Feb 272007

Attention is asymmetric at times. It can flow out of the system, as when the living pay attention to the dead. I was very painfully reminded of this just recently.  Ten days ago, a very close friend of mine died by her own hand; six days after that I found myself driving down the hill on which I live heading for the cemetery at which I would help choose a plot for her. It was a beautiful day. I could not help mentally yelling, “Stacey, you fool! Why didn’t you stay alive long enough to enjoy this?” Even if I had yelled aloud, phoned, e-mailed or written her, of course I could not have gotten through.

Yet memories of her crowded my attention. Earlier times, when she was very much alive, notes she left, and the sheer act itself. Why did she do it, I tried to understand, and of course, what were her last moments like? Both these remain bewildering, beyond reach, but it is hard not to try, to seek an alignment of mind that might only truly be possible for those similarly inclined, and possibly not even then. Beyond that of course, we cannot know what it is like to be dead, because it is probably not like anything, and non-existence seems literally unimaginable —at least as an experience. We cannot literally pay attention to a dead person, since we cannot mirror or align with nothing.

Committing suicide, also, except for those whose lives already drew great attention, distorts our memories of that person. The act itself is so extreme it brings great attention, which often seems part of the goal. But everything else in one’s life is shaded by the intense and fascinating horror of that departure. The exceptions are those like Van Gogh or Hemingway, who achieved wide attention for work that had nothing to do with their death, even though in Van Gogh’s case it came only afterwards.  For the poet Sylvia Plath, though, and probably others, the art that came before is still only visible through the prism of her sticking her head in that oven.

Still, we retain memories of the person, and can keep on paying attention to all sorts of things she said, did or expressed some other way during her life. Even after death that attention is still associated with her, her name face and other attributes, in our minds. The mere fact of death does not quickly alter that attention.

Of course we pay attention to countless dead who did not die that way: Homer, Buddha, Aeschylus, Aristotle, the old Testament prophet Isaiah, Confucius— the writings —perhaps transcribed— of all of these have been preserved for well over two millennia and are still much read today. Since print was invented, the number of writers— along with artists, whose work is preserved through engraving or is accessible in museums or other sites, and composers whose work could be put in note form and also engraved— is much huger, even though only a small fraction have many fans. More recently with photographs and then phonographs and cinema and all the other audio-visual media we are surrounded with, the number of dead who impinge on our consciousness nearly as much as they would have when living has grown still more. The times have changed, but refurbished recordings of, say  early Frank Sinatra might be much clearer than when first heard by our grandparents —only the times and tastes have changed to give these songs a new and different context, slightly affecting  how we now align to young Frank.

All this is quite different from what happens upon death to the money and material goods that made up wealth in the money-market-industrial era. While such wealth can stay part of the dead person’s estate, it immediately passes to either the state’s control or that of an eventual heir, or in the case of a foundation or trust set up in a will, to the directors or trustees of that new institution. The money itself of course has nothing at all personal about it.

At times though, some material possessions, say some objects particularly and idiosyncratically assembled or collected by the deceased may retain her personal stamp. While kept together they cause mental alignment to her in those who pay attention to the ensemble. Other than that and whatever creations and expressions she left behind, there is nothing that particularly evokes her. Even in this case only attention-getting ability can survive death as still tied to the person.

Of course, for every attention–getter, dead or alive, there may be those who try to divert some of the attention to themselves as impersonators (think Elvis), interpreters (in the broadest sense, as e.g.,  Aristotelians), explainers, editors, biographers, historians  or translators. Still as long as some semblance of the “original” expressions survive, no one has an automatic monopoly in any of these roles. This is unlike the case in the old economy of material heirs who by law can have total control.

To repeat, then, attention is really a different kind of wealth in this respect as well as others.

Feb 142007

Back in 1968, Peter F. Drucker in The Age of Discontinuity [New York, Harper and Row] invented the term “the knowledge economy” to describe where he saw American society heading. By this he meant that more and more people were making use, not of knowledge simply, which everyone has always used, but rather that kind of knowledge that can be systematically acquired through taking college and university courses, as well as possibly by further specialized training beyond that. How do we understand all this in terms of attention?

