…attention has become the basic commodity to be exploited.
Click to read Part 1 of Awareness Bound and Unbound.
The Commodification of Attention
For most of us in the developed world, the greatest attention trap is consumerism, which involves sophisticated advertising that has become very good at manipulating our awareness. Today the bigger economic challenge is not production but keeping us convinced that the solution to our dukkha “dis-ease” is our next purchase. According to the pioneering advertising executive Leo Burnett, good advertising does more than circulate information: “It penetrates the public mind with desire and belief.” That penetration may have been lucrative for his clients, but there are other consequences, as Ivan Illich pointed out: “In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves, the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.” Whether or not one is able to afford the desired product, one’s attention is captured.
In other words, attention has become the basic commodity to be exploited. According to Jonathan Rowe, the key economic resource of this new economy is not something they provide, it’s something we provide — “mindshare.” But “what if there’s only so much mind to share? If you’ve wondered how people could feel so depleted in such a prosperous economy, how stress could become the trademark affliction of the age, part of the answer might be here.”
A turning point in the development of capitalism was the enclosures in early modern Britain, when villagers were forced out of their villages because landlords found it more profitable to raise sheep. Rowe discusses “the ultimate enclosure — the enclosure of the cognitive commons, the ambient mental atmosphere of daily life,” a rapid development now so pervasive that it has become like the air we breathe unnoticed. Time and space have already been reconstructed: holidays into shopping days, Main Street into shopping malls. Sports stadiums used to have advertisements; now renamed stadiums are themselves ads. TV shows used to be sponsored by ads; today product placement makes the whole show (and many movies) an ad. A 2005 issue of the New Yorker did not include any ads because the whole magazine was a promotion for the retail chain Target. According to one study, two-thirds of three-year-olds recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s.
Unless we’re meditating in a Himalayan cave, we now have to process thousands of commercial messages every day. As Rowe emphasizes, they do not just grab our attention, they exploit it:
The attention economy mines us much the way the industrial economy mines the earth. It mines us first for incapacities and wants. Our capacity for interaction and reflection must become a need for entertainment. Our capacity to deal with life’s bumps and jolts becomes a need for ‘grief counseling’ or Prozac. The progress of the consumer economy has come to mean the diminution of ourselves.
Consumerism requires and develops a sense of our own impoverishment. By manipulating the gnawing sense of lack that haunts our insecure sense of self, the attention economy insinuates its basic message deep into our awareness: the solution to any discomfort is consumption.
Click to read the final installment (Part 3) of Awareness Bound and Unbound.
By David Loy, originally published as Awareness Bound and Unbound in the Huffington Post, March 3, 2014