The Only Way to Resist the Attention Economy
This story is part of The New Self-Help: 21 Books for a Better You in the 21st Century.
We live in an age where there are many systemic abuses that should be refused. I propose that one great place to start is the abuse of our attention. Attention undergirds every other kind of meaningful refusal: It allows us to reach Thoreau’s higher perspective, and forms the basis of a disciplined collective attention that we see in successful strikes and boycotts whose laser-like focus withstood all the attempts to disassemble them. But in today’s mediascape, it’s hard to imagine what refusal looks like on the level of attention. For example, when I mention to anyone that I’m thinking about “resisting the attention economy,” their first response is, “Cool, so, like, quitting Facebook?” (usually followed by musings on the impossibility of leaving Facebook).
Let’s consider that option for a moment. If Facebook is such a big part of the attention economy problem, then surely quitting it is an appropriate “fuck you” to the whole thing. To me, though, this is fighting the battle on the wrong plane. In her 2012 paper, “Media refusal and conspicuous non-consumption: The performative and political dimensions of Facebook abstention,” Laura Portwood-Stacer interviews people who quit Facebook for political reasons and finds that the meaning of these isolated actions is often lost on the Facebook friends left behind. Facebook abstention, like telling someone you grew up in a house with no TV, can all too easily appear to be taste- or class-related. Portwood-Stacer’s interviews also show that “the personal or political decision not to participate in Facebook may be interpreted [by friends] as a social decision not to interact with them,” or worse, as “holier-than-thou internet asceticism.” Most important, the decision to leave Facebook involves its own kind of “margin”:
It may be that refusal is only available as a tactic to people who already possess a great deal of social capital, people whose social standing will endure without Facebook and people whose livelihoods don’t require them to be constantly plugged in and reachable. . . These are people who have what [Kathleen] Noonan (2011) calls “the power to switch off.”
Grafton Tanner makes a similar point in “Digital Detox: Big Tech’s Phony Crisis of Conscience,” a short piece on the repentant tech entrepreneurs who have realized just how addictive their technology is. But Tanner is unimpressed:
They fail to attack the attention economy at its roots or challenge the basic building blocks of late capitalism: market fundamentalism, deregulation, and privatization. They reinforce neoliberal ideals, privileging the on-the-move individual whose time needs to be well spent — a neatly consumerist metaphor.
For my part, I, too, will remain unimpressed until the social media technology we use is noncommercial. But while commercial social networks reign supreme, let’s remember that a real refusal refuses the terms of the question itself.
Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic philosopher who lived in fourth-century Athens and later Corinth, provides a helpful framework for questioning the attention economy. Known for going to great lengths to shock people out of their habitual stupor — for instance, walking backward down the street and entering a theater only when people were leaving — he used a form of philosophy that was almost slapstick. When Diogenes did conform, he did it ironically, employing what the 20th-century conceptual artists the Yes Men have called “overidentification.”
So to a question like “Will you or will you not participate as asked?” Diogenes would have answered something else entirely: “I will participate, but not as asked,” or “I will stay, but I will be your gadfly.” This answer (or non-answer) is something I think of as producing what I’ll call a “third space” — an almost magical exit to another frame of reference. For someone who cannot otherwise live with the terms of her society, the third space can provide an important if unexpected harbor.
We need to be able to think across different timescales when the mediascape would have us think in 24-hour (or shorter) cycles, to pause for consideration when clickbait would have us click.
To try to imagine what the “third space” would actually look like in the attention economy, I turn to the school of Cynicism Diogenes inspired. In sharp contrast to the modern meaning of the word cynicism, the Greek Cynics were earnestly invested in waking up the populace from a general stupor. They imagined this stupor as something called typhos, a word that also connotes fog, smoke, and storms — as in the word typhoon or tai fung in Cantonese, meaning “a great wind.”
A generation after Diogenes, a pupil of his named Crates wrote of an imaginary island called Pera (named after the leather wallet that Cynics counted among their few possessions) that is “surrounded but not affected” by this storm of confusion. Inhabitants of Pera spend their lives trying to bring others who are lost in typhos to their shore through the practice of philosophy.
Civil disobedience in the attention economy means withdrawing attention. But doing that by loudly quitting Facebook and then tweeting about it is the same mistake as thinking that the imaginary Pera is a real island that we can reach by boat. A real withdrawal of attention happens first and foremost in the mind.
What is needed, then, is not a “once-and-for-all” type of quitting but ongoing training: the ability not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity. We need to be able to think across different timescales when the mediascape would have us think in 24-hour (or shorter) cycles, to pause for consideration when clickbait would have us click, to risk unpopularity by searching for context when our Facebook feed is an outpouring of unchecked outrage and scapegoating, to closely study the ways that media and advertising play upon our emotions, to understand the algorithmic versions of ourselves that such forces have learned to manipulate, and to know when we are being guilted, threatened, and gaslighted into reactions that come not from will and reflection but from fear and anxiety. I am less interested in a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter than I am in a mass movement of attention: what happens when people regain control over their attention and begin to direct it again, together.
Occupying the “third space” within the attention economy is important not just because, as I’ve argued, individual attention forms the basis for collective attention and thus for meaningful refusal of all kinds. It is also important because in a time of shrinking margins, when students and workers have “put the pedal to the metal,” and cannot afford other kinds of refusal, attention may be the last resource we have left to withdraw. In a cycle where both financially driven platforms and overall precarity close down the space of attention — the very attention needed to resist this onslaught, which then pushes further — it may be only in the space of our own minds that some of us can begin to pull apart the links.
In 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary describes sleep as the last vestige of humanity that capitalism cannot appropriate (thus explaining its many assaults on sleep). The cultivation of different forms of attention has a similar character, since the true nature of attention is often hidden. What the attention economy takes for granted is the quality of attention, because like all modern capitalist systems, it imagines its currency as uniform and interchangeable. “Units” of attention are assumed undifferentiated and uncritical. To give a particularly bleak yet useful example, if I’m forced to watch an ad, the company doesn’t necessarily know how I am watching the ad. I may indeed be watching it very carefully, but like a practitioner of aikido who seeks to better understand her enemy.
Of course, attention has its own margins. There is a significant portion of people for whom the project of day-to-day survival leaves no attention for anything else; that’s part of the vicious cycle too. This is why it’s even more important for anyone who does have a margin — even the tiniest one — to put it to use in opening up margins further down the line. Tiny spaces can open up small spaces, small spaces can open bigger spaces. If you can afford to pay a different kind of attention, you should.
But besides showing us a possible way out of a bind, the process of training one’s own attention has something else to recommend it. If it’s attention (deciding what to pay attention to) that makes our reality, regaining control of it can also mean the discovery of new worlds and new ways of moving through them. This process enriches not only our capacity to resist, but even more simply, our access to the one life we are given. It can open doors where we didn’t see any, creating landscapes in new dimensions that we can eventually inhabit with others. In so doing, we not only remake the world but are ourselves remade.
Excerpted from How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. Copyright © 2019 by Jenny Odell. Reprinted by permission of Melville House. All rights reserved.