Suppose you are taking a college course, and, either because you find yourself paying direct attention to the professor, or because you are interested in a good grade, you try to incorporate the material of the class in your mind. That means you must adopt a certain set of views, a certain way of thinking, a certain way of seeing the world. It is the way your professor and the authors of the books you might read for the class all more or less share, and you will succeed in the class to the extent you can demonstrate your ability to think this way on tests. You are learning part of what is generally known as a discipline, be it a particular science — say, astronomy — or some more applied field — say, advertising— or a humanity — say, English literature. Each of these broad approaches lead to very different kinds of integrated alignment with not just one or two professors but with what many or most people in the field will share as a common outlook.

Thus through the systematic paying attention of having a certain major in college and perhaps also in graduate school, one ends up with a mind much aligned with typical professors in the field, and maybe very much more closely with one or two special mentors or stars that have garnered one’s special attention either in person or via some medium.

As one then continued at that time in what was known as “the world of work” one kept on paying attention to the world according to one’s prior mental alignment with those who make up that discipline. One also received some attention just by dint of being a member of that discipline. This was added to whenever one put forward one’s own thoughts in any form that helped align still others to that discipline, as well as, to some degree, one’s personal take on it.

For one’s knowledge to be “of use” one had to make this pattern of mind a means by which to get at least some attention. Taking that alignment and carrying it further in some particular direction, was a way of extending the influence of one’s teachers, mentors and stars, as well possibly of oneself.

To a considerable extent the knowledge economy formulation was always more an ideal than reality. One gained success and prominence not simply by knowledge of a sharply defined discipline but by one’s own attention getting powers, whatever their source. By now, in many cases, the disciplinary matrix has eroded considerably and the formal ties between university courses and success in them, between typical professors as disciplinary guardians and success in the outer world have been weakened. New ways of establishing looser alignments between people, implying unified styles of thinking and ways of evaluating the world are in formation. These ways have more directly to do with alignment in the moment with a host of others with a variety of thought processes, rather than through a carefully studied and coherent underpinning of prior knowledge.

Today of course, university students are also students of the Internet and a host of stars and performers reached through it. Most likely they are also themselves performers in it. Even in the 60’s and earlier, students were connected with a larger culture, but that is more true now. My sense is that disciplines as such have more trouble maintaining —well — discipline. Each student is likely to have an assortment of stars different quite from any other, and so develop a more heterogeneous and idiosyncratic set of alignments that then get put to use in more varied ways. Those who succeed in the emerging attention economy, even when the measure of success is old-fashioned monetary wealth —and even more if it is in terms of attention itself — do so far more through personal ties, personal attention getting strategies and other ways of acting not tied to disciplines.

Thus, the so-called knowledge economy — always something of a misnomer— is even more that today. (By the way these reflections have a lot of bearing on how to read Alan Liu’s interesting but overly dogmatic Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information [Chicago, 2004].)

Feb 142007

There is only so much attention (available from other humans), and many or most of us want more than we have.

In order to get attention one needs to express or do something — let us say, perform in some way. (This can be putting forth information, but that is not particularly what, e.g., a trapeze artist does.)

The more attention we get in comparison with the attention we pay in putting together our total performance, the greater our attention productivity. The more attention we have, period, the more influential we are.

The more attention you get now, or have gotten in the past, the more attention you can get in the future. (Attention wealth is stored in the minds of the attention payers.)

Having others’ attention means you can rely on some attentiveness from them as well. Attentiveness is a willingness to satisfy your desires whatever they may be — as long as these desires do not go too much against what the attention payers (audients) would otherwise want.

Though all this has always been true, new attention technologies, and particularly the Internet, make all this work much more directly. They make it easy for more of us to seek attention, and if and when we get it, to have other desires satisfied as well.

(Thanks to Seth Goldstein for asking a question that inspired this.)