THE ECONOMY OF ATTENTION
by Georg Franck
What is more pleasant than the benevolent notice
other people take of us, what is more agreeable than their compassionate empathy?
What inspires us more than addressing ears flushed with excitement, what captivates
us more than exercising our own power of fascination? What is more thrilling
than an entire hall of expectant eyes, what more overwhelming than applause
surging up to us? What, lastly, equals the enchantment sparked off by the
delighted attention we receive from those who profoundly delight ourselves?
- Attention by other people is the most irresistible of drugs. To receive
it outshines receiving any other kind of income. This is why glory surpasses
power and why wealth is overshadowed by prominence.
This is also why it is becoming popular in our affluent society to rank income
in attention above money income. When rising numbers of people are able to
afford the insignia of material wealth, then the desire for distinction will
create a demand for attributes which are more selective than a large money
income. In accordance with the law of the socialisation of luxuries, such
attributes will be found among privileges which are still élitist.
The undisputed common denominator of present-day élites is prominence
- and prominence is nothing but the status of being a major earner of attention.
When material wealth is spreading in an inflationary way, then the socialisation
of this still élitist status is imminent.
I hear the objection that the socialisation of prominence is impossible, as
this is a contradiction in terms. Prominence is an essentially distinguishing
quality. In contrast to material wealth prominence cannot become a mass phenomenon.
And yet: never has there been so much prominence as today; never has there
been such fussing with familiar faces. Today, not only those are prominent
who are on their way to the summits of fame and power; the prerequisite no
longer is high birth, or the gift of great talent, or some valiant deed. Today
one becomes prominent through a standardised career. The first step consists
of nothing but somehow finding one's way into the media. Since media presence
is the initial requirement, it is best to make one's appearance in the form
of a picture, or better, on television. The career has passed its first hurdle
when the impression one gives is commented upon, if one's appearance is talked
about. At this point, a mechanism is set in motion which is needed for the
rise, if that is to be successful. For, the new entry must in turn benefit
the medium, he or she must promise to increase its circulation figures or
Circulation size and TV ratings are measures of the attention drawn by a particular
medium. They also measure a medium's financial success; and the financial
motive could, by itself, be sufficient to indirectly promote the prominence
of everything which increases the medium's attractiveness. However, one would
miss the point if one were to limit one's view to the pecuniary aspect. A
medium's financial success in turn depends on its ability to be used as marketable
advertising space. The supply of advertising space is an offer to attract
attention via a service rendered. The effectiveness of this service is measured
in terms of circulation figures or TV ratings. This is why the income in attention
ranks above financial success, also with respect to the medium itself; and
this is also why everything increasing the medium's attention income will
be promoted, published, cultivated by it. Everything which is promoted, published
and cultivated by the media is, by definition, prominent.
And, lo and behold, what is best for a medium's attention income? Very simple:
as much prominence as possible. People enjoy nothing more than looking at
faces shining with publicity. Nothing increases circulation more than as much
gossip as possible about the world of the stars. Nothing increases viewing
figures more than the commotion around the stars themselves. Therefore gossip
columns are beginning to appear among serious commentaries and features; therefore,
too, the tabloid press finds it worthwhile to report on surveys identifying
the most frequently cited researchers. Therefore, too, prime time family television
hours are absolutely packed with prominent individuals. Therefore, primadonnas
promote Rolex and soccer idols recommend Budweiser - already, television and
publishing programmes without well-known faces are beginning to be regarded
Nothing seems to attract attention more than the accumulation of attention
income, nothing seems to stimulate the media more than this kind of capital,
nothing appears to charge advertising space with a stronger power of attraction
than displayed wealth of earned attention. The media would have to invent
prominence if it did not exist already; they would have to create their candidates
out of nothing if they were not recruitable already. Prominent individuals
are needed en masse if one wants to make the attraction of attention a mass
business. The solution to the riddle of the miraculous increase in prominence
lies in the media's ability to collect and deliver the critical quantities
needed to run gathering attention as a mass business.
The media are by no means just shunting places of information. They are a
system of channels supplying information in order to gather attention in return.
A television appearance means much more than just the dissemination of information.
