Jul 292007

Pay attention! This is IMPORTANT, not just my usual blather!

In response to an earlier post of mine, Paul Salomone writes, in part:
“…it’s not just that ALL people need to have a more equal share of the attention wealth, but IMPORTANT people and ideas (read: necessary for the healthy and happy functioning of global society) do even more so.”

I don’t think this demand makes real sense, understandable though it may be. Meanwhile, in an attempt to deal with too many calls on our attention, people or companies such as Seriosity try to come up with ways to quantify how much attention something ought to be worth, presumably based on how “important” it is. These efforts too are doomed, but why?

How can we understand what importance is, from an Attention Economic perspective? In this perspective, recall, the attention that matters is only what goes, directly or indirectly, from human to human.

Saying something is important is first of all a ploy — conscious or not — for getting attention. You ask others to see the world through your eyes, urging that in so doing they will better be able to pay attention to themselves or others. However, the way you put it is that you are just pointing out the way the world truly is, not just how you see it.

(If you are being truthful, of course, you do report the world is as you truly believe. However, inevitably, in demanding attention for your version of the world, you are also demanding attention for yourself and perhaps for some of those who see as you do.)

If you are one of the main people who draws attention to this aspect of the world, many others may align with you, and you become an “important person.” If it happens you are already a star of some sort — and thus massively attention-getting anyway —already a VIP, or “Very Important Person” — by insisting that something is important, you automatically make it so. And you become still more of a VIP.

But can’t things be intrinsically important, without humans deciding so? They cannot. Even if the world were scheduled to blow up tomorrow, that would only be important if we cared, though in this extreme case we certainly would. We would because it would affect us in an extreme way.  A planet the size of earth two million light years away can blow up without our caring, and if so it would be unimportant. To put it another way, we humans evolved in a world essentially without meaning, until we invented meaning and imparted it to things we are capable of noting and categorizing and having feelings about. We pass on such meanings when getting the attention of the next generation and getting them to align with us, and that has a lot to do with how we pass on importance too.

Deciding that something is important is a social process, depending on at least a shared alignment as to the urgency of a certain action or viewpoint, usually in response to someone’s capacity to get and hold attention around this, and sometimes to a shared perception that gets translated into immediate action (panicking in a flood or an earthquake, let’s say).

“The sky is falling!” “Terrorists are coming!” “Humans are causing global warming!”  “The US is in danger of falling behind China!”  “Remember, never use dangling participles!” “Barry Bonds’s records don’t count; he took steroids!” “Wolves are at the door!” “We are ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ [title of Neil Postman’s 1980’s  book]!” Almost anything can seem deeply important to someone.

A baby can get attention by smiling, cooing or crying. A slightly older child can say “pay attention to me” or pull on a parent’s sleeve, or even slap someone to get attention. At a slightly later age, a child becomes aware that pointing out things about the world can be attention demanding, especially if it is in the form of claiming a certain urgency. That’s importance. Other ways to get attention include making funny jokes, learning and showing off skills, making things, etc. But if just being entertaining or artistic or interesting doesn’t do it, there remains the importance ploy.

In the early cave period, when I was a child, I was repeatedly told the story of “the boy who cried wolf.” The point was that you must not falsely claim you have something important to say, because if you do that often enough, when there actually is a wolf you will not get anyone’s attention and will end up eaten. As the repeated telling of this fable itself illustrates, adults of course use the importance ploy to get attention from children, with varying success. And they use it towards each other, with ever-greater frequency.

As I have argued elsewhere, attention is not synonymous with time. Nonetheless, like every human action the act of paying attention must take place in time, and so is limited by the time available. Suppose you decided to spend your entire waking life paying equal attention to everyone else in the world, all six billion of us. You would have only about a third of a second to devote to each person. If you happen to be American and limit your attention to the three hundred million Americans, that would still afford you only about 7 seconds for each. Thus, it is almost inevitable that many will want more than their fair share. A third of a second or seven seconds just does not seem enough. Many might settle for much less than the whole world’s attention, but as long as some do not, and there is no intrinsic personal limit stopping them, the competition for attention will certainly continue to increase at all levels.

