In ancient Athens’s Agora, in medieval Venice’s Rialto neighborhood, and in small village market squares everywhere, the marketplace for ideas — that is where attention was exchanged —commingled with the market for goods. Socrates wandered around the Agora talking with his disciples and enemies, according to Plato. But he and they spent little time trying out or examining the wares, or in bargaining over goods. Others, say in Cairo’s souks up until today, spend much time engaged in conversation and in bargaining, and would be shocked and disturbed to have their first price accepted by customer. In these cases attention and shopping are intermingled, but still separate kinds of activity. Today, in more westernized places the relationship is different but still crucial.
Consumer spending is what is said to keep the American — and therefore the world’s — market economy afloat. In recent years this has required most consumers to go into debt, either through home loans, credit cards or both. Today it is increasingly hard to get such loans, because all the banks are afraid of lending. Meanwhile, a substantial and growing proportion of Americans have no way to take on more debt and still pay it back. But even if that were not so, consumption might not head up forever. In a previous post I discussed the attention costs of consumption. But there is another side to consuming, which helps explain why Americans have loved to shop. It can be described as simply this: Shopping is an avenue for getting attention. At, least, it seems to be that, sometimes even when it’s not. Let me list some of the ways shopping offers attention.
Yesterday I went to the hub of shopping in the Bay area, the few blocks around Union Square, SF. Within fairly easy walking distance is everything from the extremely downscale Burlington Coat Factory to the upscale Barney’s New York. Also, Bloomingdales, Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, Nieman-Marcus, H & S, and Saks Fifth Avenue, along with Crate and Barrel, Apple, Virgin Records, Border’s Books and many other name-brand chain stores, along with a number of discount jewelry stores and many others. Together these emporia function as a kind of gigantic museum of what designers have designed, technologists have implemented, musicians and artists and jewelers and writers have created— all as curated by the store’s buyers and display managers. Plenty of things to pay attention to, but by the same token a great deal of illusory attention. (Illusory attention is the attention you feel you are getting, as if in direct address to you, when in fact the creator in question is unaware of your specific existence or very nearly unaware of it.) You could receive illusory attention by going to an actual museum, say, but you get much of the same just by looking around in stores and shops, or eating in restaurants, especially those with notable restaurateurs or chefs behind them.
Being Attended to While Shopping
Another thing happens, at least minutely, when you shop. The salespeople pay at least a little and sometimes a lot of attention to you. You expect to be noticed and perhaps cosseted; you expect to be smiled at, thanked, perhaps complimented on your taste, told what you should and should not buy, offered reassurances that the possible recipient of your purchase will love it. (It doesn’t seem to matter that the clerk offering such assurances knows absolutely nothing about the intended recipient of a gift; they just know the recipient will love it, and sometimes this remarkable knowledge evidently seems compelling and reassuring to the customer.
Attention Paid to Gift-Givers
A high proportion of all purchases are made around the now traditional gift-giving holidays, and many — though by no means all –are actually bought as gifts. Some of these gifts were requested, but many are shots in the dark, which may or may not turn out to be something the recipient actually wants or is happy to have. Many such gifts end up never used, instead stored away and forgotten, a kind of Keynesian boost to the world’s market economy, but still hoped to bring about some kind of gratitude and attention paid to the giver. This is so even if the giver is merely fulfilling what she or he takes to be an expectation. The recipient will probably also give a gift in return, unless she is a child or if some other inequality makes reciprocation difficult. Thus many gifts can be viewed as a frilly, inarticulate form of exchange of attention, a concrete demonstration of love, or something of the sort.
Shopping as Part of a Creative (and Therefore Potentially Attention-Getting) Act
A large number of things purchased are for display to others in some form. Such is obviously the case with many clothes, those not purely utilitarian, or maybe even those. But this also holds for furniture for electronic devices, for foods, whether to be combined into something cooked for others or merely as a display as the purchaser herself eats them in semi-public. Cars are also in this category. Sometimes the way things bought are combined is intended to be a kind of artistry, and of course our bodies and what we have on them have been the main way we get direct attention in the world,. This accounts for gyms, cosmetic surgery, ordinary cosmetics, jewelry, shoes, diet foods, tattoos and more.
Purchasing of the Means for Expression that Will (It is Hoped) Get Attention.
Here I mean everything from art supplies to iPhones, including cameras, musical instruments, computers and much software, even sound and video systems for home use but also to show off our discoveries to friends and others. Even a substantial portion of business-related (and thus deductible) purchases are in this category. In addition to giving such things to ourselves, we can also give them to others with the intent that we will share in some sense in the attention that goes to the expression thereby made.
Attention-Seeking in Other Ways Competes with Shopping and Will Do So More
As I have discussed before, the act of shopping itself of course takes up the shoppers attention, and so the extent it can be done is limited. Further, as I also pointed out, making any use of anything one buys requires further attention. But shopping also takes money, and with money growing increasingly questionable and perhaps hard to get hold of, means of seeking attention that rely less extensively or not at all on shopping would be much sought substitutes. They are certainly available, at least for those who have Internet or cell phone access and the like, and I think that if and when the smoke clears for the money-market economy, non-monetary attention- seeking activities will be more prominent. The advantages of shopping as a means of getting attention will quite probably permanently lessen.
Less shopping equals less employment, barring massive government intervention. That would yield lowered money incomes for many. That too will make the Attention Economy more important. But just as the musicians and writers of today want to be heard and read as much at least as they want to be paid, the technologists and designers and so forth will want their works widely distributed if possible, so that they can be appreciated. I f life is not to get totally imbalanced, ways must be found to see that the good things in life are not reserved for only a small group that has managed to hold onto money or have good money incomes. Plenty of attention will go to whoever figures out how to make this work. The time to start thinking about it is now.