Apr 202007

The other night, eight million Blackberries suddenly stopped functioning, and many users (or abusers) of this portable e-mail and instant messaging device apparently felt bereft.  About the same time a friend told me she was in a bad mood because her Internet service was down. That had happened to me a week earlier, and I knew what she meant. Cell-phone users can easily feel the same. Just what is going on with us?

An infant relies on gazes and touches from parent or caretaker to feel safe. In other words, at the earliest of ages we need attention to feel sure we are safe, or perhaps even more — to feel sure we exist. We become selves through the attention of others, and if that attention is not available, or taken away too soon, anyone can remain a little in doubt about being safe and OK and even existence it self. It used to be that as people got older they got more used to periods of relative isolation. But now, that is no longer necessary. One can go back to the short-term connectedness of childhood, or need never leave it. One always can get attention via a Blackberry, and to dispense with it, even for a meal say, seems difficult for many people.

A pile of e-mails and instant messages when you wake up reassures you that people are thinking of you, paying you attention, and if you can have this reminder, it makes you feel more in the swing of things than if you don’t. Workaholism is often a means to the same end, of course, and for some, it is the supposition that your messages are important because work related add to the feel of importance.  But some do not have that, and they then turn more fully to what I call illusory attention.

I think the desire for at least illusory attention explains much about the workings of our culture. For instance, why do people tune into the Home Shopping Network or one of its rivals? Why do they buy from it? The answer to both is largely that it is a way to feel attended to, much as one might feel attend to by a salesperson in a shop or store. For most of us, HSN would not be a good way to feel one is getting attention, but if other sources of attention are not available, this is better than nothing.  Blackberries or “Crackberries” are more likely to create a sense of getting real attention, and they, like cell phones also convey to others around that one is someone with something of an audience, which also works to make others feel one  is more worthy of attention. But the addiction to the Blackberry or other forms of checking one’s e-mail is not so different from addiction to HSN.

Apr 192007

When Palestinian suicide bombers blow themselves up, they nearly always have participated in a video, to be shown on TV (and now, the Internet) right after their deaths. It’s a difficult but quick way to achieve a kind of immortality, not in the next world, but this.

Iraqi terrorists have a somewhat different pattern, more likely to be visible (at least from the back) when they are executing some poor hostage. The suicide bombers oddly seem satisfied with anonymity, at least so I glean from news reports. Even if they wanted attention, the fact that several of them seem to die every day would mean they would not get much individual publicity anyway, although their actions certainly do get on TV. Just today a few bombers managed to kill well over a hundred and fifty in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, of course, American attention has been focused not on the boring Iraq occupation, but on the shootings at Virginia Tech. Of course, everyone who has ever gone to an American college or has sent a child to one can easily align with the victims. Further, reporters can flock to Blacksburg with little fear of being shot or bombed themselves. As horrible as the event is, it is perfect for getting attention on American media. And we should not be surprised that the apparent shooter thought so too. Unhinged as he evidently was, he had no trouble realizing that merely by killing so many and then himself, he would get on TV and YouTube.

The shooter set a new record for killing on an American campus (at least if we don’t count the 1927 bombing of a school by a school board member). Why? Was this just rage, or was there method in his madness? Had he killed, say, just two or three, he would not have got the headlines he did. By setting a record that we can only hope will endure for a very long time, he assures himself many future mentions and much attention to his various expressions. He was a student of creative writing, in part, and very few such students will get their work read so widely.  It is repulsive to think that snuffing out so many lives is a way to gain so much attention, but the fact is that it is. (Of course, in its early days, and still now, the money economy rewarded the taking of life in several ways — through arms sales, through paying mercenary soldiers, through unsafe working conditions, and more than once through violently breaking strikes. Sometimes the death toll  was much higher than in Blacksburg.)

