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Towards a Grey Ecology

Economy of Attention: From Abundance to Scarcity

We often refer to the digital society as a society of abundance inasmuch as informational resources are concerned, in contrast to previous ages in which information was scarce, difficult to access and to disseminate. However, from the human perspective, this evolution may have transformed what was abundant in the past—the capacity to attend to information—into a much more scarce and widely distributed asset. If we follow the prevailing cognitivist model of attention, which postulates a mental architecture that has extensive computational power but significant intrinsic limitations in the capacity to attend to information, the formidable multiplication of informational content is inevitably determining a competitive view of the allocation of this mental resource. Following the social and economic logic of all scarce resources, we are therefore witnessing the creation of a market for attention.

According to KESSOUS and alii (2010), the term 'economy of attention' was coined by M. H. Goldhaber (1997) as a more appropriate way to discuss the economic models of the information society than the traditional industrial and monetary approaches. But the concept was not new. In the early 70's, Herbert Simon had already suggested that

… in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it… (Simon 1971, pp. 40–41).

The main tenant of this economic model is that, in an ecosystem in which attention is scarce and information abundant, being able to attract user focus has a huge value. Value is therefore created not by the information itself, but by creating an environment capable of drawing the attention of the greatest number of people for the longest amount of time.

This strategy underlies the business model of the majority of successful internet businesses. The crucial differentiator is not the production and distribution of content but the filtering, contextualization and organization of information. It is the structuring of content and the ability to make information more visible, and so more likely to be attended to, which supports the development of environments that are capable of drawing attention. When this is accompanied by techniques to measure, quantify and monetize attention, new mechanisms of trading can be developed. Although this has been the business case of the media for the last century, interactive media allows a far greater level of granularity and precision in the measurement of audience focus. The quantity and complexity of data produced by interactive systems, accompanied by self-learning capabilities, also allows for a completely new scale of analysis—as it is obvious from the debates around big data. We have therefore a simultaneous movement towards an increasingly granular and individual identification of attentional patterns and the accumulation of massive aggregated sets of user behaviours. Together, they engender an exceptionally valuable commodity for whoever has access to it. There is therefore a definite and unquestionable business drive to create digital environments capable of attracting audiences and keeping them there as long as possible.

Alongside the new economies being built more or less explicitly on the monetization of attentional processes, there is a growing concern regarding the subjective perception of loss or distortion of attention. Some well known authors like N. Carr (2011), S. Turkle (2011), J. Laniar (2011), have articulated the emerging discomfort felt by many of those regularly immersed in digital activities that they are losing their capacity to focus. The feeling of losing agency when engrossed in digital endeavours, and a dwindling sense of control on attention, is reported by many users (Zeldes et al. 2007; Misra and Stokols 2012; Marulanda and Jackson 2012). Once again, most explanations of this phenomenon invoke the limits of human ability to cope with an overabundance of information and devices. This malaise is too widespread to be waved away as a dystopian argument of ageing intellectuals clinging to old-fashioned models of learning and working. In our opinion, there is a true battle being waged around attention, with increasing economic, political and social stakes, and it is worth analysing some of its conceptual foundations.

We believe that the first step is to go beyond a purely cognitive perspective, which in our view forgets the centuries of social techniques to control and manage attention, and corners the issue into an excessively individualistic framework. We strive to put this issue into not only a socio-historical but also a political framework. It is our belief that the issue cannot be reduced to one of abundance vs. scarcity, and that the reported subjective sense of loss of focus and control that many users of digital media experience may be due not to the simple fact of being exposed to too much information on too many screens, but to the transformation and deprivation of the social environments that support the attribution of meaning.

Looking back, we have always lived in excessively stimulating environments, both in social and in physical terms, and attentional processes have allowed us to operate successfully in such spaces. Our material and physical environments are as rich and as complex as our digital ones, probably even more so. We have been successful in the physical space because, among other reasons, artefacts and social norms have sustained the cognitive processes of attention by orienting and significantly reducing the attentional demand of our physical environments. Traditionally, we have built spaces that orient our attention toward a certain direction—pulpits, tribunes, platforms and stages indicate to whom we should listen to and attend; museums and galleries signify what is worth looking at. We have ordered, classified and organized artefacts to signal their rank. In the social sphere, we have elaborated culturally shared signs that guide attention, indicators of social status that provide clues about whom we should attend to with priority. In other words, alongside the physiological responses that guide our attention in an automatic way (e.g. when there are sudden menacing noises or rapid movements), we have socially and collectively generated environments that orient and support our focus. If we adopt a model of cognition that distributes (Hutchins 1995) the burden of processing among artefacts, people and organizations, attention can be seen as a process supported by socially constructed environments.

We would like to argue that the new economic models, which increasingly attempt to exert control on what is attended to, together with the opaqueness and fragmentation of digital environments, have a joint detrimental effect on users' sense of focus and agency. Because of their nature and their novelty, digital systems are stripped of the traditional signs of intelligibility and relevance, which generally help us navigate the material world. This means that, in many cases, we have lost our cognitive and social props, and therefore the competition for attention has become much more primitive and brutal, and much more reliant on very basic attentional techniques (such as limiting the alternatives). This brutality is reinforced by what Z. Bauman (2005, 2007) and R. Sennett (2005) describe as the difficult conditions of the modern social existence, which put a higher burden on the individual as a consequence of the weakening of our traditional institutions of socialization.

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