Politics as Attention Seeking
Thoughts on the "Economy of Attention"
We all have limited time and energy that we can devote to attending to things. We have limits we cannot go beyond sustainably. We can temporarily go beyond them by dropping other things, delaying tidying up around the house, not seeing a friend, neglecting our social and personal lives outside of politics (where we have a life outside of politics).
The time that we spend focused on things is a scarce good that we have to allocate between competing priorities. If we skimp on some things, like sleep or organising ourselves and children an adequate diet, then it is not sustainable. We get ill, or our dependents do, and our effectiveness suffers.
Decisions about how you allocate scarce time between competing priorities is a topic which can be thought about using economic analysis. Attending Stop the War activities, for example, going on marches, going to public meetings is a time allocation decision. It is a decision to devote focused attention to a political theme and therefore not to do other things in life. Iraq anti war activity is in competition with other activities for focused attention in the cause of peace. Other kinds of politics are too.
A lot of political differences are differences about how, with whom, and where, we should allocate our limited time. For example, in anti war activities that I've been involved in, the SWP wants us to devote more time to marching in London and organising this - plus attending their meetings for our political discussions. Other political groups compete for us to allocate our time to meeting in Nottingham, to organising separate discussions on different themes.
We all cannot go to all so its like a competitive market in which we take our choice as to which we prefer....I dare say that, in practice, all sorts of things enter into our choices and we can just mix and match, devoting a bit of our attention to this cause here, that demonstration there and dipping into that discussion group elsewhere.....
The amount of attention we "give" to each other, or exchange with each other, or donate to each other, can be analysed with economic concepts. If I have a dialogue with another individual, in an equal "give and take" conversation, then there is typically a 50:50 exchange. However, in some relationships some people do all the talking. At the moment, if you reading this then you have decided to "risk" your time devoting your attention to me, in the hope that it will repay the effort in doing so. This is akin to an economic decision about attention time allocation. In meetings people rightly get irate if there is a feeling that some people hog all the discussion - it is hogging all the attention. However, we allow that to prestige speakers at our public meetings. It is useful to think why.
When we organise meetings and invite political celebrity speakers who are known to be crowd pullers we are doing so because those speakers are thought to be people who our hoped for audience want to hear. Their reputation is seen as drawing other people's attention away from other activities. Their reputations as good speakers are useful in the competition for attention drawers to the peace cause. Thus we give them more time to speak as well as to sum up. We see this as justifying the extra time they get in the meetings.
This business of "allocating attention" happens everywhere in society. Political activity is merely a sub set of an entire social process of allocating focused attention. It is one in which the peace movement, the green movement, the left and others are all in an uphill struggle against the main focuses of attention, organised largely by the mass media.
An Austrian academic called George Franck, has given a lot of thought to these processes..("The Economy of Attention" is published in German as the "Oekonomie der Aufmerksamkeit" ISBN 3-446-19348-0) Because what we focus attention upon is a scarce good, and we have to allocate it, he subjects it to an economic analysis. Franck mainly looks at who we focus our attention upon, more than what we focus upon. His book is devoted to our attention allocation in our personal relationships with others and in society.
As I have already explained he starts with an idea of an equal exchange with two individuals giving each other 50:50 attention. They listen and they talk equally. However, in wider social, work and political networks some people get to do more of the speaking and become local "stars" - perhaps because they seem clearer about the tasks and issues in hand and therefore are listened to more. Or perhaps because they are more entertaining and better at diverting us when that is what we want, as with many entertainment stars. They become the focuses of many people's attention.
Franck compares this to a capital accumulation process in reputation and then in fame and celebrity. He suggest, for example, that when particular people acquire reputations and become local, and then national, celebrities they get known as "worth paying attention to" - increasingly in a one way relationship. (After a point a famous person cannot possible have equal dialogues with all the people that 'know' of them, their ideas or works.) He traces out lots of issues - for example, getting the attention of people who themselves have the attention of others is "worth more" than getting the attention of other little known people. The famous tend to hang out with the famous.
At a certain point, in our society some people even become famous for being famous - so that everyone hangs on their words. This is particularly a product of the operations of the mass media.