Had the same shooter been in Iraq, even with the videos, etc., no long-term attention would have been likely. President Bush, who certainly bears considerable blame for the carnage in Iraq, mostly keeps silent about it. For this set of murders, for a change, he is probably blameless, so he rushed to Blacksburg to appear on TV delivering a vapid and unnecessary statement. Would the university community be less able to mourn or to begin what must be a slow healing process without him? Would the country be feeling any different if he had just issued a few words of condolence via his press secretary?

Of course, I feel a little uncomfortable adding to the excessive commentary on this. The more commentators like me seek to get attention by referring to the shootings, the more likely it is that some copycat will try to outdo the record. In fact, someone in the Boston area has already boasted that he would. Certainly there are plenty of disturbed people, plenty who are suicidal, plenty who are angry, and plenty who are willing to pay a huge price to get attention. Cho himself referred in one of his rants to the Columbine killers —who acted nearly exactly eight years ago, so even he was copying.

But, fortunately for us, something seems to prevent this country from turning into Iraq, as it is now. One possibility is that we do have plentiful outlets for seeking attention aside from mass murder.  (Cho, if  his word counts for anything, possibly did want to get attention for just bomb threats, but felt thwarted when he was not caught.) Large segments of ethnic groups, despite considerable hurt, do not seem to have quite such deep reasons to be vengeful. There is no reason I know of to suppose that suicide bombers in Iraq (nor even some of the American military) enjoy better mental health than Cho apparently did. But in those circumstances bombing or shooting may be as obvious an outlet as yelling in response to an unseen voice is here. Perhaps we need to develop more platforms from which the insane can seek a hearing.

Apr 152007

I am frankly peeved. These days I’m noticing more and more that people use the term “Attention Economy,” which I introduced in the late 1980’s, in all too superficial and erroneous a way. It is taken to be about advertising or marketing, or somehow related to ways to make money. It is taken to be just a nonce term – a fad.

In reality, as I have tried to emphasize, The Attention Economy is a term for the new system that has been gaining in strength for the past couple of generations, in which, not money, but the scarcity of attention is increasingly predominant. It is an economy, in the sense that it ties people together through the workings of desire for what is scarce, but what is scarcest is now something utterly different from the material goods that drove the old economy.  A full-fledged, totally autonomous and self-contained attention economy has not yet arrived, but when and if it does, which I think highly probable, one if its characteristics will be that it leaves money, marketing, corporations and advertising as we know it well behind.

When people who have adding machines for brains — or others who rely too much on preconceived notions — look at the Internet, for instance, they think it is primarily about making money, or advertising or “marketing.” If you are in that group, look again. Much more central to the Internet (and certainly to “Web 2.0”) is the search for attention, not money. Anyone who cannot see this, just has not looked. Only if one automatically assumes without perceiving that any new development has to be primarily market-focused, can one interpret the Internet in so mistaken a way.

Key to all this is the nature of attention. Attention both emanates from and goes to individual human beings, and not to corporations, objects, organizations, movements, or the like.  Right now, for instance, in reading this, you are paying attention to me, and not to your computer, your Internet service provider, the company that holds the server for this blog, or even the Internet as a whole. I say this not out of any special egotism. The same happens every time you look at (or, rather, through) virtually any medium. There are specific and identifiable people behind almost every expression on every medium.

You cannot really pay attention to a corporation, that is align your mind with its mind, because it does not have one. For the same reason you can also not align your mind with a group, a scientific field, a country, a city or even a movement — whether political, artistic, stylistic, technological, religious, or whatever.  The only exception to that flat negative is when members of such groups have themselves paid so much attention (directly or indirectly) to one another or to one star that they are largely aligned, in which case you can align with them — but still only to the (necessarily limited) degree they are aligned with each other. (My remarks here about such interactive alignments can be considered preliminary and will be amplified in future entries.).

