Towards a Critique of the Attention Economy: a special issue of ‘Culture Machine’

In september 2010, I attented an interesting conference organized by the Digital Cultures Research Centre at the University of the West of England, which was held in Linkoping, Sweden. Co-organizers Patrick Crogan and Samuel Kinsley have also edited the proceedings, with interesting contributions from people like Bernard Stiegler, Tiziana Terranova, Ruth Catlow and many others. It includes a lengthy interview/conversation between Sam Kinsley and myself, on the evolution of attention dynamics in a p2p world.

* Special Issue: PAYING ATTENTION: Towards a Critique of the Attention Economy. By Patrick Crogan and Samuel Kinsley. CULTURE MACHINE VOL 13 • 2012

In their lead article and editorial introduction, the editors provide a summary of the contents:

“This issue sets itself two interrelated tasks in response to the scope and implications of these interrelated positions concerning attention, consciousness, culture, economics and politics. Firstly, it interrogates the notion of attention as it is elaborated in approaches to the attention economy and to media as forms of attention capture. The essays by three leading contributors to thinking in and around these themes, Bernard Stiegler, Tiziana Terranova, and Jonathan Beller, have such an interrogation as their principal task. They develop different, overlapping and sometimes contrasting perspectives on how a critical reposing of the question of attention might reframe its purchase on the central themes of the relation between interiority and exteriority, minds and media, economics and culture. The interview with Michel Bauwens, and the essays by Ben Roberts and Sy Taffel, are also working toward this end in that they identify various limitations and exclusions of the predominant articulation of the attention economy and move toward alternative, more productive, ethical or socially just formulations.

The second task of this issue is pursued in the essays of Tania Bucher, Martin Thayne, Rolien Hoyng and the three contributions to the additional section of the issue. These three – from Ruth Catlow, Constance Fleuriot and Bjarke Liboriussen – represent less scholarly but no less acute strategic inquiries into the thinking and re-making of what Stiegler calls attentional technics. Together, these contributions address particular instantiations of media forms, design practices and phenomena – from Facebook and Second Life to pervasive media design and Istanbul’s digitally mediated City of European Culture project – as a way of exploring and critically inflecting the implementation of the attention economy. This second mode moves from material phenomena to theoretical analysis and critique, while the first goes the other way. As we have argued, however, the necessity of the traffic between them is a central tenet of how we endeavour to pay attention to contemporary digital technoculture in this issue.

Stiegler’s essay, ‘Relational Ecology and the Digital Pharmakon’, is placed first to indicate the formative role of Stiegler’s philosophy of technology in the germination of the critical discussion on what it means to ‘pay attention’. From its beginning, his project was dedicated to the ‘urgent’ task (as he noted in the preface to Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, 1998) of developing a new critique of contemporary technoculture, capable of making a difference at this specific epoch of what could be called the ‘digital transition’. This critique, which has been progressively elaborated in a number of books and book series, proceeds from a rigorous philosophical redefinition of the human as always composed with its technical milieu. As discussed above, human being is ‘essentially’ inessential, a contingent, metastable (at best) mix of this artefactual exteriority, one which possesses its own dynamic composed with that of the human (for now at least). With an interiority that imagines and anticipates itself and its future on the basis of the memories available to it from out of the past – thanks to what Foucault called ‘the archive’ and Heidegger ‘facticity’ – the human makes exterior forms that mediate this experience and inflect its becoming other. ‘The media’ have become, consequently, a central focus of Stiegler’s critique of contemporary technoculture and, in particular, of the monopolisation by commercial interests of the forms and channels through which interior experience becomes the (material) stuff of the collective cultural dynamic.

In the essay presented here, Stiegler argues for the importance of approaching attention – that activity of consciousness (interiority) before the exterior world – from this perspective in order to comprehend the stakes of expansion of the attention economy. Drawing on Gilbert Simondon, D. W. Winnicott and others, he argues that attention must be thought of as an intrinsically social as well as individual psychic act.

Attention is not a passive or automatic perceptual process, but one that is trained, learnt, and culturally and historically – and therefore, technically – conditioned. Stiegler reviews Western philosophy and cultural and social history to identify the central part played by the grammatising technics of graphical, writing and more recently audiovisual media in conditioning the ‘attentional forms’ through which the West became the global, globalising power that today confronts us with a range of crises signalling our possible ‘end’. If, today, ‘attentional’ techniques and technics tend to be replaced by industrially mass produced ‘attentional technologies’ that are designed to generate one particular kind of attention – to consumption – this is by no means a fait accompli. Stiegler insists on the pharmacological character of the technical provision of our contemporary ‘relational ecology’. This is precisely the point and the possibility of paying attention to attention: to reanimate the potential for a less poisonous adoption of the widely recognised potential of digital audiovisual culture in order to re-form (that is, re-mediate) culture, sociality, economy and ecology today.

