Distracted by Attention

A review of Yves Citton's For an Ecology of Attention investigates the usefulness of the economic metaphor for attention.

With the rise of social media as the interface for social and professional life, and the proliferation of channels, streams, and texts clamoring to be consumed, many have heralded the rise of the "attention economy," in which views, clicks, and readers are not only integral to measuring consumption but also generate revenue with each hit or viewer.

But can attention even be understood in terms of an economy? Does it make sense to conceive of attention functioning like currency, or like a scarce resource? More important, do these ways of thinking about attention indicate that we have entered a new phase of capitalism in which attention itself produces value? It is easy, and common, to speak of attention as something that is “paid” or even invested, but does that mean that it is possible to speak,  as Georg Franck does, of a new economy in which attention is both the central productive force and product? Metaphor meets mode of production.

Yves Citton, a literary critic, philosopher, and editor of the journal Multitudes, addresses these questions in Pour une Écologie de l'Attention, something of a companion volume to L’Économie de l’attention. Nouvel horizon du capitalisme?, a collection of essays he edited. Both books work from the central provocation that we are living through a profound mutation in the nature of attention, signaled by the unprecedented number of devices and distractions soliciting it. But as the question mark in edited collection’s title suggests, the books diverge over whether this transformation is best understood in economic terms.

In Pour une Écologie, Citton considers multiple perspectives on an economics of attention, including the more or less neoclassical one in which attention registers as scarce and increasingly finite as digital goods and resources become plentiful. (Of course, market-based scarcity still applies to the physical world, 3-D printers notwithstanding.) To challenge the notion of an attention economy is not to say that attention is without economic effects. The attempts at standardizing attention and the battle over what one pays attention to are central to the struggles to extract wealth from attention's flows.

Citton outlines two extraction strategies of the "vectorial class" — the class that controls the means of combining and displacing attention, the conditions of its centralization and reorganization. The first is to own the icons and images that attract attention: Disney's buying the Marvel and Star Wars universes is, in this regard, a kind of primitive accumulation of attention. Every superhero is a vast mine of nostalgia.

The second is to control the platforms that measure and standardize attention. Facebook’s and Google's attempts to insert themselves as the interface for everything from researching an essay to sharing pictures of grandkids can be considered the real subsumption of attention, transforming its very relations. As with Marx's real subsumption of labor by capital, the subsumption of attention constantly transforms attention's conditions and relations to make it more and more measurable, quantifiable, and “actionable.” Opinions and points of views about brands, political parties, and products have always been the stuff of daily life, but social media render the inchoate mass of opinion into data. The "like" button compresses so many responses (love, friendship, support) into an easily quantifiable data point.

But do such extraction strategies amount to a form of labor exploitation? Citton considers 19th century sociologist Gabriel Tarde’s view (later adopted by the postautonomist theorist Maurizio Lazzarato) that attention drives the consumer society, in which desire must be produced and reproduced. While the work of producing attention and the myriad ways for securing interest are no doubt central to contemporary capitalism, inverting the edifice and placing attention rather than labor at the base serves only to underscore key differences between labor and attention.

Unlike labor, attention is difficult to render "abstract," in Marx's sense. While capital is utterly indifferent to the individuals underlying labor power, buying their time and not their individual personalities, who pays attention matters as much as clicks or time on site to those who track it, making it difficult to impose the sort of standardization of attention that any abstracting and quantifying requires. Various apparatuses of capture monitor and record clicks, searches, and even glances, but these don't congeal into a uniform measure. The quantifying difficulties are intensified when it comes to possibility of "accumulating" attention. Attention can't passively pile itself up in a bank account. Though there are ways to hold attention, trending topics and memes have broken the old 15 minutes of fame down to the microsecond. Attention must be constantly reconstituted in the present.

Standard accounts of an attention economy vacillate between individualistic neoliberal dogma ("Invest in your attention capacity") and moralizing nostalgia ("Pay attention to the world around you"). These take it for granted that “paying attention” is a faculty that individuals intrinsically possess rather than the contingent product of changing relations between individuals, collectivities, technological conditions, and social habits.

Against this, given attention’s nonfungibility, Citton proposes a different way to conceptualize it, as an ecology rather than economy. In this, he follows thinkers such as Gregory Bateson, Félix Guattari, and Spinoza (especially as he has been read by philosopher Hasana Sharp), who understand thought itself as an activity always dependent on other conditions and relations. To posit an ecology of attention is to see it as situated within its constitutive conditions. This allows it to escape the individualistic bias built into the economic metaphor that treats attention as a fixed resource to be saved or spent however one chooses.