An ordinary human being, even one suffering from autism or Alzheimer’s, has a continuity of body and somewhat of mind that typical corporations  and the like simply lack. If we ask the broad question as to what the XYZ company is about, it is simply not to be expected that what it has done as an entity in the past informs or has any bearing on what it might do in the future. And even at a given moment, the average company is engaged in many different actions that we as humans cannot necessarily focus on, as we can on the actions of a single other human. The limited exception is when a clear and somewhat consistent personality put or has put her stamp on the company so clearly that everyone in it is aligned with her goals or vision. That coherence occasionally can last (or dissipate only slowly) after the retirement or death of this strong person, just as in the 1950’s the NBC Symphony that had been under the baton of the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, was able to continue for awhile without him or any replacement at the helm, simply because he had managed to imbue the whole ensemble with his spirit. Over time, and certainly as new members enter, such a consistent performance without a clear leader must break down. That is, alignments will cease to be so close, unless a new leader arises. But that new leader will be able to hold the company on course only by making it her own course, a difficult prospect, as a rule. The new course, like the new personality will differ increasingly broadly from the old. This is not exactly news, but somehow the lesson has not been widely enough understood.

In a true Attention Economy, then, corporations as we know them, along with brand names and the like will fade away. More soon….as usual…

Apr 102007

It is commonly thought that attention can be equated with time. “I will give you fifteen minutes of my time,” often implies that speaker will pay attention for those fifteen minutes. It would be a mistake though, to think that this formulation means that attention is particularly tied with time. All human activities — eating or walking just as much as paying attention— occur in time, and each one has some duration. But the time taken has little to do with the quality or even the intensity of the attention paid.
Since attention involves the aligning of mind, and since this can be more or less permanent depending on how deeply you allowed yourself to align in the first place, you might well find that you continue to pay attention long after the actual encounter with the person, or with her expression (in the form of a note, a text, a voice message, and e-mail, a website, or a work of art or design of any sort).

Thus, if you have a reasonable visual imagination, for instance, you can probably recall a lot about the look of the person, or of a photo or painting by her. (So, you can bring to mind an image of Albert Einstein, Jay Leno, or Brittney Spears or the Mona Lisa, Picasso’s Guernica, or Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, the general look of a Jackson Pollock or the photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, among thousands of others.) Likewise, with a good memory for sounds, you can recall at least snatches of music. You retain and bring to mind precepts, concepts, explanations, strictures and many other kinds of expressions you paid attention to earlier, as well as in many cases the person you associate with them. Thus the actual count of seconds of first paying attention has little meaning.

Also, in the time you supposedly allot to someone or their expression, you may find it hard to alig. You are likely to be bored so your mind will wander. If say, you are a psychotherapist, you may have learned to listen very intently, but still a particular client may fail to engage you. In that case, you might decide to examine what it is about how you are interacting with the client that leaves you so bored, and in that way perhaps return attention to her, as well as possibly learning something about yourself. But that is only if you so choose; for that you must feel a certain dedication, possibly through paying attention to someone who trained you. Whether you are being paid for such an encounter or not, it is again untrue that you can be thought to hand over definite chunk of time.

In sum, attention DOES NOT EQUAL time.

Apr 082007

What a couple of weeks it has been for politics as performance: the AG, AG (i.e., the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales) instead of carrying out whatever duties make the AG-ship an important cabinet post, has been spending the week rehearsing for his upcoming appearances before Congressional Committees; President Bush, appearing before the National Cattlemen’s Association vowed again to veto the money bills for the Iraq  escalation and pretended that Congress’s second-guessing him on Iraq was akin to Congress interfering with the details of Normandy landings in WWII; in Iraq itself,  Senator McCain visited a market in a flak jacket surrounded by 100 paratroopers and two helicopters, and pronounced it safe; and in Guantanamo, David Hicks, an Australian convert to Islam, somehow caught in Afghanistan,  was allowed to go nearly free provided he promises not to press charges of torture against the military nor speak to reporters for a year.