Tiziana Terranova offers a more specific critique of the contradictory assumptions subtending the notion of the attention economy before developing an alternative account of the ‘social brain’. Her argument is not dissimilar in intent to Stiegler’s turn toward a Simondonian reposing of attention as the mediated relation between individual and collective. Her ‘Attention, Economy and the Brain’ identifies the economic logic operative in the ‘discovery’ of the attention economy by Goldhaber and others as the solution to the problem of informational abundance in the mass mediated (and then digitally saturated) technoculture of late modernity. Attention becomes the new scarce resource which the economic must manage, utilise, exchange, distribute and speculate upon. Terranova interrogates the dovetailing of this economic revaluation of the mental activity of producers and consumers with a biopolitical (Jonathan Crary, after Foucault) and neurological (Catherine Malabou, N. Katherine Hayles) redefinition and institutional reforming of labour, leisure, education and cultural production in general. In the second part of the essay, she evokes the necessity of thinking the ‘social brain’ by drawing on Stiegler and Lazzarato’s recent mobilisation of nineteenth-century French sociologist Gabriel Tarde’s critique of the social and cultural damage wrought by industrialisation’s deskilling of the labour force and the separation of work from the continuity of social and cultural life. Tarde’s proposition concerning the brain’s ‘labour of attention’ is developed as a means of thinking the always social, outward, communicative dimension of the brain’s activity, its constant, iterative incorporation of the exterior in its working out of existence. The social nature of this attentional labour realises value. The drive which animates the proponents of attention economics, namely, to capture, quantify, predict and monetise the attention paid by individual brains, fails to comprehend this disjunction between the economic calculation of the value of attention and the role of attention in the very production of the values of the culture upon which the economy feeds.

In ‘Wagers Within the Image: Rise of Visuality, Transformation of Labour, Aesthetic Regimes’, Jonathan Beller continues and extends his mobilisation of the Marxist traditions of political economic and Kulturkritik in a polemical account of the contemporary tendency of global capitalist technoculture. Building on his critical account of attention economy rhetoric in The Cinematic Mode of Production (2006) and earlier work discussed above, Beller develops a materialist critique of cognitive capitalism and its economy built on visuality, spectacle and the mobilisation of the ‘sensuous labour’ of the worker-consumer. If the Soviet avant-garde filmmakers such as Eisenstein and Vertov had theorised and experimented with the potential of cinema to engineer a new ‘soul’ for the modern worker-citizen, industrial capitalism had already begun the development of the proto-consumer supporting the ongoing expansion of capitalism outward geographically as well as across all aspects of lived experience through its industrial production of routine experience, spectacle and leisure time. This development becomes fully manifest in the contemporary passage toward a fully globalised, digital mediated realtime, which Beller is at pains to argue is strictly correlative to the unprecedented impoverishment and oppression of the majority of the world’s population and the exhaustion of its natural resources. Insisting on the complicity of all mediated cultural production in this destructive dynamic – including scholarship in the age of the ‘digital humanities’ where cultural capital accumulation threatens the value and viability of critical thought – Beller explores the possibilities for responding to or resisting the pervasive ‘reconfiguration of subjectivity’ as capitalist commodity. His conclusion is that critical theory might do well to pay attention to how those excluded (in deed and in thought) from the immaterial virtual citizenry of the digital future try to make something of and with the digital media designed not for their benefit. Attention to what Beller calls an ‘aesthetics of survival’ being developed at the limit of what can be represented today might re-open speculation on questions of the just, the common, and the care of all beings, older questions needing to be remembered and re-posed in light of the virtualising logistics of globalisation.

In his interview with Sam Kinsley, Michel Bauwens, co-founder of the P2P Foundation, argues that peer-to-peer production represents a pathway toward the all-too-evidently necessary reinvention of the industrial capitalist economic model. Peer-to-peer is already a legitimate description of how the ‘knowledge workers’ of cognitive capitalism work, even if their labour takes place in proprietary enterprises and is consequently alienated from them in its product’s entry into marketing, distribution and intellectual property regimes. In Bauwens’ words, ‘the commons creates value and the market captures that value’. He considers historical precedents for the increasingly apparent tension between the collective and cultural values of peer-to-peer and the capitalist economic system, in, for example, the transition from the late Roman empire to the feudal system, and from the feudal to the early capitalist one. He approaches the contemporary ‘crisis’ moment from a hopeful perspective, looking at these past moments as instances of a kind of becoming-out-of-phase of the sociocultural with the economic-legal regimes which presaged an overturning of the status quo. Bauwens surveys different positions within the peer-to-peer movement – such as that of Yochai Benkler, the Oekonux group and Dmytri Kleiner – concerning the means and logic of a ‘prefigurative politics’ promoting or provoking this overturning. Responding to a question about how the attention economy notion figures in this account of the possible passage to a P2P economy and culture, Bauwens states that while there is enormous investment in the commodification of attention (along with everything else capable of being thought of as ‘valuable’ today), there is no reason to think that ‘capitalism has won’ because of the success of a platform such as Facebook. Related to his thought of how today we live across or between two phases of cultural and economic (re)production (and echoing here Stiegler’s pharmacological approach), Bauwens argues that we are both ‘de-commodifying and commodifying today’, and that there is both potential and danger in this situation. The Occupy movement represents for Bauwens a genuinely novel form of mass political action (along with the Pirate Party and the Indignados movements), one that operates in the disjunction between the mainstream media and the networking, peer-to-peer potential of digital network media. These movements more or less consciously adopt an open source, peer-to-peer approach to political intervention, and represent a prefiguration of the ‘new society’.

