The Politics and Economics of Attention

Seminar Commentary

Rupert Alcock, University of Bristol

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The concluding seminar attracted an interdisciplinary group of participants whose work all somehow engages the question of human attention in the so-called ‘age of distraction’. Embedded in visual landscapes saturated by mass advertising, rarely removed from the disruptive affects of ubiquitous communication technologies, life in contemporary Western societies faces no shortfall of practices that vie for some marker of our ‘attention’. A rush of adrenalin; a firing of neurons; a glance of the eye; a click of the mouse: what are the ethical and political implications of contemporary practices that seek such attentional indicators through increasingly sophisticated regimes of measurement, management and monetary capture? Do we have a collective attention deficit? Or is the world so awash with our perceptual oscillations that the old Cartesian ‘inner’ self – whether mindful or otherwise – offers the only remaining semblance of solace from the vagaries of “cognitive capitalism” now said to dominate our material and aesthetic world-habitats?

These and related questions inspired the day’s proceedings, organised around five interventions each as provocative as any delivered in the series to date. In many ways the broad intellectual capture of the notion of attention – inviting insights from a diversity of traditions including political economy, phenomenology, 4E cognitive science, care ethics, mindfulness studies and digital data analytics – drew together many themes already introduced in previous seminars. Throughout each presentation and subsequent discussion it was clear that these are issues relevant to us all, not merely as academics intrigued by the changing nature of psychological governance but as everyday consumers increasingly tuned into digital forms of (un)consciousness: mere conduits in a larger machine, perhaps, or political subjects with capacities to resist and contest what might be called the neoliberalisation of the cogitans itself. At the time of Foucault’s original inception of biopolitics, such an expansive cartography may not have been possible to conceive.



Matthew Crawford, University of Virginia

Attention as a cultural problem and the fate of individuality


Amidst the media-saturated and noisily commercial environs of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the business-class lounge offers a rare island of peace and tranquillity. The place is marked by its absence of the ‘attention-getting technologies’ whose abundance similarly characterises the world of the airport outside. The monetisation of our attentional commons cuts both ways: if it’s tranquillity you’re after in a space like this, that luxury itself comes at a high price.

So began Matthew Crawford’s talk, with a collection of vignettes of life in the age of affective capitalism, where everyday experience is engineered through the rampant packaging of stimuli by commercial and media interests. Reminiscent in many ways of Frankfurt school critique – Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘culture industry’, perhaps, updated to reflect the sophistication of contemporary modes of ‘deception’ – Crawford’s wryly discomforting talk set the scene for much of the subsequent debate. Drawing on theoretical advances in the fields of embodied, enactive cognition, Crawford stressed how the intimate, symbiotic relationship between action and perception implies that those who control the packaging of perceptual stimuli – the affordances of things in the world – at once control the nature of concurrent actions. Contrary to traditional portrayals of cognition as disembodied and thus detached from the world, this picture entails that liberal recourse to notions like choice or autonomy are inherently misguided, and serve only to strengthen the powerful ideology of the sovereign individual upon which marketing campaigns commonly thrive.

The way out of our predicament, according to Crawford, is to reimagine a strong sense of agency, not freedom: a radically interactive understanding of agency as submission to things in the world, as opposed to dominion over an otherwise inert and pliable environment. In practical terms, the rallying cry to ‘reclaim the real’ entails nurturing skilled practices – what Crawford has called ‘craft-work’ – wherein our moral admiration extends to those artisans, like short-order cooks, gardeners, and motorcycle mechanics (a craft in which Crawford himself participates), whose embodied competences should inspire more of our wonder and gratitude than they commonly enjoy. To some degree (which remains debateable), Crawford’s admiration for such skilled practices might exonerate him of the charge of elitism proposed by one questioner in the subsequent discussion. It is not the products of Frankfurt school ‘high culture’ that Crawford reserves his admiration for, but rather any sense of learned and applicable joint attention that connects people both with one another and with the impressive skilled practices of our ancestors.



Peter Doran, Queens University Belfast

A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Sustainable Consumption


While Marcuse provided an unspoken touchstone for the previous speaker, the critical energies of Foucault were explicitly invoked throughout Peter Doran’s reflections on the political economy of mindfulness and sustainability practices. Adopting something of a middle way between endorsement and critique, Doran’s intervention called attention to the resource for critique that arises within the already politicised practices of mindfulness and wellbeing. Put differently, the core message appeared to be that mindfulness and wellbeing must be delivered in the context of the power/knowledge relations in which they have arisen. Moreover, the integrity of such practices depends on the context of power in which they operate: for example, how might Buddhist teachings readily translate into forms of Western consumerism-critique?