Of course, reputation and fame mainly develops in various "specialist markets" - thus, for example, there is the academic market in which a few intellectual superstars get known on university circuits and then have no trouble getting published etc. And in the peace movement there are stars who will also always draw the crowds to our meetings. Some people are, however, "known" (though not personally) to everyone - like George W. Bush or Tony Blair....
The more attention you get the easier it is to get other people's attention and Franck argues this is rather similar to money earning more money. Some organisations function rather akin to capital market institutions in bestowing attention on people. They are rather like banks - in that they can ensure that people get a head start in getting attention. For example a publishing company has a reputation (its own capitalised attention gaining capacity) and it bestows it on unknown authors in exchange for contracts which get them started (often on very onerous terms). The publisher risks its attention bestowing "capital" (reputation ) by publishing a particular author's book. If the book is a flop they have not just lost money - they may have eroded their prestige and reputation as a publisher of hits that people will want to read. The publisher is not seen as quite as reliable any more, quite as worthy of attention.
This happens in the green movement, the peace movement, and the left too of course. If Pluto Press, or Green Books or Housemanns decide to publish someone it launches them higher in the peace movement and gives them more of a chance of becoming a star. The publishers are institutions that mass reproduce the ideas of one person for the attentions of others. It is not just publishers that function in this way - theatre or film companies function as "banks" loaning "capital" (attention bestowing capacity) on the risk that a play or a film will get a lot of attention (i.e. Will be a hit or box office success).
Naturally the electronic mass media functions as an attention capturing, directing and channelling agency. The radio and TV media are the attention capturers and channelers of our society par excellence. A large part of the time of the peace movement is devoted to playing a game with these attention manipulators and channelers. The left wing group, the SWP, for example, believes that marching people in London is a game worth playing for the attention of the media and a few months ago we appeared to be on winner in the newspapers, radio and TV in regard to channelling mass attention to the peace movement viewpoint.
When the war started that attentional flow to the peace movement argument "degraded" in an intense battle with the PR apparatus of the war makers - whose professionalism in spin is all about putting up a barrage to re-direct and channel mass attention away from anti war messages onto distractions, onto discrediting messages, onto keeping the pace driving in other directions - in order to draw attention away from their own crimes until hopefully they are forgotten and buried. (Sometimes they are "lucky" in having a genuinely serious alternative thing to worry about - like SARS).
Observant people will notice that there is a new paradigm for thinking about politics here. Here are some more thoughts sent by myself to Franck some time ago - on the different uses for our attention time and the different ways it is channelled and allocated in an unequal and increasingly vicious society. ( I have slightly adapted my original message to him to make it more peace movement relevant). I hope this clarifies the context, not just of peace movement activity, but of quite a few others things too. (Franck is an Austrian academic in town planning and I have no idea if he has any political affiliations at all)
"We should indeed regard mental time, devoted to attention on particular things, as a scarce good. But attention is not only to be regarded with metaphors from consumer behaviour, as if we were allocating it between people, like we allocate our money between goods on supermarket shelves. What we devote our attention to can also be regarded as rather like wage labour - and even citizenship duty. For example, children must give their attention to the teacher, now and then I must give my attention to the tax office by filling in their forms. Also we have to give our attention to our supervisors at work. We can, if we are so minded, decide to devote our attention to political tasks, like the peace movement, out of a sense of community and collective responsibility, if you like out of a sense of citizenship.
Not only that. Self development requires that we devote a kind of attention to ourselves. Meditation is attention directed back on oneself. Above and beyond this, were I not to "give" enough attention to my life management tasks, then the relationship between my income and expenditure would not stay in the right balance. Further - your book, "The Economy of Attention" seems to imply attention is a matter only of people devoting, giving, exchanging, demanding, taxing the attention of other people - but we also devote attention to non personal things - for example how I can use this damned computer technology better...
Indeed it's also true that in cultural businesses, in the universities, and in the mass media, that attention has been evolved to be orientated to an audience or public. Nevertheless, for most people, everyday life means that they must routinely devote most of their attention to their domestic tasks, to getting the shopping in, and to their work. What they
allocate their attention to is therefore rather "drilled". The corresponding personal relationships therefore have a rather automatic, routine, character. At the end of the working day most people are exhausted. They are not really able to devote their attention to highly complicated issues. Because so much is asked from them in their work, and also in their consumption and domestic activities, and in the raising of children, they are continually under time pressure. That has the consequence that they have no often opportunity to do anything more than sit at the TV and give themselves over to the stupidity that the simplifications that the mass media "gives" them.