In ‘Escaping Attention: Digital Media Hardware, Materiality and Ecological Cost’ Sy Taffel argues that the rhetoric of the ‘immaterial’ character of the digital technologies of the attention economy elide very material concerns. Like Beller’s insistence on paying attention to the majority of the global population routinely forgotten in discussions of contemporary global technoculture, Taffel makes explicit the social and ecological implications of the materiality of digital technological production from resourcing, manufacture and energy use, to distribution and consumption, through to disposal and recycling. Drawing on an ecological conception of media and materiality developed through Gregory Bateson’s critical revision of the cybernetic tradition and Felix Guattari’s ecophilosophy, and combining the Marxist materialist analysis of industrial production with a sense of the global expansion of alienation in the era of what Stiegler calls hyper-consumption, Taffel explores several case studies which highlight the problematic forgetting of materiality in contemporary debates about technoculture. These include the exploitative sourcing of rare earth materials (typified by the notorious trade in ‘Coltan’ tantalum from the war-torn region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the exploitative just-in-time manufacturing processes of the latest consumer electronics in various parts of the world (with Apple’s Chinese contractor, Foxconn, a recent high profile case), and the exploitative e-waste and recycling practices that have evolved with little effective regulation or oversight. These serve to remove from view the terrible wastage of consumer gadgets by those who can afford them and extract what industry is prepared to salvage from them on condition that the costs are kept as low as possible. The ecological and human costs (in health and social well-being) are borne by the distant populations dependent on the revenues from the highly dangerous labour of dismantling these gadgets. Taffel makes us consider the consequences of these material entailments of the virtual, realtime digital technosphere and offers a way of bringing these two aspects of global technoculture into a critically conceivable and ethically more productive relation.

Ben Roberts examines the free, libre and open source software movement (FLOSS) as his contribution to the reevaluation of attention economy in this issue. ‘Attention-seeking: Technics, Publics and Software Individuation’ resonates with the essays by Stiegler and Terranova in identifying the limitations of Goldhaber’s economic valuation of attention along the lines of Marx’s account of exchange value as the reductive translation and insertion into a narrow capitalist economic order of something phenomenally and socially more complex. Roberts then examines some influential formulations of open source and collaborative software production that promote alternative models of attentional forms and their development. Christopher Kelty’s Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (2008) receives the most attention for the way it insists on the collective dimension of open software, a move which responds to the more individualistic (and politically naïve) celebration of autonomous ‘creative labour’ in Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks (2006). Kelty’s notion of software production as a ‘recursive’ contribution to the open source community’s shared discursive becoming is scrutinised by Roberts. Its ambivalent indebtedness to a Habermasian notion of the public sphere is identified as its problematic basis – the problem being that software production tends to be treated as a lingua franca for an ideal and ideally unified single internet public. This is where Roberts turns to Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy of technology to point the way toward an account of FLOSS’ potential to critically and creatively shape the formation of digital attentional forms. This account would need to understand software development as a process of individuation between individuals and their collectives, one always composed with the dynamic of technical individuation in which software developers are themselves part of the individuation of software ‘individuals’. Software production would be in this account both less and more than a recursive contribution to a public debate about the future of ‘the’ internet, and its potential to reform the milieu of attentional technics could be better assessed from this perspective.