Through it, it becomes technically possible to multiply one's personal presence
and to send one's reproductions into people's living-rooms to collect donated
attention. The media's power of producing prominent individuals is only limited
by the suggestive capacity of this collection service.
It was only gradually that the media acquired this power. The mechanical reproduction
of the written word, of sound and images was just the technological starting
point. Also, it was not demand for information as such which made the media
big. What did make them big and is ensuring their further growth is the ingenious
business idea of offering people information in order to get hold of their
attention. Without the attention income promised by publication, not even
the publishing trade would have developed in any significant way. If only
material certain of commercial success had been published in books and periodicals,
today's literary scene would look different from the way it does. Solely the
fact that authors calculate in the currency of attention can explain their
willingness to toil for the best expression of an idea in return for starvation
wages. The ingeniousness of the publishing trade's business idea lies in splitting
up the returns in terms of financial and attention currency. The production
conditions of our literary culture are such that the publisher gets the money
and the author gets the attention. If, in addition, the publisher acquires
fame and the author wealth, this - in economic terms - is surplus profit:
it would not be necessary to keep the system going.
It is exactly this mixed calculation which lies behind the transition from
publishing organ to mass medium. A mass medium must not be delicate in its
choice of means in catching attention. By contrast, an author working for
attention wages cannot avoid being delicate in this respect: only attention
earned for something one personally identifies with counts as personal income.
This is why the desire for attention is so closely linked with that for self-fulfilment.
However, what furthers self-fulfilment, rarely moves the masses. One will
only move them by closely observing what the general public wants to read,
listen to, or watch. Their desire for sensation must be satisfied, catchy
tunes must be put on the air, pictures must be touched up to strike the eye.
Producing something for this observed taste indeed also requires creative
minds. But those must be of the kind that is willing to serve a foreign cause.
And this willingness must be addressed by money.
Compromise thus earns its money. One can make a good living on the salaries
paid in the entertainment industry. Journalism also feeds the members of the
profession. The attention incomes earned in show business and publishing are
sizeable. However, in those branches they are clearly proportional to the
respective money incomes. The attention drawn by an appearance in a film,
on radio or television, or in the press, is always partly also directed towards
the respective medium as an institution or brand. For, just as attentive and
financial remuneration must be brought together in order to assemble masses
of people in front of printed pages or screens, the respective medium itself
must attract both money and attention if it is to reach the masses unfailingly.
The newspaper must be read because it exists; one must watch television because
television exists. Put more succinctly: the papers and screens must become
a separate, naturally perceived stratum of social reality. They must compete
with the unmediated view of reality. They must impose themselves as fixed
items in attention budgets. They will only do so, if the medium in question
unfailingly presents what people want to see, listen to, read.
If the offer meets the general taste, if enough money and attention are spent
on keeping people in line, then the medium acquires an additional quality
also for those appearing in it. Secure circulation figures and ratings create
a fund of expectable attention of which suppliers may freely dispose. Control
of the channels means being able to re-lend the mass of attracted attention.
Those offering space in printed media or transmission time become able to
elevate somebody to prominence in the same way as, historically, successful
conquerors could raise somebody to peerage by conferring fiefs. They are the
only group in society able to freely dispose of the most highly valued resource.
And, like emperors and kings, they may increase their own fame by sending
out their followers, thus endowed, on further conquests for the respective
However, being commercial enterprises, the media also have the choice of turning
the attention they catch into hard cash. They can rent out their territory
as advertising space. Indeed, through this commercial activity they may gradually
make themselves independent of the sale of information sent out on tour to
catch the eye. The leading mass medium, private television, finances itself
exclusively by selling the service of catching attention for anything whatsoever.
The fact that prominent individuals, especially ennobled for the purpose,
assist in rendering that service brightly illuminates another facet of the
brilliant business idea.
Brilliant business ideas are seldom equally beneficial for all sides. The
attention which the media re-lend is unilaterally donated by the people sitting
in front of pages or screens. People pay their attention to the supplier in
return for finding out what they like. The relationship between the attention
invested by the suppliers and that collected in return is strictly asymmetrical.
The suppliers disseminate information in the form of technical reproductions,
while the consumers pay with live attention for each copy. Only through this
asymmetry is it possible to collect such masses of donated attention, which
is what makes a medium attractive for those appearing in it and which allows
the media their lavishness in conferring the modern peerage of prominence.
