book form was  
quite evident. I was still paying attention to Trollope much more than  
to Google books or whatever site I read it on.) The fact that some of  
the technology was developed by, and most produced under the aegis  
of,capitalist firms does not in itself determine the flow of attention.

>> G: 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?
> B: 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."

G:Not every striking but facile generalization necessarily is  right  
or proves anything. I don't claim that one need like stars; in fact  
they can be as despotic as capitalists can be, but they are still as a  
class sharply different from the latter. Lipsticks, cars and the  
latest gadgets such as iphones in fact both facilitate  seeking and  
paying attention, not to  gadgets , etc., but to stars, or as would-be  
stars. In my experience people are far more likely to identify with  
stars (bands, singers, actors, authors, sports teams, composers,  
gurus, post-modernist pontificators etc.) they are fans of than with  
products, with the partial exception of when  is a clear star behind  
the product. Baudrillard is a perfect example, in fact. Can Beller  
prove the opposite?
>> G: 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?
> B:The point exactly. The programs are actually programs -- programs  
> for the capture of attention by capitalists.
G: No, not at all; they are programs for the capture of attention  by  
various stars, through which capitalists hope to derive attention for  
their products, but are often highly unsuccessful. Consider how  
successful programs come about: writers or producers come up with an  
idea, seek money to make a pilot and then try to get it approved by a  
network, not the other way round. If they are successful, then the  
network sees if it gets attention. If it does, then advertisers pay to  
be able to post their ads near it, and tivo users watch it minus the  
ads, very often. Even when ads are not blanked or muted out, they are  
usually not attended to.
>> 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.
> B: 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.

G: In one way only does the attention system work at all like the old  
value system, but in other ways it is far different. I shall have more  
to say about this in my talk at the conference.
>> 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.
> B: 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 relations?

G: Here again, Beller conflates metaphor and deduction. Subway beggars  
do usually get enough attention not to starve, even if many of us,  
with whatever degree of guilt,  pass them by. Have you, Jonathan,  
never been awed by the beauty of someone who is quite obviously far  
from wealthy? I certainly have. And even if someone is wealthy and  
displays it that does not mean that being impressed by him or her is a  
capitalist relation. Certainly in any strict sense it's not. Again, a  
model who has developed him or herself so as to be noticeable is not a  
capitalist except  in a highly metaphorical way, from which nothing  
relevant to an analysis of political economy follows.
>> G: 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.
> B: 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.

G: By professing everything to be within the framework of capitalism,  
Beller and others seem to be  saying the situation is hopeless. Maybe  
so, but I rather think this view is a result of simultaneously  
adopting or trying to adopt two highly disparate ways of looking at  
the world, Marxism and post-modernism, without carefully considering  
their discordance. Post-modernists above all believe in the absence of  
"grand narrative,"while Marx was Mr. Grand Narrative himself. He  
conceptualized capitalism entirely in the terms of such a narrative,  
as a progressive historical force that could give rise to what he saw  
as a new historical stage. Accepting Marx's views of capitalism as  
dominant while also accepting the absence of historical progress  
leaves one with such misconceptions (from a Marxian viewpoint as well  
as  from a post-modernist one) as  that capitalism is a "totality" or  
has no "outside" — to quote another of my interlocutors. Then one must  
interpret every new development accordingly.

As to whether the existence of a new class system may lead us to some  
sort of classless society, I am dubious, but not hopeless, as I  
suggest below. Meanwhile the attention centered  economy is in some  
ways better and in some ways worse than what it replaces, but in any  
case quite different.
>> G: 8.If valid, of what value is the foregoing analysis, beyond  
>> intrinsic interest?
> B: I think I answered that.
  G: Not.
>> G: 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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