Oct 242007

0. Preface

In this and the next few installments, I will be addressing a number of connected ideas: the changing role in our lives of material things; the changing nature of firms; the rise of what I shall term hyper-creativity; how it interacts with slower moving institutions such as government; some examples; and the connection of all these with advertising.  All these are involved in the change from what I will now call the “Money-Thing Epoch” to what I will call the “Attention Epoch.” The terms in quotes are my latest attempts to find suitably apt and evocative terms to replace my earlier coinage: the Money-Market-Industrial Economy on one hand and the Attention Economy on the other.  

1. Who’s Riding Now?

According to  a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson,  the “sage of Concord” (Massachusetts) and  the pre-eminent nineteenth-century  transcendentalist, “Things are in the saddle, and ride Mankind.”  Nowadays, as I’ve said, American and other advanced societies are passing beyond the Thing Epoch to enter the Attention Epoch, in which relations between minds tend to dominate, and the scarcity and desire for attention are what mainly structure our relations with each other. That doesn’t mean that we suddenly do without things, of course, but rather that their main function changes. Emerson’s observation does not hold any longer in the way he probably meant it. Where once the main value of a human-produced thing was utility, convenience or comfort, now it is its role as an attention focuser or intermediary.

Once you have first paid attention to someone you can then pay further attention merely by recalling that experience to mind. Mostly, that recalling will be triggered by some jog to your attention, as, for example, some situation that reminds you of some aspect of the earlier experience. Often, and perhaps reassuringly, that will be through objects you surround yourself with.

People put photos of close friends and relations — or pets or celebrities — on their desks and around their houses for this reason. But reminders of past attention paid certainly need not be images of the person in question. They can be anything that even slightly triggers recall. Any gift that you keep around can remind you of the gift-giver and turn attention in her direction. Sometimes this can be very subtle, even unconscious. The object need not be material, it could be a tune or an idea, a quote, almost anything. Still, material objects, just because they occupy the space in which we live our lives, are particularly likely to engage our senses and thus serve as reminders. As if they were windows, we pay attention through such objects to the people that seem to us to be behind them.

2. Through the Thing to the Mind Behind

Take the case of this blog, for instance (though it is only a material presence for you while you tune it in on your computer,   unless you happen to have printed out this entry). It’s pretty obvious that you are paying attention to me through it, or, in the terms I commonly use, you are temporarily aligning your mind to mine. If you happen to see the name of this blog on a list you keep, that might remind you to check it, and in even considering doing so, you might very, very briefly return to alignment with me. The same would take place if you had a book written by me and happened to see it in your house.  If you had read only a bit of it, you might be reminded by seeing it to read more. Whether you open it to read on or not, seeing the object in this case clearly would remind you of prior attention to me, and that recall would be an additional act of attention.

Whereas a book or written work quite obviously connects you to the mind of the writer, whose name you can easily discover by examining the book, in the case of many other objects, there is a distinct mind behind it, even if that is all you know. Say you have —  and like having — a Rabbit corkscrew. If so, you are somewhat aligned with the mind of the ingenious person who thought about and found a neat way to solve the minor problem of how to uncork a wine bottle smoothly, elegantly and nearly effortlessly. In having the object, sometimes using it, possibly showing it off to your guests, perhaps prizing it for its esthetic qualities, you are drawing attention to the connection between its unknown inventor and you, and both can gain. (A guest sufficiently impressed might obtain her own, and then bring you to mind a little along with the unknown designer whenever she thinks of or sees the corkscrew. Even if she never buys one or even intends to, every time she opens a wine bottle or sees her own corkscrew, she might  recall yours and you, as well as the Rabbit instigator.) It would probably be difficult to have an iPhone, and not be aware of the connection to Steve Jobs. In a slightly more complex chain, seeing, driving, or riding in a Prius might help focus your attention not only on its unknown design leader but on Al Gore.

3. Mmm-mm Good

Infants start out life generally connecting the objects around them to their parents, and in many cases find an object such as a blanket or pacifier the presence of which seems to include a parent’s attention. Similarly, food represents a parent’s loving attention, at least when it is liked. The whole category known as “comfort food” like macaroni and cheese owes its comforting status to its resemblance to what was provided by a loving caretaker in childhood. If you never were given mac and cheese in your early years, you are unlikely to find it particularly comforting now. (Remarkably, a study of medical students has shown that these college graduates are more likely to trust a drug salesman who plies them with foods like pizza than one who does not. Perhaps more teachers should feed their students if they want them paying attention. That should include medical school professors explaining why drug salesmen have ulterior motives,  in my view.)