An inevitable consequence of this asymmetric exchange is the social redistribution
of attention incomes. The media make one stratum wealthier and exploit another
one. It is not as if exchanging information for attention were unfair in principle.
But if the attraction service is organised on an industrial scale, then inadvertently
the social disparity between those rich and those poor in received attention
increases. One may speak of outright exploitation when the addiction to television
To be sure, the redistribution effect of media consumption does not act upon
an originally equal distribution. It only increases the original slant. As
old as mankind is, as old - no, much older - are individual differences in
the talent of capturing the attention of others. There have always been shining
figures, celebrities, who effortlessly engaged everybody's senses and hearts.
And there have always been forgotten, overlooked ones who sacrifice their
self-esteem to attract just one glance. Also, natural differences in talent
have always been intermingled with social privileges or deprivations. In order
not to demand too much of the media one must acknowledge that something like
the capitalisation of attention income existed long before the media came
Of course, the attention one enjoys cannot be saved and invested as would
be possible with money earned. However, there is a secondary way of accumulation
not open to money. The fine difference between money income and attention
income lies in the fact that in the case of attention it is not irrelevant
from whom it emanates. We evaluate the attention we catch not only according
to the duration and concentration of its expenditure, but also according to
our own esteem for the person from whom we receive it. Attention coming from
people we admire is most precious; it is valuable coming from those we esteem;
it counts little coming from people towards whom we are indifferent; and attention
may even assume a negative value coming from people we despise or fear. The
secondary way of accumulation thus makes use of the fact that our esteem for
another person depends to no small degree on the attention income this person
receives from third parties. The dependence of personal esteem on income is
common knowledge in the case of money. But a high attention income also increases
a person's charm. If that person is liked by everyone, if he or she is well-known
or even famous, then there must be something special about him or her. Whatever
the reasons for this person's general recognition, the attention I myself
receive from him or her reflects, to a certain extent, this person's fascination
for all the others.
The social crediting of somebody's earned attention to his or her prestige
constitutes the original accumulation of attentive capital. This is the first
form of social reinforcement of the naturally uneven income opportunities.
It happens in the sphere of social perception, but still remains, as it were,
at the level of social instinct. It does not yet require any institutional
shape or cultural encoding. Probably, this was already taking place among
wolf packs or hordes of apes. Nevertheless, it was the starting point for
the self-reinforcement of prominence in the media which we experience today.
If the attention due to me is not only credited to me personally but is also
registered by others, and if the attention I pay to others is valued in proportion
to the amount of attention earned by me, then an accounting system is set
in motion which quotes something like the social share prices of individual
attention. What is important, then, is not only how much attention one receives
from how many people, but also from whom one receives it - or, put more simply,
with whom one is seen. The reflection of somebody's attentive wealth thus
becomes a source of income for oneself. Simple proximity to prominence will
make a little prominent.
It is in this secondary market that social ambition thrives. It is this stock
exchange of attentive capital that gives precise meaning to the expression
"vanity fair" . However, the simple quest for recognition should
not be called social ambition. Vanity is more than a healthy appetite for
being noticed. Ambition is the hustle for a better position. The megalomania
fed by somebody's notion of being endowed with superior talent may not be
called ambitious. Ambition grabs any small chance. And chances arise abundantly
in the heat dissipated by large amounts of capital. Diverting it to one's
own grindmill does not require authentic brilliance but simply a touch of
mercantile mentality. One may work one's way up in the economy of attention
just by persistently keeping at the heels of those who are better off, just
by being constantly seen in their vicinity. And if those at the summit are
unreachable, there is the lower gentry besides high aristocracy.
Ambitious social risers take their clues from what is next best. They utilise
small differences in the share prices of attention grabbed from above to immediately
sell their own attention more dearly to equals or not yet equals. And if,
additionally, their vanity is great, there will be side benefits which, given
a little good will, can be extrapolated into windfall profits. Vanity, as
observed above, is more than merely a strong appetite for attention by others.
