Purple Magazine
— The Brain Issue #33

paying attention to the attention economy

paying attention to the attention economy 


french cultural critic john jefferson selve
is the founder of the journal possession
immediate and a regular contributor to purple

We’re all aware that what we used to call “mind” and now call “attention” is in serious trouble these days. To analyze the phenomenon, let’s take a brief look back through time. The corporate desire to capture minds dates back to the early 1920s. For example, the books of Edward Bernays, nephew to Freud and inventor of marketing, who took old Europe’s techniques of propaganda and persuasion and applied them to American commerce. What was then called “manufactured consent” set the standard for America’s large industrial brands. Marketing developed on this basis — by leaps and bounds, in tandem with technological advances in media. With information technology already outpacing the mind, the concept of “information anxiety” was formulated in the 1980s. Capitalism hurled itself into this cerebral breach to make use of the population’s “available brain time,” as the head of a French TV station put it in the early 2000s.

The Internet brought about a social and cerebral revolution as brutal as it was radical and did so in an incredibly short space of time. A few years later, what we would call the “intelligent telephone” would effect a top-to-bottom change in our relation to both the world and knowledge. But what has not changed is the underlying objective: to capture attention and inject brains with ever more refined, targeted, granular, and organic advertising. The term “captology” was coined in 1996 at Stanford University to study and develop these techniques. The attention economy was more and more focused on, as every means was used to try to modify an individual’s schema of thought and create new cognitive biases. A cognitive bias is a ruse of thought, giving individuals the impression that they themselves are its creator. Marketing derived from big data, and with help from artificial intelligence, manages scientifically to determine and control behavior by creating new biases in the service of commercial interests.

This is where we are now, and no one is bothered by it. We understand that we’ve entered the era of cognitive capitalism, and that we and our brains are the product and the consumer. For a long time, in fact, an adage has been making the rounds on the Internet: “If you’re not paying, you’re the product.” We know it, but it makes no difference. For us who read these lines, it’s not so bad. The problem is that the true victims of this evolution are children, future generations, and, in passing, the destitute, the weak, and the poor. The French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, whom we interviewed for the Purple Cosmos issue, told us that (through his association in La Plaine Saint-Denis on the outskirts of Paris) he was endeavoring to decondition babies whose mothers (living under precarious conditions) had accustomed them from birth to smartphones, so that they would breast-feed more easily. Multi-year studies have shown that such children suffer from severe screen addictions and can end up on the autism spectrum. Every month, terrified neurologists and child psychiatrists the world over sound the alarm on the violent invasion that screens have mounted on the world of childhood. They all worry about the explosion in attention deficiency among the very young. To be honest, they aren’t the only ones. Who among us has never felt an ever-dwindling capacity to fix his attention freely and focus, if only for a few minutes?

As with junk food, so with digital: intellectually and economically, it affects the destitute — what Marx would have called the proletariat. Today’s proletarian is one who obeys an algorithm. The Uber driver or laborer at Amazon, the Twitter or Instagram addict. It follows the same pattern as obesity, which affects the poor. If you’re reading these lines in Purple, there’s a chance you could rather easily pull away from this totalitarianism of attention. There’s a chance that if you enjoy art and fashion,
and are steering a course in life that more or less suits your interests, you might easily break away from this brain control. We might also complain that we’re too connected. This in itself is already a luxury, but true luxury consists in being able to do what the heads of the Big Four do, raising their children far from screens and with as little technology as possible until adolescence.

But it goes even further than this. These technological advances suppose that the brain is but a machine. The idea comes from Nick Chater and his seductive theory of the “flat mind” (The Mind Is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind). Despite our incredible cerebral capacity — with 100 billion neurons and a million billion neural interconnections — our brain is for him (and for now) one of the most powerful computers in the world. Chater decrees that our brain is constantly calculating and analyzing everything instantaneously. It interprets external stimuli on the fly to create abstract mental constructions. The inner “I,” the unconscious, our identities and values are all fit to be thrown out, he says. Intelligence is just an illusion. He believes that, fundamentally, we all have a bit of artificial intelligence and deep learning in us. We are thus organic centrifuges for data, albeit only slightly more evolved, but not for much longer. Along comes Elon Musk with his company Neuralink, which seeks to develop an interface between brain and machine. This makes sense, because there’s little technological or even organic difference between humans and machines. In any case, Musk seriously believes, the machines we invent will surpass their creators.

But is this certain? We might be the ones to destroy the world of machines in time, or at least expel them from our lives and our brains. Meanwhile, climate change has started to change minds. We have begun to reconsider the meaning of life (which Nick Chater feigns to know nothing about), and more and more people are rejecting this synthetic and technological world. Many now speak of “ecology” rather than “economy” of attention. The latest generations can already no longer stand to see their parents glued to a telephone. The artist Jenny Odell, in her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, has rediscovered the notion of full perception and has reappropriated the percept of attention. She has taken on communicational hysteria with today’s tools. Just give it a try! Spend an hour without your smartphone. At first you’ll feel a sense of what Freud used to call “the uncanny.” This will speak volumes about your relation with your own brain. And once the disquiet has passed, a smile might illuminate you from within.


[Table of contents]

The Brain Issue #33

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