Paying Attention part 2

A lot of the discussions during the conference concerned the distribution and circulation of attention in social media platforms and search engines. The role of advertising, audiences as eyeballs versus attention profiles, the like button of Facebook as an attention forming technique and general monetization strategies associated with user-generated content.

Although I am sceptical of the whole notion of an attention economy as something that supposedly has grown out of the development of new media technologies and an ever-expanding network of networks, I find the relationship between attention and economy a highly interesting one. That is how attention flows in and out of institutions, marketplaces, commodities, consumer practices, desires, trade and the general organization or allocation of scarce resources.

It is important not to forget that worries about attention are nothing new. Attention has always been a scarce resource because it per definition is limited. Sometimes I get the feeling we too easily ignore the fact that the issue of attention has been around for all of media history. Just consider Plato’s Phaedrus or 20th century media theory that began with a theory of distraction. Recently Michael Newman published a great article on the discourses of attention around television and young people, highlighting the mutual discursive constitution of attention as a scarce resource between media producers and popular discourse. Beliefs about attention are too easily reproduced and internalised with media professionals themselves, whereas in fact psychological research around these issues are far from showing any consensus as to the cognitive effects of media technologies on attentional habits.

When it comes to effects on violent behaviour or aggressiveness, computer games are considered as important actors, albeit as scapegoats. In contrast when it comes to issues of attention a lot of research on computer games have highlighted their immersive and engaging affordances. As Guardian journalist John Harris points out in a recent article on Carr’s book: “The point is, to play successfully in an online role-playing game, you have to pay an incredible amount of attention to what your team-mates are doing, to the mechanics of the game. You can set up a thesis for The Depths, just as much as The Shallows”. When it comes to the supposed negative cognitive effects on attention, the Internet and social networking sites are the perpetrators while computer games with their often immersive affordances to a large extent get silenced in discourses around attention.

What I missed in the conference discussions were more critical voices as to the notion of attention itself, other ways of thinking and operationalizing attention so to speak. That said, I enjoyed the talk by Huey Li Li in this regard. She pointed out how there is a primacy of speech in the educational context, whereas silence is degraded. Silence is often equated with non-participation and taken as signs of disinterestedness, of inattentiveness. There are some interesting distinctions to be made between attentive silence, inattentive silence, commodification of the voice and the power of silent resistance. As she pointed out, maybe we should not always compel the dispossessed to speak.

Especially in terms of social media and the celebration of participatory culture I find a revisiting of the primacy of speech important. What these media platforms want is precisely participation, uploads, clicks, comments, chronic status updating. However, in an age where speech has been democratized online, we should also ask whom we are speaking on behalf of, whom our speaking will gain, and who will profit from our clicks and comments. Indeed, silence as a form of resistance and attention seems a timely topic in a culture that honours participation.

I also enjoyed Nadia Arancio’s video essay about adolescents’ identity performances on YouTube. Her work made clear how young people learn to play with attention online, developing skills to attract attention in a self-advertising fashion. Counter to worries about young people’s short attention spans, Nadia calls these YouTubers economists of attention following Richard Lanham’s work on the the Economics of Attention. These at times highly professional kids often seem to know how to represent themselves in such a way as to get attention. On YouTube as Nadia pointed out, subscribers are the scarce resource and many of the kids and adolescents actively and strategically try to manoeuvre the economy of subscribers, all in a quest to become popular.

Overall the conference was quite productive with many great discussions. It definitely gave a lot of food for thought. Lastly for those interested in art and digital media, you should check out two of the artist projects that were presented at the conference. Furtherfield, a platform for bringing together art and technology in creating, discussing and learning about experimental practices for social change, and the netartist Stanza who experiments widely with issues of surveillance in the cityscape.

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