mercoledì 6 novembre 2013

Tiziana Terranova: Attention, Economy and the Brain @ Culture Machine 2012 Vol. 13 Paying Attention

Tiziana Terranova @ Culture machine, 2012 Vol. 13 Paying Attention

In recent years, the notion of attention has come to occupy a key place within the overall discourse surrounding what has been called ‘the new economy ‘ or ‘digital economy’, but also within the critical analyses of cultural theorists evaluating the politics of digital media. Theories of the attention economy are considered here as a continuation of the modern theme of the ‘crisis of attentiveness’ (Crary, 1999), this time elaborated in terms of the impact of Internet usage on the cognitive architecture of a neuroplastic and mimetic social brain. This essay maps some of the ways in which the notion of ‘attention’ is mobilized as an economic category within theories of the Internet, framed in terms of neoclassical or mainstream economics theory and within theories attempting to account for processes of psychic transindividuation and social cooperation in contemporary capitalism.

The Attention Economy
The centrality of the notion of attention to recent theorizations of the economy of the Internet and digital media marks a significant difference with regard to the centrality of information in earlier theorizations of this kind (Goldhaber, 2006; Barlow, 1993; Kelly, 1999). While information was said to be a radically new type of commodity that challenged established economic models, attention seems to bring with it a recoding of the economy of new media along more orthodox lines, in as much as it reintroduces a principle of scarcity where there used to be only abundance and limitless possibilities. If information is bountiful, attention is scarce because it indicates the limits inherent to the neurophysiology of perception and the social limitations to time available for consumption.
In an earlier phase, new media economists stressed the abundance of information in the digital economy to assert a new kind of economic Darwinism, based on the capacities of a proliferating, connected life to create the new. This was an artificial kind of life, which the digital entrepreneur had to learn to harness and selectively channel in order to extract surplus value (Terranova, 2004). The bios of the new economy, then, entailed a continuity with the Darwinian dynamics of competition, while eschewing the harsh constraints of natural scarcity which framed the notion of the survival of the fittest. The return of scarcity in theories of the attention economy implies a normalization of the new economy. However, the latter manifests a tension between the previous, abundant, inventive bios of organic life and the new centrality accorded to the bios of a special organ, the brain, but one that is strangely deprived of its capacity for creation and innovation.
In theories of the attention economy, attention is first of all a scarce resource, which is what allows the Internet to become an economic medium again, that is, a medium to which all the axioms of market economics can once again be applied. Scarcity is the condition that can give rise to a proper economy, the ‘attention economy’. Attention is a scarce resource because ‘the sum total of human attention is necessarily limited and therefore scarce’ (Goldhaber, 2006). As Michael Goldhaber explains,

By the Attention Economy, then, I mean a system that revolves primarily around paying, receiving, and seeking what is most intrinsically limited and not replaceable by anything else, namely the attention of other human beings. (2006)

According to theorists of the attention economy, in as much as attention is both scarce and measurable, it can become not simply a commodity like others, but a kind of capital. The abstract quality of attention and at the same time the fact that the ‘attentional assemblages’ of digital media enable automated forms of measurement (as in ‘clicks’, ‘downloads’, ‘likes’, ‘views’, ‘followers’, and ‘sharings’ of digital objects) open it up to marketization and financialization (from the floating value of Internet companies to the accumulation of celebrity capital by means of a number of followers on Twitter to the changing value of ‘clicks’ as calculated by Google’s software AdSense and AdWords).1
While already in 1999, Georg Franck attempted to describe attention as ‘the new currency of business’, proposing that attention constitute a new kind of capital (‘attentive capital’) and even a kind of wage or income (attention income such as that generated by fame and celebrity, for example) (Franck 1999), the attempts to capitalize attention have recently gone even further. Thus, for example, the Wikipedia entry for ‘attention economy’ reports proposals for ‘attention transactions’ (Goldhaber); the institution of new property rights in attention; and, of course, also the issuing of ‘attention bonds’, that is, ‘small warranties that some information will not be a waste of the recipient’s time, placed into escrow at the time of sending’ (Loder, Van Alstyne & Wash, 2004). Hence ‘...receivers could cash in their bonds to signal to the sender that a given communication was a waste of their time or elect not to cash them in to signal that more communication would be welcome’ (‘The attention economy’, Wikipedia n.d.).
It is true that such theories constitute a kind of ‘fringe’ discourse within the field of economics at large, and one that lacks the legitimacy that is usually granted to more academic work. Published mostly on the Internet, and then also occasionally translated into paperback publications for the market of incumbent and aspiring Internet entrepreneurs, they constitute a specific genre which, while also being somehow ephemeral, in some way translates what are the more general preoccupations of economic actors operating within the context of what used to be called the ‘new economy’. In particular, as Henry Jenkins has argued in his study of ‘convergence culture’, the notion of attention as a scarce resource corresponds to the preoccupations of corporate giants when facing a new context of communication characterised both by a large offer of information and a new type of consumer/viewer who is tendentially in a state of drift (Jenkins, 2006).
Digitization and networking, and the special status of information as a non-rival good, do not produce, as in theories of social production, the conditions for the emergence of a new ‘nonmarket’ mode of production, but rather point to the circularity of normative market economics. By consuming attention and making it scarce, the wealth of information creates poverty that in its turn produces the conditions for a new market to emerge. This new market requires specific techniques of evaluation and units of measurement (algorithms, clicks, impressions, tags, etc).

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