In the case of a parent and child, the attention tied with the food passes both ways. The parent is certainly showing attention to the child in feeding her, especially when feeding her what she likes. When you buy macaroni and cheese in a store, most of the attention you might feel coming to you is illusory; the chef who possibly provided the recipe probably doesn’t know of your existence, and if the store is a supermarket probably nobody will be paying much actual attention to you. What you get instead is the illusion of attention coming your way. Very often today, material objects tend to serve as repositories for this kind of illusory attention.

4. Star-infested Underwear and Prada Bags

Children a little older, if they watch children’s TV, want items associated with the apparent stars of these programs, such as Elmo or Sponge-Bob Squarepants. Adults do much the same thing, in a slightly more sophisticated way.  We associate food or songs or even furniture to the original times we paid attention to this particular item or sort of item, and thus to whoever first fed it to is or sang it or showed it to us, or perhaps simply was whom we thought we were paying attention to when we first noticed the item. (For instance, it might have been in an ad associated with a particular TV show, possibly starring a favorite actor, or simply a show we love that came from the mind of a certain producer, whether we know her name  or not.) In the case of food, it can be a chef or cookbook writer or star on the food channel who gets our attention as we eat or even cook.

4. The Future of the Present

As I mentioned earlier, many items that are purchased in America today are bought as gifts. In fact, our lavish level of gift-giving, including not only Christmas and birthdays but all sorts of occasions including weddings, baby showers, Bar Mitzvahs and the equivalent, account for perhaps nearly half of all sales in American retailing. Some of the items are purely functional, of course, and some of the gifts are more or less exchanges between equals or merely what seems to be required.  Yet, even then, the giving is intended as an act of mutual attention. The recipient is supposed to feel that Uncle Clarence, having paid attention to her, thus aligned with her mind, is aware of her needs and wants. Once the gift is given, Uncle Clarence need think of it no more, but as long as it stays out of a dark closet somewhere, the niece so gifted will be paying attention to Clarence whenever she notices or even thinks of  the object in question.

5. Object Lessons

We have been thinking mainly of material objects, but the word “object” is commonly used in two other, more specialized senses.  Many followers of the psychoanalytic tradition speak of “introjected objects,” meaning persons one had paid enough attention to that they are in some sense present in one’s mind at all times. In the terms I prefer, that means that one can easily , and often even unconsciously align or reshape one’s mind  in the image of that personage’s. Psychoanalysts tend to think of “significant others” and especially parents and primary caretakers as the main sources of such objects, but anyone one pays enough attention to will be internalized as well. Meanwhile, in computer programming, there is the quite different notion of semi-independent objects that  in some way can be approached as units “inside” computers. These objets can be connected bits of code that  perform a certain function, or, very often, things such as images that would appear on the computer screen.

While there is no necessary connection between these different usages, my point is that there very well could be, and, if you consider something like a blog or a YouTube video to be an “object,” the connection can be strong.  I suggest that an almost inevitable future direction of computing and the  Internet will be  to make virtual objects that are more like material objects in that one frequently encounters or glances at  or feels as if one is touching them even while doing something quite different. This would make them like objects you have in your home, very much as if they were physically present. They would also be likely to evoke memories of attention paid in specific ways to specific people in the past, and incline you to pay more attention to those same people.

6.  Virtual Things

Simple versions of this already exist: the lists of “buddies” available for instant messaging, or the links to individuals one knows or feels as if one does on the social-networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook. But computer operating systems could go much further, incorporating something rather more like Second Life, or any computer game in which three-dimensional objects of all  sorts seem to exist in a 3-D space you can move through. Such virtual things could remind you of specific “objects (people) to whom one has given one’s attention, and that in some way demand more, just as a half-finished book lying beside your bed might beckon.  It might be a moving image of Beethoven or Bruce Springsteen, invoking memories of their music and maybe a desire to hear more, which might be accomplished , in part by clicking on these images. An image of an Eames chair might connect you with all about Charles and Ray Eames, so the virtual space you inhabit through your computer would radically revise the details of how you pay attention. The virtual world would be a sort of pictorial encyclopedia organized around what you had paid attention to before, but always opening up new avenues as well.

Today, already, many of us  walk around listening to iPods or talking on iPhones or sending and receiving Blackberry messages. So inthe not-too-distant future, we will be even further immersed in the enhanced virtual world, perhaps with virtual objects appearing next to “real” ones through the computerized spectacles we will wear.   Purely attetnional objects then will increasingly replace material things.

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