The Attention Economy Myth

As paraphrased by Erik Barker, Dan Ariely’s work suggests that

“If you followed every directive from your surroundings these days you’d quickly be broke, obese, and constantly distracted. It’s like we’re surrounded by scheming thieves: thieves of our time, thieves of our attention, thieves of our productivity.”

This is obviously true, and it is what lies at the heart of increasingly desperate critiques of “the attention economy.”

Ironically, however, such critiques overwhelmingly miss the self-defeating logic of the competition for attention. Simply put, this competition not only produces distraction as the predominant mode of attention, but it undermines the very form of efficiency that inheres in the concept of economy as such.

But perhaps this is not going far enough. After all, standard critiques of capitalism stress its alleged “internal contradictions,” a notion famously, though illegitimately, derived from Hegel. It’s a form of circular reasoning: posit a coherent totality (“capitalism”); proceed to “discover” mutually exclusive or contending forces; conclude that these forces constitute a contradiction within the totality. Finally, pronounce that the totality is dysfunctional, prone to crisis brought about by contradictions within it. And then add the cherry on top: marvel at the totality’s uncanny capacity to transform its contradictions into vehicles for self-valorization (i.e., Schumpeter’s “creative destruction“)

The whole procedure works insofar as the “contradiction” retroactively confirms the utterly arbitrary initial gesture of positing a totality. But of course contenting forces need not belong to the same underlying structural unity. They need not form a system. Just as “liberal democracy” is not a pre-given coherent unity but a structural coupling of two discrete political logics (one animated by popular sovereignty and the other by distribution of rights), capitalism conjoins (at least) two discrete principles: private ownership of the means of production and structured competition. Strictly speaking, neither requires or presupposes the other; on the contrary, the “contradiction” between them is the aim of the coupling, since each is assigned the task of undermining the other. Private ownership is extended precisely on condition that the resulting pursuit of profit (“return on investment”) will intensify competition and thereby reduce the rate of profit (which of course undermines the value of ownership).

But while this coupling has nothing to do with any overarching unity (“capitalism”) undermined or mobilized by a “contradiction” between them, it is supposed to generate significant gains in efficiency by harnessing the typically destructive force of competition (the Hobbesian “war of all against all”) to prosocial ends (Smith’s Invisible Hand).

If there is a contradiction, it arises as a collective action problem, a tediously familiar form of which is advertising clutter. Here, the ostensibly rational aim of inviting consumers to buy one’s product results in a collectively self-defeating din of solicitations in which consumers are effectively prevented from noticing or remembering any given advertiser. This is the problem of distraction at the heart of the attention economy, a term meant to underscore the perverse shift from the pursuit of efficiency in production to the pursuit of consumer attention, which now becomes a profit center in itself.

But there is a further wrinkle: distraction comes to undermine not only the inherent aims of advertising but now the very activity of production itself. And this transpires in two ways: first, by shifting resources to the self-defeating game of marketing; but second, by the incursion of distraction into the routine activities of productive labor. Once we are distracted as workers, the very procedures aimed at enhancing efficiency begin to erode it.

From this vantage, the rise of attention economy amounts to the abolition of economy proper and its replacement by a form of activity that seems superficially to function economically—to the extent that forms of labor and commodity exchange continue to take place and profits appear to be made—but is in fact a sort of postmodern potlatch, consisting chiefly in a form of competitive destruction.

(All of which is to say nothing of Ariely’s classically symptomatic logic: to be more productive, make to-do lists; beware of to-do lists, since they often function as substitutes for real productivity. The lesson? The means to an end is also inevitably an obstacle to that end. Better yet, it is the means to an altogether different end.)


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