Yet, despite the current President’s seemingly deep involvement in staged presentation, such as dancing on the aircraft carrier with the “Mission Accomplished sign” in 2003, or his bragging “Bring it on!” challenge to Iraqi resistance shortly later, in some familial way, he just doesn’t get it. In the terms of my last blog entry, they both mistake the new power of attention to a star for the old power of authority. This then is a tale of the two Bushes, who seem to have mastered the intricacies of campaigning, but deeply misunderstand how post-industrial  leadership actually can work, along with how it can’t.

Let me start with a personal vignette. In 1985, when Reagan was in office, I gritted my teeth and went to the White House to see my father receive a medal from that “acting President.”  There was Reagan, large as life, giving a good reading from his teleprompter. About 8 feet behind him, on a diagonal, was the Vice, George H. W. Bush, squinting to read the teleprompter as well. I had the distinct impression he was prepared to leap in should Reagan suddenly drop dead so as to continue the speech without missing a beat. Later, though, another thought occurred to me: Bush was following Reagan around like a puppy dog because he wanted to learn how to be so popular.

In 1988, the Republicans nominated Bush père to succeed his unwitting acting teacher. Using his lessons, the new candidate got one of Ronnie’s best speechwriters, Peggy Noonan, to write his acceptance speech, and he rehearsed it well. It included a couple of key lines: the modified Clint Eastwood-Dirty Harry of  “Read my lips — no new taxes,” and the altogether discordant wish for “A kinder, gentler nation.”  In the event, coming from behind, H.W. ran an unkind, ungentle campaign and won. Once in office, though, he assumed that the need to perform was over., and the acting lessons were out the window.  He was going to run the country as any Wall Street executive would, with— he assumed— little need to play a role anymore. “Read my lips” would not be necessary; that line about taxes had just been campaign verbiage, as forgettable as all that “kinder, gentler”  goo.

After a couple of years, Bush I decided he was going to use force to get Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait — which Saddam had probably thought Bush had given him a green light to invade in the first place. Congress insisted on a vote, so suddenly the managerial Bush once again had to try to appeal to the nation. He or his writers came up with the ridiculous line that Saddam was as bad as Hitler, thus invoking the feelings of justification for World War II. He also encouraged Shiites and Kurds to revolt from Saddam’s Sunni Arab rule. Then, after American forces (along with numerous allies) had easily pushed the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait, Bush turned off the rhetoric and stopped the fighting, leaving Shiites and Kurds to be massacred for their efforts. The idea that Saddam was Hitler, having done its work, was retired and never heard from again.

In short, Bush I acted with the arrogance of a ruler, ruling almost by divine right, with the right to say whatever he wanted, but whose words were just tools to achieve effects. Since he had the right to rule — in his mind, anyway— there was nothing wrong with issuing statements he didn’t mean.

Do you see the pattern? Bush I was swept aside by Clinton I, who never promised much but, despite his cavils on the copula “is,” basically was sincere, whatever he said, and saw himself in a love affair with his audience. But then came Bush II, with his disappearing “compassionate conservatism,” and his subsequent use of the terror of terrorism to attain  electoral victory through wars — victories which he thought he could then use for whatever he wanted. Immediately upon being “re-elected” in 2004, Bush minor announced he was going to spend the “political capital” that thought he had won on something he had hardly mentioned before — redoing Social Security. He did not really understand the need to persuade and perform , to do what it takes, in the permanent campaign to stay popular and entertaining, which means grasping what his audiences wants or else lead them to want something else. Bush II , like Bush I, rules (or tries to)  in a now archaic way —by divine right, as “the decider.”   It does not bother him that the reasons given for invading Iraq were never valid and that the public has caught on at last that they were not. The words worked when they were supposed to; that was all that mattered.

The one “lesson”  George the lesser  possibly learned from his father’s failure to win re-election  was rigidity: never withdraw; never admit mistakes; never apologize for inadequacies such as revealed by Katrina. Bush II, more than Bush I has adopted the basic “acting President” mode of Ronald Reagan, except that he doesn’t really bother to act particularly sincere, probably because he isn’t. He tries to play the same role always, but he fails to grasp the need to check that the audience is eating it up.

