May 122006

Thursday, May 11, 2006
Invited paper (by MHG): FM10 Openness: Code, Science and Content
Presented by First Monday

As with other kinds of human decisions and actions, any of the various choices and instantiations of policies of openness can stem from several different motivations at the same time. One may choose openness out of a philanthropic desire to aid the most people, out of an enjoyment in being part of a community, out of a sense that openness is the best way to get an interesting puzzle solved or curiosity satisfied, a dislike of privacy or holding on to secrets, or perhaps simply from throwing all caution to the winds and just putting out there whatever one thinks with no thought as to consequences.

Yet I want to argue that acting from any or all these different sorts of motivations may also be self-interested action of a particular type, namely action that makes sense in terms of the existence of an Attention Economy, in which one’s primary motive of action is to increase one’s supply, not of money or material goods, but of a very different, but intrinsically scarce entity, namely the attention of other human beings.

I have argued previously that the attention economy is the natural economy of the net. In my view, this economy, while in certain ways very old, is now moving to be the dominant economy, replacing, not merely transforming, the economy based on money, on the market, and on the industrialized exchange, distribution and production of standardized material goods. The new economy I think cannot simply co-exist with with the market economy permanently, because each demands its own social structures, its own mindsets, its own modes of life, and its own values.

All these differences come out in a consideration of the kinds of openness this conference is dedicated to discussing, as well as some other categories of openness perhaps less to be discussed here.

Before explaining that, I want to try to offer a clearer understanding of what attention is, or, more specifically, what it means for one person to pay attention to another. First of all, one pays attention not merely to another person standing there, but by paying attention to that person’s actions and expressions.

Suppose you are at a tennis tournament, watching a singles match. As you focus on one of the players, you begin to recognize what the player is doing through the action of certain nerve connections or neuron chains in your own brain, probably especially in your frontal cortex. If you see the player raise the racquet over her head, you recognize the action through activating exactly the neuron chain of your own that would cause your own arm to lift over your own head. You activate the chain – that is, the nerves fire — but, unless you are quite abnormal, you actually move either not at all or only very slightly. This is the phenomenon called neural mirroring.

It was originally discovered in Milan, Italy, about 1991 when a graduate student walked into a lab where rhesus monkeys were being studied with an usual apparatus. The lab’s neuroscientists had managed to wire up the chain of neurons activated each time one rhesus monkey lifted a peanut to its mouth; they then connected the wire not only to some sort of recorder, but to a loudspeaker, so they could easily note every time the chain fired, so as to be able to observe what the monkey was up to when this happened. The graduate student walked in licking an ice cream cone; the loudspeaker went off. But the monkey was doing nothing except staring at the student.

Subsequent mirror neuron experiments less invasively set up have been done on humans. Humans respond the same way as the monkeys, but in much finer detail. For instance different neurons in your brain would fire if you observed someone picking up a glass in order to drink from it than would if the intent were to put the dirty glass in the sink.

To return to our tennis player, left suspended in mid-motion on the court — you don’t just mirror the motions, you most probably also mirror the intent, namely to win the point, and also the emotions that go with the desire to win. All this binds you to that particular player. You probably cannot switch the feelings of wanting this player to win as fast as the ball goes over the net, so you can’t pay attention in quite the same way to the opposing player. To some minimal extent, just by watching you become a fan. If this player stays active, seeing her name or her face will reactivate some of the feeling so loyalty you developed while watching her play the first time. The more you watch her, the more she takes over your mind (albeit not completely for all time) and the more you want her to win or simply come to want whatever she wants.

The simplicity of the mirror neuron process in connection with athletic motions probably helps explain why sports are much attended to, but we know from the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson that all thought has a certain muscular, bodily quality. In following an argument, for example, we are engaged in mental motions that to some extent must mirror the implicit motions of the person arguing the thought.

To pay attention to anyone, we activate certain chains in our own brains, and each time we do, it becomes easier to activate similar processes from similar viewpoints, the next time we encounter that same thinker — which is to say the same person, whether a philosopher, a country music singer, a software programmer whose program we adopt or try to so study, a scientist, or whoever.

