THE METAPHYSICS OF ATTENTION

A very interesting exchange today between Scott Karp and Nick Carr on the value of attention. They both are writing in response to Esther Dyson's ideas about the "attention economy" (first theorized by Michael Goldhaber) in this weekend's online WSJ.

Karp imagines a media world in which "no one will pay for content." Calling Dyson's piece "a blazing, head-spinning insight," he compares the moneyless economics of 21st century blogging with the moneyless economics of 20th century poetry. Both blogging and poetry, Karp tells us, have symbolic, metaphysical value -- but neither can be concretely monetized.

Carr collapses economics and philosophy in the critical fashion of an early Marx. He is disgusted by the way in which the attention economy results in the commodification of the self:

"I fear that to view the attention economy as "more than just a subset of the financial economy" is to misread it, to project on it a yearning for an escape (if only a temporary one) from the consumer culture. There's no such escape online. When we communicate to promote ourselves, to gain attention, all we are doing is turning ourselves into goods and our communications into advertising. We become salesmen of ourselves, hucksters of the "I." In peddling our interests, moreover, we also peddle the commodities that give those interests form: songs, videos, and other saleable products. And in tying our interests to our identities, we give marketers the information they need to control those interests and, in the end, those identities."

So what, exactly, does the "attention economy" mean? I went back to the source, to Michael Goldhager's seminal December 1997 Wired magazine article "Attention Shoppers!". Here, Goldhaber seems to be saying that the attention economy will come to replace the financial economy:

"To thrive in the coming century, you will have to look beyond money in any form and build a stock of attention for yourself as best you can. This will not be an easy current to swim in. But don't be distracted. The most gorgeous castles of capitalism, the most colorful ceremonies of payment and receivables, the most elaborate rituals around money and investments are now at their height, just as the era of the money economy expires. For better or worse, the attention economy will prevail."

What I don't understand, however, is who pays for attention in this digital future? And if there is no cash transaction, then how can we describe it as an "economy"? Is this "capitalism" or is it a return to a medieval world of symbolic exchange -- where value can't be quantified in financial terms?

It would seem that the "realities" of the so-called attention economy are metaphysical. Perhaps we would be better off (re)naming the whole thing the "metaphysics of attention."

ORIGINAL SINNERS

Who is the greatest of the Great Seducers?

1. Karl Marx
2. Giacomo Casanova
3. Plato
4. Mick Jagger
5. All of the above rolled up into a single 18th century seducer

The answer is 5. If you role up Marx, Casanova, Plato and Jagger into one 18th century writer and womanizer and philosopher and (con)artist you get the greatest of the Great Seducers: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) of Geneva, the author of Discourses on the Arts and Sciences (1750), Les Confessions (1770), The Social Contract (1762)  and, most importantly, Emile (1762)

Rousseau

Rousseau came up with the most seductive sentence in the whole dirty history of Western utopian thought. It occurs at the beginning of his political treatise, The Social Contract:

MAN WAS BORN FREE BUT EVERYWHERE HE IS IN CHAINS

In ten words, Jean-Jacques Rousseau bore the modern idea of childhood. Till then, children were considered little adults, miniature sinners, junior versions of their corrupt elders. But with Rousseau’s seductive ten words, childhood and children acquired the halo of innocence. Thus the centrality of Emile, Rousseau’s enormously influential “educational” treatise, on how to maintain the inner-innocence in the adolescent.

Rousseau’s idea is very simple. Man was born good and society corrupts him. Rousseau turned the Aristotelian veneration of experience and old-age on its ancient head. Human nature is good and society bad. Original sin was replaced with original virtue. Wisdom and goodness was now located in the child or the primitive human, the so-called “noble savage.”

Rousseau-for-idiots: Adults don’t get it; kids do.

Sounds familiar? Rousseau’s cult of the innocent child climaxed for the first time in the countercultural explosion of the Sixties when a generation of children all-too-innocently announced their intention to remake the world in their virtuous image. Today, this ideal of the innocence, the embedded virtue, the original purity of the child has returned wrapped in the cloak of digital idealism. Let’s tag it “Climax 2.0” in honor of those Silicon Valley teleologists who can only think in zeros and ones.

I thought of Rousseau today while reading an ABC news piece by Michael S. Malone entitled “The Leet Guide for Noobs and Nubs”. Implicit in Malone’s argument is that the  online words and symbols of teenagers, words like "leet" and "noob" and "nub" invented by kids to communicate with other kids, represents a linguistic purity that eludes adults. Online kids know how to talk to one another. The adolescent language of instant-messaging and texting has become the new thing-in-itself.

This seductive ideal of youth  is even more explicit in the work now done by Danah Boyd, a Web 2.0 utopian, by about the morality of the My Space generation. Boyd describes her work as follows:

“I study emergent social technologies that incorporate social networks, identity representation, sharing and performance (Friendster, blogging, IM...). I focus heavily on youth culture.”

In her sociological research, Boyd digitalizes Rousseau’s innocent child:

"Youth are not creating digital publics to scare parents - they are doing so because they need youth space, a place to gather and see and be seen by peers. Publics are critical to the coming-of-age narrative because they provide the framework for building cultural knowledge. Restricting youth to controlled spaces typically results in rebellion and the destruction of trust. Of course, for a parent, letting go and allowing youth to navigate risks is terrifying. Unfortunately, it's necessary for youth to mature."