By now, you or I, with his horrible record and the huge number or scandals and inadequacies connected with his administration, would probably be cowering in a fetal position, resigning, or trying very hard to change course, but Bush doesn’t even seem to notice he has lost his touch. On the one hand shielded by a motley, still loyal entourage of right-wing kooks, Bush doesn’t look beyond it; he is as cosseted from reality as any big star. But on the other hand, he takes the Presidency to be a kingship that is his, not a stage on which to perform. This is a basic misunderstanding of the direction of history.

Bush II and Cheney represent the old economy, in fact one of the oldest parts of it, the extractive industries — even though Shrub’s only real financial success came not through oil but baseball — an attention –centered industry, highly dependent on the players as well as the fans. But being of the Bush dynasty, he has not noticed this.  To be sure, Reagan and Clinton I probably didn’t consciously realize they were Attention-Economy presidents either, but instinctively they knew it. My guess is from now on, we shall have Presidents more fully conscious of the stagey aspects of their essential roles for this era.

Apr 072007

Author vs. Authority

The words “author”  and “authority ”  both have the same root, fairly obviously, but in attention-economic terms they are almost opposites. We pay attention to an author as a person, with a history, feelings, experiences, actions, etc. An authority, on the other hand, is someone whose personal attributes should not matter; it is the position she holds or the body of knowledge she is supposed to represent completely impersonally that mark her as one.

Only in the case of someone like a textbook author do the two concepts come anywhere close to overlapping. What makes a textbook work is that it is impersonal; someone else in the field could have written something that would lead to more or less the same alignments. The author(s) act as representatives of a whole group who share the same outlook, or as spokesperson(s) not for people, but for the field of inquiry itself. We rarely become fans of a textbook’s author(s), even when we pay attention, or if we do, it supposedly only that they have found unusually good ways of organizing or explaining what any author of a similar text would have somehow organized and explained also.

When courts call on expert witnesses, they are assuming that experts are authorities; the fiction, at least, is that any duly qualified expert ought to present essentially the same testimony as another. Of course, that is no more than a fiction; usually each side in a legal confrontation finds experts to back its own position. The question then becomes which is the true authority, possessor of the more authentic and impersonal knowledge; that is to be decided largely on how well the so-called expert projects assurance and knowingness, that is, on her personal qualities and abilities, including her abilities to bring the audience, or at least the jury or judge along with her.

A related use of the term authority is for a holder of power, or that power itself, especially the power that comes from position: “By the authority vested in me;”  or, “ The authorities charged her with a crime.”

In essence this kind of authority enforces or attempt to enforce attention, not by doing anything necessarily that would draw attention, but by the strength of position. Thus, the attention that is supposed to go to authority is a leftover from an earlier time; you do not obey authority out of seeming volition, but by compulsion. On the contrary, when you are attentive to the wishes of a star or a more ordinary attent, by dint of having aligned with her, that feels voluntary and unconstrained.

(This subject needs more exploration, some of it coming tomorrow.)

Apr 032007

Since the total supply of attention is limited, the different ways attention leaves the circulating supply is important. One way is that each of us, in addition to attention we pay others, pays some to herself.

Most humans are not perfectly happy in isolation, and probably cannot live that way. Most probably, we each would prefer to get at least a little more attention than we pay out. When you pay attention to yourself, you are getting no more than one person’s attention, so it might seem simpler to focus attention on others in the hopes that they will give you even more back. However, to get attention from a large audience, you have to be in some way unusually expressive, capable or articulate, and it is possible that you can better achieve that by being very well aligned with yourself.