I only learned of mirror neurons this past January. Prior to that, I was loathe to use terms referring to brains, and in some ways I am still wary of it. I explained paying attention in terms of reshaping one’s mind to the thoughts, viewpoints, mental processes and emotions of the person one is paying attention to. Think of the shape-shifter toy that was popular among five-year-olds a few years ago. To pay attention to any particular person you do your best —however temporarily — to reshape your mind to hers. You think their thoughts, you feel their feelings, you want what they want, or you are not paying attention. Of course, by the time you are an adult, if not long before, you have also developed certain resistances, certain critical faculties that allow you to get out of the total mindset, to perhaps to see some of the train of thought as mistaken, false, against your deeper interests, or even evil. But that takes additional effort, additional self-centeredness, and still may leave you partially willing to shape your mind and intentions according to that of whomever you are paying attention to. And whomever it is, you will be laying down memories that will again make it easier and more natural to turn your attention to that same person later on .

I’ve so far focused strictly on what paying attention is about. What about getting attention? As I’ve already indicated, to some degree an audience full of people paying attention to you will want whatever it is you want. They are implicitly on your side. They are also thinking your thoughts, enlarging, as it were, the size and scope of your own mind. They can keep paying attention, through remembering and recalling past experiences to mind, or through reading a text of yours over or looking at an old video or v-log or whatever, even in principle long after you are dead. Since your own mental processes recur to a substantial degree in their minds as they do this, having attention can make your mind live again, in a way. It is perhaps the closest humans can come to life after death, as well as to an expanded life while still living.

Here are some conclusions about the economics of attention that follow from what I have said;

1) Attention wealth is in the minds of the beholders, not in any bank; because memories persist, that wealth survives and can be drawn upon in various ways much later on ;

2) Attention is not the same as reputation. It might be possible to look up in some list, say, that you have a reputation for repaying your loans on time, without having any real idea about who you are or what your thoughts are. Even if you in some way choose to remain anonymous, putting out your thoughts to the world allows other people to think them, which enlarges you. Even with some degree of anonymity, if your are canny, say, in your use of the internet, you may draw on this attention as well.
3) At the same time, to activate others’ attention it helps to present as much of yourself as possible, so as to increase the number of associations that will connect various memories to you, so as to reawaken attention, etc.

4) The more people pay attention to you, the more they want what you want, whether this is something for the good of the world or something personal.

5) Paying attention slips easily into heeding, serving, waiting on, waiting for, satisfying, taking care of, etc. It is through that adaptability that having enough attention can guarantee you whatever you want, with or without converting attention into money.

6) Again, you don’t have to be consciously focused on yourself to want attention, yet the attention you get is still taken from the essentially scarce supply. Think of Chicken Little. To the extent that any conscious or even unconscious reflection goes on in the mind of this human-like chicken, it would have to include something like the following line of reasoning. “Something fell on me; I think it was the sky; I am frightened that the sky is falling; my thoughts and fears matter (because I matter); I need help: because I need help and my thoughts and feelings matter, and, ultimately, because I matter, it is quite all right for me not to keep my fears to myself but to go around screaming, ‘the sky is falling, the sky is falling;’ if I do that enough, and enough people — or animals — pay attention, maybe someone will help me by keeping the sky from falling.” Whether one views this as wanting and feeling one deserves attention for oneself or simply feeling that one’s thoughts or feelings deserve attention on their own, it pretty much amounts to the same thing.

And when Henny Penny takes up the cry, the same things apply. Henny is thinking Chicken Little’s thoughts, but they now are also her own thoughts. So it is that the motive for seeking attention for certain thoughts or facts or ideas can seem perfectly philanthropic, but only via the implicit belief that one’s own entertaining of those thoughts and so on amount to a reason that others ought to entertain them as well.

7) Still, chicken Little will have an easier time getting people (or animals) to pay attention to her thoughts about the sky if she has already entered their attention before, the more easily, the wider their prior experiencing of reshaping their minds to hers, or their knowing her appearance, name, etc. Thus to get attention for your thoughts on some future occasion it helps to have gotten attention for various aspects of yourself earlier.

All this suggests that there are various desirable forms of openness:
1. Open access —having your thoughts, expressions, etc. as available and accessible as possible, with as few barriers as possible. Obviously, charging money for access is one such highly limiting barrier. If such a barrier were easily enforceable, it would be even worse in limiting the attention you can get.

2. Self-revealing — the more aspects of yourself that express who you are the more opportunities for people to open their mind to you, and the richer the accumulation of attention you can get. Let me add it may not pay a software programmer to also put sex videos on the Internet, especially if it turns out the programmers are especially squeamish about such videos or even worse, totally oblivious. It may also be too personally painful, of course, to contemplate doing that.

3. Claiming priority by putting out your thoughts in their most preliminary forms. Since “waiting for” is one form that attention certainly takes, early hints can be successful and tantalizing.

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