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Resisting the attention economy

Resisting the attention economy

We live in an age of digital consumption. Attention is a commodity as much as it is a resource. We feel it in the pulsating energy when we mindlessly scroll across different apps and engage across multiple devices. The dopamine rush in an entertaining video, the alert sounds in notifications, and the incessant presence of online advertisements/deals. There is a meme that’s been going around that perfectly encapsulates this.

Tiktok | @softpangs

This meme, only based on the number of engagements it gathered (and continually gathers) is at once indicative of our own collective consciousness about the fickleness of our attention and an admission of how we are deep in the rabbit’s fur of the whole social media ecosystem.

The attention economy

Historicizing how media capitalize on attention will yield us the answer that traditional media already operate in this model. For instance, an essay by Marie Winn in 1936 talks about the cultural changes in American families’ domestic lifestyles because of television. Then came video games, computers, the internet, smartphones, and so on. Whenever a new medium is invented, there’s always an increasing concern about how it will render other media obsolete. How it will change ways of living almost always on two opposing poles; for better or for worse.

It seems the same for social media.

Tracing the emergence of social media during the early 2000s, Stevenson, an Associate Professor in the Media Studies department at the University of Amsterdam outlined two visions surrounding the invention of the web and the Internet during its inception. First as an information universe and second as a virtual community. The existence of millions of websites and social media proves that all of these have been fully realized.

However, the difference between old forms of media, say, a television in comparison to social media is that the latter are now consciously designed to be addictive. If the products in the TV industry are carefully curated, social media function in an unhampered free flow of content. We are left to judge these contents under arbitrary categorizations often defined by the culture cultivated in each application or website. A well-meaning statement on another website could be offensive on another platform.

We have become astute in determining which content to focus our attention on. And, we can’t get enough of it.

Time is of the essence because a few hours later we must go to sleep or work. The attention economy operates in this precarity. The unrest in the psyche due to limited time. The logic of the attention economy is to always compete for our attention. Users’ stay, becomes a form of unpaid labor by means of letting them curate their own feeds and profiles. Algorithmic patterns then extend this to users who share the same demographic as them. And the cycle goes on. Rinse and repeat.

Faced with an abundance of entertainment and the ever-changing threshold of what we regard as entertaining, doing nothing essentially becomes unthinkable. Bite-sized contents such as TikTok videos and YouTube shorts are quick to satisfy. It delivers a dopamine rush that is sustainable. Time passes quickly in these flashes and fragments.

Moreover, compounded with the idea of productivity and endless imperatives to optimize oneself in service of capital (or building of it), doing nothing feels like a sin. Things that necessitate attention take the back seat for a moment. For instance, reading and interpreting in-depth articles which demand attention to piece together information, events, and figures become harder to do because of the deluge of content consumed across different platforms.

If our attention span dwindles to the flashes and fragments of online quickies, we are becoming at risk of being stunted intellectually. The idea of retention becomes an interesting point of inquiry in an age where we are perpetually connected to the information universe. A digital appendage of sorts. Nothing has to be remembered because we can easily retrieve it. “In digital recall, loss itself is lost,” Mark Fisher says.

Resisting the attention economy

Doing nothing is the thesis of Jenny Odell’s book, How To Do Nothing; Resisting the Attention Economy. She invokes that period of disassociation we feel when we are lost in something. The epiphanies that come along with the state of temporarily leaving the world, inhabiting a foreign place where we feel in touch with something otherworldly.

Doing nothing in an age of knee-jerk reactions, mic-drop statements, and hostile online discussions which almost always constantly try to provoke, she presents a choice of temporary disengagement. In this book, she quotes a passage from Gilles Deleuze’s Negotiations.

We’re riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images. Stupidity’s never blind or mute. So it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.

The case of doing nothing

Doing nothing for Odell means temporary suspension in a digital culture that perpetually asks us to engage. The constant confrontation of the possibility of missing out. Instead, she makes a call to focus on the actual terrains of reality: our physical community and the environment. Only in this temporary disconnection, we can find those rare serendipitous moments that bind us to reality and our shared humanity. 

Whether it be the people around us, nature, ecology, community organizing, or art, channeling our attention towards what nourishes us and the community around us necessitates recognition of doing nothing temporarily to reflect and meditate about what matters in the grand scheme of things. To let thoughts linger. Let ideas percolate in the ether, until the arrival of the opportunity in which we can truly have something to say.

However, Odell also recognizes the privilege inherent in doing nothing.

That it can be a “self-indulgent luxury.” Who has the time to sit back and relax in a society where you can barely make ends meet? What to make out of the kind of society that puts less emphasis on public services such as transportation and healthcare? Even if we have free time, where else can we stay so that we don’t have to spend our money?

All of these — the awful transportation system, the lack of public spaces, and the devaluing of art — ultimately lead us to flock to the digital sphere which exacerbates our isolation from one another. Odell’s cognizance of this privilege all the more makes the manifesto urgent.

See Also
How Social Media Affects Users: Responsible Use of Platforms

One great distinction we have to make is that social media is neither the problem nor the users. Earlier visions of the internet include fostering a sense of community by bringing in people with similar interests. There’s still value in this utopian idea of the internet if you look in the right places.

But, what changed is how social media became a business venture. That these online communities are profitable and certain emotions drive up engagement which then makes us stay longer. It’s not a mere reason for letting us off the hook or trying to absolve ourselves of our “habits”. It’s important to consider that we operate in a certain political reality that shapes (and profits off of) our actions.

Doing nothing also means refusal to the productivity-industrial complex of constantly optimizing oneself.

That the self is not a machine or software always due for an upgrade. The refusal to let the invasive logic of productivity seep into even our most private moments like rest and relaxation. Into the way we live our lives.

“Invest in yourself,” is the mantra of every productivity guru. It’s as if our relationship with ourselves is a transaction in that we should expect a return on investment. Even basic “self-care” (which to this industry is a necessary component of being able to get back to work) is treated as a reward for working hard and not as our duty to ourselves regardless of whether or not we exhaust ourselves because of work.

In a society with a vulnerable healthcare infrastructure, capitalist logic instills in us that optimizing oneself is a priority. Instead of appreciating stasis. Instead of appreciating rest and care without thinking about whether or not we deserve it. (The answer is clear, we always do.)

The value of nature and community

To capitalist logic, which thrives on myopia and dissatisfaction, there may indeed be something dangerous about something as pedestrian as doing nothing,” says Odell.

There were times before when the caption ‘Vitamin Sea’ from friends and relatives who had just or just had their time out in the open sea elicited a giggle in me for its silliness. A pun about the power of nature to nourish the body. But over the years, I have come to realize the cosmic importance of being in touch with nature. It’s nurturing. After the trip, there’s a certain glow in them that I can only take to mean the result of unencumbered rest. Nature has a great way of reminding us of the finiteness of our very own existence and with it the consciousness that this brief existence is capable of being worthwhile.

“Escaping laterally toward each other, we might just find that everything we wanted is already here,” Odell continues.

Read more articles by the author here.

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