In prior posts [1,2], I have discussed the meaning of one’s being in alignment with others. What does self-alignment mean, then? We must proceed by conjecture. Suppose first you just go through life without any self-alignment. Then you will be paying attention to disparate people, which will constantly reshape and alter your mind, depending on whom you align to. Because it is easier to align to someone you aligned to before, there will probably be a relatively small set of people who have most significantly shaped your mind. This could make you just a hodgepodge of assorted alignments, so that your own focus would always be divided and multiple, and you would not have any strong sense of your own self, your own predilections or your own viewpoints. Anything you do or express would mostly be aimed at a specific one of your attents [i.e., persons you pay attention to]. Self-alignment then would be the process of paying attention to yourself in such a way that you become more a distinct and single total self, largely integrating into a unified whole even the parts of your mind most shaped according to your attents. One can speculate that any really strong and unique attention getter is quite well self-aligned, even without knowing exactly what self-alignment means beyond this.

The concept of mirroring discussed in my Chapter 3 offers some sense of what self-alignment could entail: you not only move, you notice your own movements, You do them slowly enough so that you are particularly conscious of doing them, Or you move different parts of your body in some self-responsive and interactive way. This might entail doing something like tai-chi exercises: very slow and self-conscious movements, with a certain emphasis on gracefulness, Other forms of meditative practice, such as yoga, or just breathing consciously or directing your consciousness towards different parts of your body, dancing, singing, making music, going for a walk, practicing different movements of your own invention, practicing different, perhaps quite simple crafts, such as washing dishes, slicing an orange or painting a wall, putting material objects of yours in a specific order,  or even masturbating, all might be forms of bodily self-alignment. To be that, they would have to include some unusual degree of focus on the movements and feelings themselves.

Another possibility: real “mirroring” — that is, lookingat yourself in a mirror, or perhaps via video, making gestures, trying out differing expressions, etc. Being conscious of your past actions, accomplishments, expressions, etc., and seeking in them a certain coherence, or seeing why it is lacking.

Other aspects of self alignment might involve consciousness of the various ways one has paid attention and been shaped by that, with an aim instead of reshaping one’s mind with the goal of fitting together many different occasions of attention paying. We have few or no thoughts that are purely the creation of our own minds, because from birth meanings, concepts, and images come to us from others or are learned either in their presence or under their influence. Others shaped and gave meaning to the ways that we understand and perceive almost everything. Still, we do somehow put our own stamp on these thoughts and perceptions. To the extent that we can do that fully and entirely, the more we are likely to strengthen our own ability to know exactly where we stand, what we feel and think and how we respond, all a necessary part of attracting attention from others.

Some people probably self-align very naturally, and fairly completely. This might have come about in part at least from these people’s particularly good and rich childhoods, suitably loving and responsive parents and caretakers, and so on, as well as early experiences of mastery of something or other, with attendant response from desired audiences.  For others however, self-alignment might well come later, quite possibly with considerable difficulty.

The key point about self-alignment is that it entails paying attention to oneself, so if I, say, were to tell you how to align with yourself, you would be at least substantially paying attention to me, rather than to yourself, as you pursue the process. Thus I conjecture that by its nature full self-alignment has to be different for each person achieving it and that it is usually arrived at slowly, via various sorts of experiences and attempts. Many undoubtedly do not achieve it at all and remain always paying attention to others, often through media and the like.

Occasionally too, some people (I can’t help thinking of George W. Bush) succeed in attaining widespread attention with only very limited kinds of self-alignment. Narcissism or solipsism should not be confused with self-alignment, although they may share some commonality. The self-aligned person should have a good understanding of the reality, separateness and importance to her of others. The narcissist is likely to be self-conscious, but in a different way from the self-aligned person, who operates out of a self-knowledge and the assurance that comes with it. This allows the latter easily to align with others. She can pay them quite full and genuine attention, without any fears about losing a sense of self or being somehow discredited or losing an audience in the process. The solipsist, unaware of her own boundaries, does not really take in that others have a separate existence that must be honored and accepted. Having too great an early success at stardom can lead to seeing oneself only through the eyes of ardent fans; should they temporarily disappear or seem poised to, such a star, utterly lacking self-alignment, can feel immensely threatened.