In this vein, Doran explored some similar territory to the preceding speaker. Building on Foucault’s later work on the care of the self, Doran argued that cognitive capitalism as a form of biopower as well our shared awareness of the Anthropocene both imply the cultural imperative of self-regulation. Just as Foucault’s model of political ethics was based on a form of self-awareness developed in light of the colonisation of bodies and minds by historical and contemporary power relations, any response to the Anthropocene and the vagaries of affective capitalism requires us to acknowledge the co-production of consumerism with the very discourses of mindfulness and well-being thought to offer an alternative model, or recourse to opposition.

To focus attention on the critical potential of Eastern thought – despite its co-option by various prominent approaches to the politics of wellbeing – Doran turned to Foucault’s own interest and investigations into the Zen tradition. A key understanding of Foucault’s was to see Zen teachings as a form of social technology, designed to instil a deeper form of materialism that assimilates at once both body and world: a relationship between the rational and the meditative that also famously arises from Heidegger’s legacy. The value of these insights for Doran resides in their gesture of a ‘different mentality’ to the Cartesian division said to frame the secular, consumerist practices of the West. Some notion of ascesis, in this sense, might enable greater appreciation of the impermanence of the material world, contrary to the emphases placed on individual security and subjective control in contemporary liberalism, as well as in the wellbeing and mindfulness practices currently co-opted and deployed in its name.



Matthew Hannah, University of Bayreuth

Modelling attention: some ideas


By process of unveiling his own heuristic model, Matthew Hannah offered an historical account of competing models – or metaphors – of attention, drawn from recent and distant histories of psychology and phenomenology. The nature of perceptual experience has provided the core problematic for writers in these traditions whose accounts, while often in conflict with one another, continue to provide insight invaluable to those concerned with the political-economic issues under discussion. Hannah described his own threefold interest in the matter of attention: for its capacity to unravel the political economy of constructed neoliberal lifeworlds; for its key role in addressing the problematic of contingency and stability in socio-spatial theory; for the hope that a focus on attentional politics might sharpen the long-standing ‘front-back’ motif in critical human geographic research.

Hannah stressed repeatedly that his own model of what he termed ‘the attentional complex’, depicted in the form of an adjustable cybernetic-style feedback diagram, was designed as a heuristic tool to aid his and others’ understandings of the complexity of ‘paying attention’. The model sharpens features of at least seven leading metaphorical constructions from the historical literature, including the spotlight model of basic selectivity associated with James and Husserl; the foreground/background contribution of Gestalt psychology; and various metaphorical comparisons from zoom lens cameras to grasping hands and pecking chickens. Critiques of each overlapping account informed the development of Hannah’s own model, which incorporates the more dynamic elements of Maren Wehrle’s vertical model of attentional process and horizontal model of attentional context. The outcome – a dazzlingly relational cybernetic process-diagram of both the noetic and noematic horizons of attention – illustrates the non-dualistic nature of Merleau-Pontian phenomenology in the tone of second-order cybernetic dynamism.

Hannah’s model speaks directly to currently pertinent political economic issues. For example, that capacities for distraction appear inbuilt to the attentional complex is a feature not lost on manufacturers of data-driven environmental design. The algorithmic metrics of online advertising already make use of this capacity for attentional feedback, foregrounded in Hannah’s dynamic model and expounded in greater detail in a later presentation (Sam Kinsley). For all the intricate relationality of Hannah’s model, however, one participant raised the question whether the ‘self’ might still be placed too much at its centre: how can we acknowledge the contributions of Guattari, Lazzaratto and Simondon, for example – that machinic assemblages, not selves, attend – while also accepting that there is something (whether embodied, experienced or otherwise) that we might call the ‘primitive subject’, or understand as the seat of awareness, somehow? Put differently, we might ask how this radically non-representational system – ‘attention’ – might itself be adequately represented, and perhaps whether this challenge might be met more satisfactorily by other non-linguistic, aesthetic means.




Clive Barnett, University of Exeter

Economies of attention and the acknowledgment of partialities


Clive Barnett approached the question of attention from an alternative orientation, engaging with different ways the concept has been used or deployed in critical social thought. Questioning a presumption shared by the previous three speakers, Barnett asked whether it is possible – or even valid or useful – to cash out a political story from reading and applying insights from phenomenology and cognitive science. Rather than treat attention as the perceptual phenomenon described in these traditions – and thus requiring some kind of philosophy or empirical characterisation of ‘mind’ – we might ask instead how and why the topic of attention appears pertinent to different people at particular times. For Barnett, people worry about attention in different ways based on their own particular problematics; attending to the scope of these issues might shed more light on the underlying themes that connect conflicting interpretations with particular ethical or socio-political phenomena.