As the competition for attention heats up, and as the possible world audience keeps growing, the number of claims of importance keeps rising and diversifying. They often get shriller, as well, as they must in the face of the growing competition.

If you pay attention to someone who says something is important, that is if you at least partially align with her, you do want to do something about it. Importance claims demand action of some sort. But often this action will consist of trying to get the attention of still more important people, people who somehow can actually “change things.” That gets frustrating, in several ways. It’s hard to get their attention, first of all. And these people who can change things want to get and keep your and others’ attention. So they find it easier and easier to give lip service to “important” topics, but not necessarily easier to do anything about them.

Take the Iraq war. A preponderance of the American public wants it to end and thinks that is important. But there seems to be nothing they can do individually to get attention from those who can effect that outcome, and it is only one of many topics that get some attention. So it’s easier to focus on something else.

Suppose everyone in the world agrees that such and such is important. Then little or no attention can be gotten by merely re-iterating that.

Whenever some people get attention for an issue they think is important, they automatically create an opening for those who choose to say that the opposite —or perhaps some variant — is more important — hinting that this alternative, if attended to, will help the audience pay more attention to themselves or those who they want to pay attention to (say, their children, friends or stars) than the other choice will.

In truth, a large number of people with very disparate mindsets have their own issues, their own pet peeves or pet hopes, their own sense of what is most important and most  “necessary for the healthy and happy functioning of global society, as Salomone puts it ”. That’s not always so good. Even Hitler justified the Holocaust on the basis that Jews were an “unhealthy” presence in the world. Hitler was an anti-Semite of long standing, but it seems one reason he so emphasized this was that he found when speaking to German audiences angry about their defeat in WWI, he got much bigger crowds and applause …much more attention, in effect, when he trotted out this hatred.

Paul Salomone is disgusted that people waste their time paying attention to the Paris Hiltons of the world. Hitler, after taking power, rid German museums and art galleries of what he considered “degenerate art” including cubist, abstract, and expressionist works. When he decreed that these works should be put on display so that the populace could share in his disgust, instead Germans flocked to the show out of genuine interest in this art.

Of course, it is vast hyperbole to put Salomone and Hitler in the same paragraph. Yet the comparison indicates the problem. How do we decide what is important? Is there any way we can just pay attention to truly important things? Attention equality (that is, equal attention to each and every person) would clearly be impossible to enforce, but is attention to what is important in any way a more usable criterion? Who would apply it?

Importance is going to continue to be decided on the basis of what positions and statements get attention and through and by whom. But we can expect endless logjams as important issues and personalities pile up. Things that are deemed important in this way are first seen as problems. Then, possible solutions seem important. Then come reservations about the solutions.

Meanwhile, many will change the channel, preferring amusement to frustration. That’s better by far than starting wars or genocides, a cruder way to try to be important or see to it that “important” changes actually happen.

I don’t mean at all to suggest that nothing is important. I have my own collection of issues that I view as such. I prefer diplomacy instead of war-making, oppose arms sales, favor energy conservation improvements to stop global warming, want better teaching of arts and music in public schools, want all drugs legalized but sold for low cost by the government, want everyone to have broadband Net access, want better protection for citizens of the Eastern Congo, and better protection for elephants, and on and on. And of course I think proper understanding of the Attention Economy is important. Some of these are more important to me than others. But these reflections leave me with fewer illusions that what I want is likely to permeate enough minds to make a difference.

Each of us has an implicit or explicit list of what is most important, of what we most want fellow citizens of the world or those who are already most important top ay attention to. But my reflections here suggest that actual change is most likely when it seems pretty unimportant, happening almost in the shadows, or at best merely micro-important.

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