It contains an inclination for prettifying calculations that convert received
attention into self-esteem. Vanity is, in the first place, not choosy about
the where from and what for of attention but secondly it is quick in taking
shortcuts from the path running via third parties that is normally prescribed
for crediting income to a person's renown. Vanity has little regard for social
control. It prefers to engage in self-deception, even more so since that is
not always distinguishable from self-fulfilling prophecy. If one succeeds
in making others take one's self-overestimation for real esteem, then what
we have is actually not a case of self-deception but one of successful speculation.
And the business of gathering attention is always speculative.
Quotations of the share prices of attention are not only influenced by a person's
current attention income, they also incorporate expected future attention
income. The observed trend is extrapolated. Those who are on the rise receive
a bonus, those who are going down suffer an extra cut. This is the sphere
of promotion by cheerleaders and annihilation by rumour, something not missing
in any vanity fair. Hired applause has paved the way for many a career; ridicule
in the press has extinguished more than just straw fires. However, as shady
as the details of the speculation business may be, the larger volumes of capital
cannot avoid going public.
The official quotation of the share price of personal capital is a person's
presence in the media. Circulation figures and ratings document in black and
white the income of the presented persons. A person's presence in a medium,
calculated in terms of duration or space of presentation, measures the investment
made by the respective medium. The volume invested corresponds to the expected
amount of attractive power which this person will contribute to the medium.
The relationship between the expected amount and successful attraction is,
in economic terms, nothing but the relationship between the price of a company's
shares and its operating results. Since it is the expected amount of attention
which determines a person's presence in a medium, the media themselves are
not only reloading points of the mass business in attention, they also act
as exchanges assessing the value of capital denominated in attention currency.
On the other hand, elbowing for a place in the media is not only motivated
by the sizeable immediate returns, it also serves the purpose of nursing the
share prices of attention.
It is instructive that there are extreme cases in the media scene demonstrating
what it means if only one of the two functions described above comes into
play. Thus, simple reloading of medially collected attention takes place when
letters to the editor are printed, anniversaries are announced on radio, or
when individuals from the audience are presented in quiz shows. In those cases
a few people will experience receiving everybody's attention, but that will
make little difference to their personal prestige. The attention they get
will generally not be the starting capital for any later career. Being presented
just makes them experience very shortly how it feels when everybody is watching
There is also the other extreme case where share prices are nursed without
anybody watching. To this category belongs the boom in founding new scientific
journals whose sole purpose it is to create a forum for the founder and a
small circle of conspirators which will allow them to expand their publications
lists. A publications list measures somebody's presence in scientific discussion,
which is why it is tempting to have personal control over access to such a
forum (and why, accordingly, prestigious journals prevent it). Since, however,
the pro domo foundations are proliferating to such an extent that nobody is
reading the stuff any more, it has also become common practice to publish
the same contribution with slight variations under various titles. And since
nobody checks the publications lists for their substance any more, either,
it would be more than strange if with such help many an ass did not obtain
These examples show ex negativo how closely related the wholesale function
and the stock-exchange function normally are. However, they also show that
in the attention economy, like in the real economy, faked deals and black
markets thrive. This does not make the economy as a whole any less real. Bluffing
reaches its limits in the ability of the whole to keep functioning. In this
sense the attention economy is even very typical. It largely organises and
stabilises itself. And its naturalness is so profound that few have intellectually
taken note of its extensive and firmly established existence.
This intellectual ignorance is in so far remarkable as the immaterial component
of the economic process has already reached the apex of its phase of full
industrialisation. The economy of attention not only looks back on an ancient
prehistory, it also has a long industrial history. It was pre-industrial as
long as publication technologies were either of the handicraft type or, respectively,
had not yet permeated the entire economy. Attention economy reached its early
industrial phase when the first, relatively simple information and communication
technologies developed. The technology of printing, radio broadcasting and
sound film for the first time assembled critical amounts of anonymously donated
attention, turning the star cult into a mass phenomenon. It was then that
the business of attraction became professionalised, that deliberate eye-catching
became industrial in advertising. We may speak of a phase of full industrialisation
since the advent of television. There, the secondary, i.e. the viewers' aspect
of reality specially created to attract attention, is beginning to compete
with the primary aspect, directly perceived reality. During this last phase,
most of the freely disposable, i.e. consuming attention passes through the
various media; popularisation, i.e. mass production of prominence, arises.
And during this phase there are also first indications that attention income
is beginning to have greater weight than money income.