Boyd-for-idiots: Analog parents don’t get it; digital kids do.

But what happens, however, if this “coming of age narrative” (ie: Climax 2.0) on an online youth community like My Space involves teenage pornography and voyeurism. What happens when, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the kids are into spanking and swinging and where Playboy Enterprises Inc. has launched a casting call for a "Girls of MySpace" nude pictorial.

Perhaps, then, the adolescent members of the My Space community are not quite as innocent as we are led to believe by the digital utopians of Silicon Valley. Perhaps we should revert to the pre Rousseau vision of the child as the flawed little adult, the original sinner. Then the crude behaviour of today’s online children becomes more troubling. Perhaps, then, we should be spanking our kids, rather than allowing them to spank each other.

REASON TO BELIEVE

KimporcelThe 19th century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel once said that the owl of Minerva “spreads it wings only with the falling of the dusk”. He meant that truth could only be seen backwards, at nightfall, once the events of the day had been put to rest. Perhaps Hegel meant that the truth is best seen in the dark, at the movies.

Or maybe Hegel was just looking for a reason to believe.

Here is the truth then. My reason to believe.

An old man and a little boy. We begin with the gaze. They are gazing at the same vision on the screen. We linger on their faces. We see their eyes, their mouths, their noses, their cheeks, then we see their eyes again. Close-up. They both possess the faces of dreamers: one face lined with a lifetime of dreaming, the other reflecting no worldly experience at all. These are faces longing for a reason to believe.

It is January 1969 in North London. The old man and the little boy are sitting upright, big shoulder to little shoulder, on a threadbare settee in the dark living room of a modest house. In front of them glows a color television set. The set itself is made by Zenith, a market leader in the revolutionary technology of color television (in England, the first regular showing of color broadcasts was by BBC 2 in July 1967).  The set is mounted in a walnut enclosure and it sits on four square pointy wooden legs. The television is switched on. It is playing Vertigo, a 1958 motion picture made by Alfred Hitchcock and set in the San Francisco Bay Area.

At first, all we can see is the old man and the little boy. But as we stand back, the rest of the rectangular living room is revealed. It is early evening, so the curtains are drawn, making the room seem self-enclosed, like a place apart from the world. It is a room of broken and unfulfilled dreams. Color is absent from the room’s bare furnishings. There is no art on the walls. The room’s furniture, its dining table and its chairs, is old and worn. The settee on which the old man and the little boy sit is grey. This North London room is enclosed by a series of wooden bookcases with row upon row of hardback books. These books possess black spines and authors with foreign names: Bukharin, Zinoviev, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Engels. One long row on the bookcase is dedicated to the collected works of Karl Marx, another to those of Vladimir Illich Lenin.

The old man and the little boy gaze at the screen. Their eyes are attached to a blonde called Madeleine Elster (played by Kim Novak) as she drives her green Jaguar motorcar aimlessly, up and down the streets of San Francisco. Both the little boy and the old man want to be in that car with her. But that isn’t possible. Madeleine Elster doesn’t really exist. She is just a great seduction.

And still they look for a reason to believe.

SEEING KAFKA IN SAN JOSE

Kafka_fxHow can we see reality?

No, this isn’t  a Philosophy 101 paper or the opening gambit of a conversation in a Paris café.  Rather than being in France, I’m in San Jose, at its Convention Center. I’m here with a few hundred other visual truth seekers. And we are all trying to see reality. Virtual reality, that is. 3-dimensional style.

But my problem is that I came to San Jose to look at virtual reality and all I can see, truly see, is the Czech writer Franz Kafka.

I’m here in San Jose at the 18th annual “Electronic Imaging” Science and Technology symposium. This is the yearly get-together of the world’s greatest researchers on 3-D technology. It’s a truly global event, a United Nations of 3-D’ers, all in those retro paper glasses, peering at the big screen, searching for a technology that really allows us to see reality. It’s crazy stuff. But the “upside”, as those other cheque writers, the venture capitalists like to say, is huge. The first people to crack 3-D win the Digital World Cup. It’s the visual equivalent of replicating human thought: The Great (Visual) Seduction.

What is 3-D? Like porn, 3-D is hard to define but easy to recognize when you see it. It’s supposed to be a real-life electronic version of the world. Instead of seeing things in a single dimension, 3-D is supposed to reproduce what we see naturally through our eyes. 

So what does the best 3-D look like? Last night, the symposium put on a show of the best 3-D movies. And here’s the funny thing: in my eyes at least, the more three dimensional the image, the less real it appeared. All I could see was imperfection, distortion, exaggeration. The problem – and this is the problem with all perfectionist technologies – is the impossibility of perfection. The consequence is exaggerated imperfection. Another word for this is surrealism.

It’s hard to be in San Jose and not think about Franz Kafka. Especially at a 3-D symposium packed with men in green tinted paper glasses. As I was blinking at (un)reality last night, I couldn’t help thinking that my visual experience of imperfect, distorted, exaggerated 3-D images resembled the world that Kafka presents to his readers in The Castle and The Trial. Looking at these 3-D movies establishes a parallel visual reality, one that both mimics and mocks the real world.

Or maybe, just maybe, all these 3-D images are real and it's my eyes that have been lying to me. Now wouldn't that be a strange twist of fate?