Jul 132007

Paul Salomone has posted some interesting and I think valid comments about social justice in an Attention Economy. The issue is how do we go about equalizing what has become most important — attention from others. In an economy based on material things and money, governments have certain powers to help equalize things, even though with varying problems and difficulties. They can offer welfare, social security, require a decent minimum wage and provide various public services. They could go even farther by trying to make ownership of most material resources public and collective. But attention is different. We seemingly give ours freely. Would we accept legislation that says we must give equal attention to everyone? That seems hardly likely.

However, Paul cites the example of all the attention we give to Paris Hilton and other such empty celebrities. I think it is true we do not do this from completely free choice, at least at present, because all the media editors, recognizing that some fraction of the public would give her attention, try to get attention for themselves by invoking her as much as possible. (So do non-profit and private attention getters; for instance Paul has put her pic with an X through it on his site, so he is in effect using her to get attention, as indeed am I right now, to a slightly lesser degree.) People who would prefer paying Hilton no attention at all can find this hard to do.

All this means that some other people get less than an average attention share. What to do, if we favor equality? We can all try to pay attention when it is hard, but that seems unlikely to hold up terribly much. We can pay more attention to our own circles of friends and relations rather than more distant kinds of stars. That has slightly more chance of working, but the recent history suggests how strongly and easily we are pulled in the opposite direction.

One thing we can do, as Paul hints, is offer more and better modes of attention getting, combinations of technology and education, that would allow each person to find the best mode for getting attention for what is most truly and importantly to her and her concerns.

Another tack may be to realize that there are certain situations in which attention flows equally to all. In her recent book Dancing in the Streets, my old friend Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that communal ecstatic dancing is an age-old human activity in which almost all participants become less focused on themselves — or on any leader or star. This is true attention equality. It may well be one of the lures of “partying,” or many other kinds of deeply group activities.   One potential of “social networking” that may have something to do with its popularity may be the party-like, essentially egalitarian kind of atmosphere it could sustain.

I will soon post again about this and other — even opposite — promises held out by social networking.

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