Among the resources Barnett explored was the political science literature on community power from the 1960s and 70s, associated with writers like Robert Dahl and Steven Lukes. In the context of Lukes’ tri-partite account of power, for example, non-decision making is about nothing if not the intentional (mis)directing of attention. How certain issues get onto policy agendas while others fail – while depicting nothing of embodiment or cognition – in part determines the types of assemblages upon which collective attention can be directed. Similarly, while social movement theories examine political issues that large groups of people are attentive to, there would be little to gain from integrating intricate phenomenological accounts within their explanatory structures, exempting some kind of ‘spillover’ into now commonly discredited micro-level sociology.

In economic discourse, paying attention is treated largely behaviourally, without recourse to find-grained accounts of cognition. Attention in economic spheres amounts to the real subsumption of subjectivity to capital; Barnett referenced Dallas Smyth’s ‘audience commodity’ notion to illustrate the productive labour power of seemingly passive attentive activity like watching TV. In this context, distraction might not be something necessarily negative or costly, but rather something to be cultivated, as a kind of counter-cultural or subversive resource. Following Walter Benjamin, therefore, we might want to save distraction from simple subordination to attention.

Finally, feminist literatures on the ethics of care treat attentiveness as an inherently partial virtue. What are you looking for when trying to understand people’s partial attentions, or structures of care? Why do people care about anything at all? For Barnett, following Benedict Anderson, the impetus must be that such structures could be different, or could be made to be different somehow. So the question – what costs are involved in changing the way people care about things? – appears to Barnett a more fruitful one for critical academics to pursue than debating the various political implications of contemporary philosophy of mind or cognitive science. Rather than an individualised or psychological problematic, attention then becomes a wholly public – and thus truly political – topic for debate.



Sam Kinsley, University of Exeter

Attending to the pharmakon of paying attention


The final speaker shifted our critical attention once more, now toward the empirical practices of online ‘attention capture’ markets. The impetus for Sam Kinsley’s intervention was the sense that popular critical trends around so-called ‘big data’ governance and cognitive capitalism commonly misunderstand the actual mechanics of the models they attempt to critique. Among these trends are the accounts of ‘immaterial labour’ associated with Deleuzian theorists, as well as the often hyperbolic accounts of algorithmic power and data governmentality provided by scholars of more Foucauldian persuasions.

Kinsley was able to demonstrate with rare clarity that what we understand as capacities to ‘pay attention’ online are mediated and monetised in all sorts of sophisticated ways. Proxies for user-interface interaction are recorded as data, for example, and delivered as ‘attention’ to advertisers or other commercial bodies through particular advertising metrics: cost-per-click, for example, or cost-per-thousand-viewers. The context or nature of the ‘attentive moment’, rendered as such, is ignored; what matters is solely the quantifiable metric itself. Each time the user clicks a relevant link a real-time bidding auction takes place, in the milliseconds it takes for the next page to load, between advertisers competing for space on the new page. The advert content will be tailored to the user, based on data stored as cookies on their hard-drive. The key point is that such ‘attention capture’ systems constitute their own world – quite apart from the rich nuances of our phenomenological ‘world-ing’ – based on the reductive, impoverished nature of what can be measured and the consequent ontology and epistemology of HCI (human-computer interaction) approaches.

What is actually being captured by such systems? Against the tendency in ‘immaterial labour’ literatures to see attention in terms of the individual, Kinsley stressed the aggregated nature of the models created in ad-exchange markets. All personalisation of advertising requires the use of category types and the construction of such types requires data aggregation. So the resource from which a price can be extracted – the ‘monopoly rent’ in Kinsley’s terms – is access to markets defined by this aggregate data. The commercial bodies involved in ad-exchange markets – not just advertisers themselves, but also the array of companies designing and securing the functioning of requisite software systems – extract their rent from this reductive model of aggregated ‘attention’. Understanding the mechanics of these systems should erode the appeal of vague theoretical languages; ‘affective-visceral flows’ or ‘flows of signification’ are simply not what is being captured and in fact, on Kinsley’s account, the reality is far more mundane.

Kinsley concluded his talk by offering Bernard Stiegler’s notion of the pharmakon, to suggest that these ad-based Internet systems might constitute both poison and cure. There is a danger of technological determinism in assuming the path dependence of such systems: that the technologies involved might not be put to other more socially progressive uses. The emerging ‘algorithmic imaginary’ – the idea that the algorithm is now sovereign and necessarily malevolent – leaves little space for thinking against such tendencies. Ending the series on a positive note, Kinsley assured us that things can be different: ‘dark nets’ and peer-to-peer servers can be used to foil attention measurement, for example; blockchains based on the bitcoin protocol can resist data tampering and revision. In this vein, artist Sarah Gold has proposed the notion of the ‘Alternet’: an autonomous civic network running alongside the Internet that allows individuals to own and control their data through straightforward data licenses. Given the opacity of systems like those Kinsley describes, some degree of data privacy appears worthy of our collective defence.