“Attention has become a rare resource”
Yves Citton’s short history of attention deficit
Interview by Philippe Nassif
The digital world has been exploiting our attention as a resource, according to the Swiss philosopher Yves Citton. To save ourselves from dispersion, he says, we need to move towards an “ecology of attention”.
In your work you talk of an attention crisis which is much older than the advent of information technology…
Yves Citton : That’s right. Because of the great number of books being published during the Renaissance, new editing tools were developed, like headings and summaries, to deal with the increasing tendency towards distraction. But the real turning point was the rise of industrial capitalism in the 1880s, as Jonathan Crary points out in Suspensions of Perception (MIT Press, 2001). The first challenge was to channel the attention of workers on monotonous and repetitive assembly lines. Then an array of new media emerged, with newspapers published on a large scale, as well as films, radio, and television, which could attract the attention of masses from a distance. Through them, the attention of the consumer can be caught and controlled, in order to sell mass-produced merchandise. So from the start you see a circular process of attention-control, which is enhanced with every innovation. The history of capitalism is one permanent attention crisis…
‘With Google’s rankings, a person’s name, an event, or a cat video, have all become equivalent values on the same attention market’
Hasn’t the problem got worse in recent years?
The idea of an “economy of attention” became an urgent research topic in the 1990s, mainly thanks to the pioneering work of the German philosopher and architect Georg Franck. He proposed that the relationship between media and the masses’ attention is equivalent to that between banks and money. CNN is an attention bank: if I appear on a CNN show, I’ll benefit from the capital of attention that the channel has acquired. And CNN will only invite me if it believes that the investment will allow it to maintain this influx of attention. But as our attention becomes digitised, this mechanism reaches a new level of sophistication. Google’s algorithmic rankings homogenise each and every object of attention: a person’s name, an event, a cat video… They have all become equivalent values on the same attention market. That’s what enables internet giants to offer free services. But in reality, we’re repaying them with our attention, which has become a scarce resource, and which they then sell on to advertisers.
“We need to move from an economy of attention towards an ecology of attention”
Hence that sense of dispersion which can leave us feeling powerless…
Take a child who is agitated: his parents know they should spend more time with him, but they’re busy replying to all the work-related emails clogging up their smartphones. So they take him to see a doctor, who can’t change the world, but can prescribe a pill for hyperactivity, to make things a little easier… As a group, we need to think about how our attentional resources are drying up, and move from an economy of attention towards an ecology of attention.
What ethical lessons could we draw from such an ecology of attention?
As a student of Spinoza, I don’t believe that I can direct my attention freely at each moment, because it’s actually always conditioned — by what I’ve read or watched, what I’ve eaten, how many hours I slept, my relation to you, the noise in this café… Does that mean we’re entirely determined? No, because we’re all capable of transforming the attentional environments which will condition our attention tomorrow, or in five minutes, or in ten years… At the level of our collective attention, we can do this by campaigning for legal limits on advertising. At the level of joint attention — when we’re discussing things as a group, in a classroom, or a political assembly hall, for example — we can listen to each other and adopt an attitude of mutual respect. At the level of individual attention, we can organise our day into specific concentration pockets — whilst still maintaining certain strategies of dispersion, using chance and intuition, to discover things we weren’t initially searching for, and which give us a richer and more nuanced perspective on the world.
“Dispersion is a fundamental attention mode, because it’s intuitive, and neuroscience still doesn’t know how it works”
You also recognise the virtues of dispersion…
It’s not like you have “good”, focused attention on the one hand, and “bad” dispersion or distraction on the other. Actually, they’re both equally important. Dispersion is a fundamental attention mode, because it’s intuitive, and unlike concentration, neuroscience still doesn’t know how it works. Experiments show that we’re always paying attention to a lot more than what we appear to be focusing on. I might be giving you my “full attention” as we speak, for example… But if someone calls my name at the other side of the room, I’ll recognise the sound. This is what psychologists call the “cocktail party effect”. Part of our behaviour is permanently readjusting to our environment, with an attention spanning across 360°. This was crucial to survival in prehistoric times, when you’d have to pick up on the slightest noise, variation in temperature, animal footprint, or colour of a fruit… Now that we’re evolving in a media environment, it’s not so much our five senses that allow us to perceive danger as our smartphones, laptop computers, and other technological crutches. So by intuitively dispersing our attention around us at 360°, towards the many sources of information, we can apprehend unexpected, peripheral signals, and anticipate situation changes. If in the last fifty years we had been a bit “distracted” from our obsession with economic growth, perhaps we would have noticed ecological and social problems earlier.
Originally published on Philonomist