Instead, Citton suggests that attention is best understood in terms of constituent asymmetries, asymmetries between who pays attention to whom. These asymmetries reterritorialize verticality in the midst of social media's horizontal platforms, accumulating and reinforcing points of focus, creating common objects from the statistical aggregates of habits — something that can be seen in every sidebar of "trending topics." Older forms of media were explicitly and transparently hierarchal — the directors of radio and TV channels dictated content — but the new forms of media create feedback loops in which the processes of selection are largely invisible, concealed behind the algorithms that determine our newsfeed. In this way, the attention of others becomes the basis of what we pay attention to, and we in turn reinforce the attention of others.

So, against the fantasy of a fungible, abstract attention, Citton argues that attention must be understood as transindividual: neither individual nor collective but manifest at the point where both the individual and the collective are constituted. What I pay attention to, like what I feel and what I desire, defines my sense of my existence, but it does not do so without also forming and intersecting with various collectivities — everything from the fan bases for shows to nations and social classes. Attention, like affect or desire, is a point where the most intimate individuation intersects with collective conditions and relations.

Part of attention's transindividuality is in how we pay attention to another's attention. Sometimes I pay attention to a collective and anonymous subject of attention — the "trending topics" of various social-media sites, for example. At other times I focus on the specific attention of another person, following the point of view of a writer, a camera, or the curator of an exhibit. Attention is always the attention of, and with others. Sometimes these others pass beneath our notice; other times this meta-attention — what Citton calls "reflective attention," defined as "the individual paying attention to the dynamics, constraints, and apparatuses, and, most of all, the valorizations that condition his or her attention" — is our explicit focus. But it is always structuring our attentional field.

The different modes of transindividuality underscore the diversity of forms and types of attention. Far from attention being uniform — capable of being spent or invested, wasted, or saved in the same measure — there are instead diverse ways of paying attention. We read and watch different formats, consume different forms of media differently. We skim tweets and get lost in novels.

By displacing the individualistic and monolithic conception of attention, the ecology view allows for a different kind of sense to be made of the intersection between attention and contemporary capitalism, pointing to a broader set of concerns regarding activity and passivity in attention. The key question, Citton suggests, is how to make attention, not how to pay it. As Citton argued in his book on mythocracy (which I discuss here), attention manifests itself as softer form of power, one that shapes individuals as active participants. Whereas the old media maintained attention by its monopoly — three channels to watch, and so on — new media must constantly solicit us as subjects of attention. We must actively create our own distractions.

Work, entertainment, and social life converge in a state of constant semi-attentiveness, Citton argues. It is hard to tell if the person obsessively checking their phone is waiting to hear back from work or following the latest twitter meltdown of a celebrity. Updates and alerts define our work life, social life, and define what remains of politics. To transform this would require the cultivation of new habits and new, transformative ways to use the existing technologies of attention.

How, then, can we construct the possible conditions for that? Aside from the usual hand wringing about distraction and wasted attention, the question is ultimately Spinozist: It is a matter of constructing common notions against the singular points of wonder and fascination. The first act of collective intelligence, and collective action, is breaking with the constant breaking news, the latest scandal, or think piece, that demand immediate attention keeping us in a state of constant awareness. Constructing collective intelligence entails grasping the commonalities that pass beneath the headlines and scandals, seeing the commonalities that define our collective existence. Doing so passes through the same networks and technologies but assembles them differently. Twitter can circulate articles and analysis as much as jokes about the latest scandal.

An attention ecology, Citton argues, can create the conditions for a new collective intelligence, developing the points of echo and connection that constitute “an accord of certain priorities and a certain alignment of comportments.”  The basis of this collective intelligence is already there in the connected and interlinked minds and eyes but lacks the conditions of its own production, what he calls a “wikipolitics.”

Citton is right to suggest that new practices of attention are necessary for different politics and ethics. But his notion of an ecology of attention overlaps other "ecologically" oriented projects that seek to transform our relations to time, technology, and social relations, without directly transforming capital or the state. I am thinking of such practices as local food movements, which risk being, at best, rear-guard actions or, at worst, lifestyle choices. Just as the transformation of attention is an effect of the transformation of work, consumption, and the media, so our ecological salvation must necessarily transform those structures as well.