At this point, one wonders how our archaic emotional life has managed to come
to terms with this industrial superpower. We allow the media quite naturally
to dispose of the major portion of our most precious good, indeed we even
enjoy delivering our attention to the spectacle going on. At last there is
not only bread, there also games in over-abundance. To be sure, there are
most striking differences between what those people in there and what we in
front of them are receiving in the way of caring attentiveness. The medium
not only enlarges differences, it also neutralises them. It diverts feelings
of objection or reservation away from persons on to itself, the medium. Somehow
it happens that we extend interest, liking and fascination to the persons
who appear, but that we direct our rejection, objection, or indignation at
the medium. Instead of being annoyed about the disproportion between the prominence
of persons and the substance of their presentation we call television stupid.
The objectivity of the medium has such overwhelming power over human comparisons
that it would seem ridiculous to react with feelings of envy or jealousy to
the unjustified distribution of attention. In the media the supra-personal
rules of distribution practically become a completely anonymous mechanism
of which all of us are part and whose method of accounting inadvertently assumes
the effectiveness of an automated payment system.
What we have is mental capitalism. To all appearances, there exists a nearly
perfect reflection of the material base in our mental superstructure. It is
a great pity that the old reflection theory is so completely dead that it
can no longer enjoy this fact. However, imagine how the old warriors would
rub their eyes if they saw what has happened to the old relationship between
basis and superstructure! According to materialist doctrine, the mental superstructure
is only a dependent reflex of the material production conditions. This doctrine
claimed to have put the idealist world view, which had been standing on its
head, back on its feet. But what are those conditions doing now? They are
standing on their head out of their own accord. Idea-economy has taken the
lead. However, the production conditions were indeed what brought about the
reversal. Not at all just by volume of attention turnover are the media big
The media's supply keeps growing. What is thus expanding is not just their
contribution to the national product, and their attention turnover. What is
expanding is the aspect of reality especially produced to attract attention.
For quite some time has it not been clear whether the reality extracted from
pages and screens is not already dominating the directly perceived one. What
is clear is that a major part of socially perceived reality is highly synthetic,
as it is especially produced for use in the fight for attention.
Of course people know about the pre-structured and fiction-permeated share
in what the media present to them. But it would be naive to believe that it
is all that easy to distinguish between fact and fiction. For attentive beings
like us, only that which retains our attention is real. This in turn does
not mean that everything we imagine or think of is real for us. We are very
well able to distinguish between perception, recollection and imagination.
But we are not as easily able to stop some recollection acting like a real
event, or to prevent an idea from exerting real power. Anybody in love knows
about the unruliness of imaginative processes, any jealous person knows the
relentlessness of recollections. It is in the stratum of such phenomena that
the media are poaching for attention.
There is nothing more real than images which stick to the mind. Nothing exerts
greater power over us than that which forces us to take attentive note. Everything
to which we inadvertently pay attention, inadvertently exerts some effect
on us. And everything that captures our attention is real to a higher degree
than the background. To be sure, there is little in the media which sticks
to the mind. Luckily, there is no obligation to pay attention, either. But
there is enough which attracts, which caters to laziness, which may be taken
in on the side. And everything in which attention gets entangled becomes,
first of all, real in a subjective sense.
The obligation to address a large audience, indeed to keep a whole television
nation in front of the screens, will leave its imprint and will influence
style. Everything appearing in the media must undergo a highly professional
process of styling and testing. This process means that a new forge of reality
is forming, quite comparable to the role played by factories when they first
came into being. It is true that the new process only produces semblances.
However, semblance and substance are not distinguishable from one another
because the latter can be physically touched. Through old habit we have come
to consider the haptic, firm, in a generally perceivable sense public world,
as actual reality, and to consider the world of transmitted images and published
views as a phantom world of semblance. Often enough we overlook that immediate
reality is not what we perceive as an assembly of touchable, solid things,
but that which attention forms out of the stimuli activating our sensitivity.
Everything appearing beyond this elementary stratum of perceivability has
invariably been selected and actively shaped.
Media presentation shifts some of this subjective constitution of reality
to the outside. The technique employed is to detach the pattern of stimuli
from compact materiality. Technological progress in media presentation consists
in detaching those patterns of stimuli with increasing perfection, so that
they can be manipulated independently of the originals with increasing ease.