Taina Bucher, in her article ‘A Technicity of Attention: How Software “Makes Sense”’ offers a sceptical response to the neurological turn in the humanities Bucher mobilises an understanding of ‘technicity’ to critically examine the internalisation of control as ‘governmentality’ (pace Foucault) that underpins the specific human-machine assemblages of attention harnessing located in Facebook. Through a detailed reading of the specific affordances of some core protocols of Facebook, in code and the practices they engender, Bucher examines the techno-social structure of the attention apparatuses of Facebook. These algorithms operate within a form of technicity, which Bucher takes to be a ‘coconstitutive milieu of relations between the human and their technical supports’ (Crogan and Kennedy, 2009: 109). OpenSocial, OpenGraph and GraphRank are examined as particular articulations of power, realised in relation between code and subject, as the algorithms automate the ‘sense making’ processes of what content is ‘relevant’ to a particular user. Bucher thus identifies this marshalling of what is visible, and also invisible, in Facebook as a locus of attention as a form of ‘governmentality’, which she takes to be the rationalities underlying the techniques for directing human behavior (Foucault, 2008). For Bucher, then, attention is managed by Facebook to propagate a certain social order of continued participation.

In ‘Friends Like Mine: The Production of Socialised Subjectivity in the Attention Economy’, Martin Thayne approaches Facebook through the lens of political economy. He interrogates the emerging interrelationship between capital, labour, subjectivity and affect which has become increasingly synonymous with a number of online social networking technologies and practices. In this regard, Thayne analyses the ‘Like’ button as a designed, socio-technological interaction which captures the emotive connections and engagements produced amongst the multitude of Facebook users. The extraordinary, speculative, financial value of such sites are ‘based’ on how such elements serve its advertising architecture, which utilises the information contributed by users (including ‘liked’ pages) to deliver more relevant and targeted marketing. Through an exploration of the collaborative and socialised modes of subjectivity which emerge from the use of the ‘Like’ button and similar tools, Thayne suggests that proprietary online social networks are central to the commercial subsumption of forms of life itself. This account draws on work which aligns the biopolitical production of knowledge, desire, attention and sociality with modes of immaterial labour. Presented here, then, is a critique of those mechanisms of bio- and what Stiegler would call psycho-power which permeate Facebook. This critique examines how specific functions, protocols and applications may embody the productive power of SNS technology in the context of configuring attention and controlling social interactions.

Rolien Hoyng in ‘Popping Up and Fading Out: Participatory Networks and Istanbul’s Creative City Project’ analyses the networks constructed as both a part and result of Istanbul European Capital of Culture 2010. Considered as an assemblage, Hoyng argues that Istanbul as a Capital of Culture functioned both as an attention directing apparatus, with the compulsion of ‘interactivity’ as participation, and also as a focal point for resistance. Hoyng’s essay focuses on socio-technical forms of governance that targeted Istanbul’s transformation into a ‘creative city’ and, in particular, on discourses and practices of ‘networking’. For Hoyng, the apparatuses of networking are what Stiegler calls ‘psychotechnologies’ that both condition and delimit our knowledge, know-how (savoir-faire) and our capabilities to care, including ‘taking care’ of ourselves and our city (here, Istanbul). Drawing on extensive empirical evidence derived from fieldwork, Hoyng critically examines the specific practices of networking that stitched together the groups from which power over the ‘creative city’ process was exercised and also provided a means for resistance. New relations of care among urban populations capable of defying regimes of psychopower are unlikely to emerge, according to her, from displays of otherness through information systems. For Hoyng, these kinds of relation require the cultivation of a multiplicity of attentional forms that mediate care, memory, and dialogue and that accommodate different sets of skills.

In the additional section of this issue, artist and arts activist Ruth Catlow, architectural design researcher Bjarke Liboriussen and Pervasive Media researcher and educator Constance Fleuriot consider significant attentional forms and practices in the recent and emerging digital media milieu. Liboriussen’s ‘poster’ considers the lessons to be learnt from the Second Life ‘bubble’s’ intertwined utopianisms of its now exhausted virtual property speculation and its promotion of a virtual architectural design experience. The wider implications of the technicity of ‘virtual worlds’ are explored in this thoughtful contribution. Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield online art community discusses We Won’t Fly for Art (2009), a collaborative media art project she undertook with co-founder Mark Garrett to encourage participants in the international contemporary art community to pay attention to the ecological implications of their default acceptance of the regime of jetsetting around the international exhibition circuit. The project encouraged 26 people to sign up and participate in a collaborative reflection on the complicity of international art with global capitalism, something that is shared by the Furtherfield’s ‘Media Art Ecologies’ programme ¬– of which this work was part. In ‘Avoiding Vapour Trails in the Virtual Cloud’, Constance Fleuriot gives an account of research workshops she conducted at the Digital Cultures Research Centre with pervasive media designers in order to develop both a language and an ethical perspective – an ethically inflected design language – on pervasive media development practice. Pervasive media is rapidly moving from the experimental to the commercial development stage and soon will be a major form of attentional technics. Using Stiegler’s call for a reinvestment in Kant’s notion of enlightenment as the entry into ‘majority’ of all, Fleuriot characterises the workshops she conducted as dedicated to developing a wider critical and ethical engagement of the designers in what they are doing (Stiegler, 2010).”

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