Therefore, the capitalist attention order not only has economic features, but particular, and corresponding, general social- psychological features. The intensity of the exploitation of the attentiveness of people in semi routine, semi automatic work processes, in activities which cannot be regarded as interesting, and are highly stressful, exhausts these people. For this reason they are often not able to take on additional psychological challenges.
Anyway, it sometimes doesn't repay the effort to give any attention to one's own problems - because power structures will themselves pay no attention in support of these self directed considerations. They pay even less attention to one's attempts to address foreign wars and imperial adventures - so people feel why waste the time making the effort. Unless attention is reciprocated and matched by power structures it can be powerfully discouraging and this effects what we "spend" attention on. Also, the average person sees no other opportuntity other than occupying themselves by "paying" their attention to the rubbish and stupidities that the mass media provides to them.
The politics of attention in our society has therefore become rather like a one way street. The power structures want people to devote this scarce good, that measures up the units in which our lives are measured, exclusively to themselves. They want to monopolise our time and our attention to their agendas. They oblige people in their jobs to devote their attention in a particular direction, and in their free time too they make what is a theft of their time - through bombardment with advertisements. They spread sweet dreams or broadcast programmes which function to tranquiliser, to reassurance and to escape. (Hollywood as a dream factory)
Admittedly it must be accepted that in the 2/3 and 1/3 society ever more sectors of society are blocked off in the one way street of attention to ever getting any attention to themselves - these are socially excluded people. That is inside the metropolitan countries, but is it is also a global process. The mass media, and information flood, creates a geography of attention, that is mostly directed to America and to California. (In the third world there is only attention time devoted to people when they are regarded as dangerous. These are the people who are then, justly or unjustly, designated as terrorists).
There is also an imperialism of attention. Naturally, because distant power structures cannot possibly know what the real situation is at any local level, it must follow that life for those people distant from the centres of power, who do not count, because they never get any attention, goes badly wrong.
In conclusion - there is, in general, a problem for any structure, that does not possess sufficient feedback. The inequality of attention represents no more, and no less, that a failing feedback mechanism in society. Even when the structures of society recognise that they have problems, they typically react with new recommendations for new structures.
Once again they steal attention away to their own ideas and to themselves. It is always expected that these official suggestions and ideas should take up even more of the scarce good of our attention in consultations. Once again we have to devote our attention to our betters, on how we are to adapt ourselves in another reorganisation to their new structures. The idea that we actually need more time at the local level to devote our attention to working out our own local solutions to local problems, is never on the agenda. There is never any time for devoting attention to that.
Thus it keeps on getting worse for excluded people - while at the other end more and more inflated management structures develop. The problems are addressed through an accelerating process of managerial reorganisations which make things worse (in urban regeneration, in health, in social policy and administration etc). In the reorganisations attention is absorbed in consulting about the new structures, in trying to understand how they will work, in reconstituting committees, in moving offices.... It is a vicious circle because there is then less and less time left to devote our attention to the actual problems on the ground.
Additional Point - Relevance of the Economy of Attention to Psychiatric Diagnoses
Within this conceptual framework a whole series of psychiatric symptons slot neatly into place and become fully understandable - for example "attention seeking" and "attention deficit disorder". The first is where a person is starved of attention in their own individual economy of attention. The latter is where a person is so distressed and distracted by attention to their own problems that they are unable to give attention to some one with socially bestowed rights to demand attention - like a psychiatrist or social worker. Also narcissism is a regard for how much attention that one is getting from others to the point that it becomes disruptive of one's functioning. And grandiosity - an overestimate of one's claim on the attention of others that others do not share and reject. Many psychiatric disorders may be motivated by problems in this area - for example mania may be motivated by the aspiration/hope expectation that fame may be near. (It being remembered that 'fame' in the economy of attention is an quasi guarantee that one will get attention - a sort of capitalised state of attention associated with a particular name and reputation).
January 2002 and April 2003