The technology of this detachment process is what the new reality factories
are operating with. It is logical that at the end of this path the detour
via material reality need no longer be made and that virtual reality is produced
In order to defend the doctrine of the superiority of what is material, one
might argue that immaterial capitalism and excursions to virtual worlds are
just consumption- and leisure phenomena. In the production sphere, material
processes are still prominent. In the creation of value added the media are
only one sector among others. In fact, material production has never been
as enormous as today, not only regarding its economic value but also with
respect to the ecological costs involved. Its enormousness is such that it
overburdens the regenerative potential of ecological resources in a disastrous
way. To deny the preponderance of the material aspect of economic life could
amount to playing down this catastrophic danger.
The first objection is wrong, the second one leads in the wrong direction.
As powerful as the material economy's growth may have been in absolute terms,
equally strong - and at the same pace - has been the drop in the relative
share of manual labour in the production of value added. It is one of the
most significant economic changes of this century that the service of rendering
attention has overtaken all other production factors in economic importance.
At the same time it has become the guiding principle of economic rationality
that the turnover of materials and energy must be reduced. The sheer magnitude
of material turnover does not point to any superiority but is a sign that
the current material economy cannot continue in its present form.
The pecuniary expression of the productivity of service-rendering attention
is the share of mental labour in the production of value added. In all developed
societies it surpasses that of physical labour. However, mental labour differs
from physical labour both in that it employs attention instead of physical
energy and mental instead of physical capital. Mental labour presupposes education.
Education basically means investing attention in oneself. Its simplest economic
measure is the amount of time invested in educational activities by a pupil
and a teacher which incorporates interest accrued from "human capital".
The aim of education is the acquisition and application of knowledge. Knowledge
is reified attention that has crystallised from its live creative state and
is, in that sense, also capitalised attention. Only that part of knowledge
which is accessible to the general public is public capital. Its analogue
on the material side is the public capital of infrastructure.
It would, therefore, be completely wrong to think that the capitalisation
of attention is limited to the phenomenon of prominence. This view would be
as erroneous as thinking that only received attention is scarce and expensive.
This is the case, but it is also true of one's own self-generated attentive
energy. That energy can be accumulated through investment in oneself. A higher
income attained through education may also be considered as a kind of dividend.
But in this case it is the investment of one's attention in oneself which
is the important aspect. However, education is also a kind of capitalisation
of other persons' attention, if one thinks of the teachers' contributions.
In economic terms, the decisive question in discussing the capitalisation
of attention is the way in which total mental labour is divided up between
its direct productive application and its reinvestment in the production and
transmission of knowledge. The long-term optimisation of this ratio has become
the central condition for keeping a national economy at the top in international
comparisons. The optimal rate of mental capital formation has greater weight
than the rate of real capital investment. It is also more important than physical
resources, regardless of even excellent endowment with them.
The tendency of de-materialisation has for quite some time taken hold of the
economic process as a whole. It also reaches back into history. Its origins
go back to the period when the service sector began to expand to the detriment
of the producing and extracting industries. Tertiary services - like agency,
administration, sale, consulting - are goods in the shape of attention paid.
They used to be classified as non-productive by the economists of former times
because they did not produce anything material, nothing which filled one's
stomach. It was the drastic lightening of the burden of physical labour by
machines and the increasing need for organisation in the production and distribution
of goods which demonstrated that the service of rendering attention was not
only a productive contribution, but was in fact pivotal to the enforcement
of economic rationality.
The growth of the tertiary sector was alimented by the mechanisation of physical
labour and by growing prosperity. Mechanisation shifts human labour to activities
like planning and supervision as well as to marketing of the steadily increasing
minimum turnover. Prosperity makes demand for goods more exacting and ties
it more closely to the complementary demand for presentation and consulting.
The growing complexity of both leads to higher requirements regarding the
organisation of information and decision circuits.
This organisation remained untouched by mechanisation until the advent of
a new kind of technology. The mechanical unburdening and substitution of labour
in this sphere became more urgent with the general rise in wages, and especially
with the rising share of highly qualified mental labour. Mental labour is
particularly expensive because of the education dividend. What was needed,
therefore, was the introduction of some technology that would unburden mental
labour by substituting its more mechanical components. This was achieved by
information technology. Computers replace attentive by electrical energy.
They emulate mental labour in that they move information instead of heavy
matter. Since their introduction, de-materialisation has shifted from the
object of labour to the instrument employed. This does not mean that the mind,
or indeed attention, have leapt across to the machines. It means, however,
that a potential is forming which may contribute to eventually replacing the
material economy on a larger scale. Information - this is also the singled
out pattern of stimuli from which we construct, perceiving, our haptic, firm
world. It is infinitely easier and more energy-saving to change such patterns,
to move them around, shape them, knead them, assemble them and send them round
the world instead of their material original. However, the perception we construct
from those manipulated stimuli is virtual reality. If the information processing
capacity in human attention moves over to machines, this means that not only
developments in the media are drifting towards the colonisation of virtual
space. The tendency of virtualisation emanates just as much from economic
pressures to substitute increasingly expensive labour, as from an ecological
need to reduce the materials and energy balances.
De-materialisation and virtualisation have become common concepts also in
production. The importance of occupations in the information sector suggests
the emergence of a new, quarternary sector of the economy. In any case, the
predominance of that which is material seems to be crumbling throughout the
entire spectrum of the economic process. The totality of this transformation
goes much further than suggested by the phrase information society. Information
is the still physical aspect of the trans-physical economy of attention. Attention
is far more than just the ready supply of information processing capacity.
Attention is the essence of being conscious in the sense of both self?certain
existence and alert presence of mind. Attention is the medium in which everything
must be represented that is to become real for us as experiencing creatures.
Each attentive creature is the centre of its own individual world. This world
exists as many times as there are conscious beings.
Attentiveness as such is more than, and of ontologically higher order than,
anything appearing to or in it. Dedicated attentiveness imparts dignity to
the person receiving the attention. This alone makes receiving somebody's
benevolent attention a most highly valued good for creatures who are attentive
themselves. Receiving alert attentiveness means becoming part of another world.
No attentive being has direct access to the world of another being's attention.
By receiving another being's attention, however, the receiving one becomes
represented in that other being's world. And it is one's representation in
the other being's consciousness which makes the desire to be noticed so irresistible.
It is not just that vanity cannot get enough of this. All of us are in the
throes of the question how we appear to others. We cannot bear not playing
any role in the other being's consciousness. The human soul already begins
to suffer if it does not play the leading role in another soul. It is permanently
maimed and ends in bitterness if it does not receive a generous minimum income
of attentiveness. And it is its highest bliss to bathe in caring attention.
Applause may, of course, sometimes come from the wrong side, and it may sometimes
be the wrong side which is noticed. But if caring attentiveness comes from
people whom we esteem, and if we receive it for qualities of which we are
proud, there can hardly ever be too much of it.
Thus, the modern cult around one's own attractiveness did not need to be invented.
Also, the observation that people enjoying material prosperity venerate nothing
so much as their own magnetic hold on other people's attention is not surprising.
New and astonishing is just the fervour with which professional business sense
devours the liberated mental energies. It is only the display of power wielded
by the sphere of media-channelled attention that is shocking in the discovery
of this new economy. However, too critical a view of the present cultural
state might overlook that the replacement of money as life's reserve currency
entails the chance of a possibly life-saving change in values. We have known
quite long and sufficiently well that every day of hesitation to withdraw
from the battle of matériel which we are waging against (our own) nature
will heap deplorable misery on future generations. However, full knowledge
and the guiltiest conscience have so far only moved dwindling minorities to
changing their ways. It is probably illusionist to expect that the necessary
reorientation of economic activity will be brought about by mass abstinence.
If the way out of materialism is not found in abstinence, then it must be
sought in hedonism itself. Within hedonism I see no other emergency exit but
the one of self-activated de-materialisation of the economic process and the
imminent change in values concerning different kinds of income.
Is the economy of attention thus an already practically experienced preliminary
stage of future ecologically non?harmful lifestyles? Could the transformation
of economic competition into a sharper battle for attention ultimately be
the "cunning of reason" which will save us? Are we perhaps - unknowingly
and without wanting it - on the right track? We should not take looking for
answers to these questions too lightly.