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Arbitrating Attention: reinvesting attention surplus in plausible artworlds

Arbitrating Attention: reinvesting attention surplus in plausible artworlds

The post-industrial world has given birth to what some describe as an “information economy,” which is but one part of a broader “attention economy.” But does this information glut produce an artificial scarcity of (social) attention or do our apparently foreshortened attention spans cast shadows where new forms of sensory and cognitive experiences can quietly deploy?

The rise of the attention economy – that is, the economy inherent to the “society of the spectacle,” of which the mainstream contemporary artworld is both the proving ground and the emblematic outcome, shows every sign of continuing into the future at the same inexorable pace it gathered in the twentieth century. At the outset, this might have applied to the 15 minutes of fame as art’s ulterior motivation. Increasingly, however, the attention economy has come to be defined by the relationship of capital to visual culture, more specifically to how artists and the artworld as a whole function in a sector increasingly nurtured by hedge-fund management tactics and poached upon by the prosumer strategies of the entertainment industry. Art is ostensibly still their perfect partner, for the ideology of these forces is not domination, but freedom. The challenge is to avoid passive consumption, while using the resources and freedom generated by the attention economy to fund the darker more poly-vocal initiatives at its edges.

What exactly is the “attention economy”?

Simplified, is attention-getting not a form of symbolic capitalization, akin to a “reputational economy”? Build on existent stock, expand the audience, in short, exploit attention-getting to capture whatever opportunities the new economy offers. In this respect, and in this economy, attention is capital. Here the challenge for immaterial labourers is to extract their surplus value without the expectation of overthrowing the system. Art today has become an extreme exacerbation of twentieth-century attention economics, where the artist’s standing in the reputational economy is determined by his or her coefficient of specific visibility. Artworks and their authors are no less “branded” than other commodities; yet they are consumed for their uniqueness. Today, Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, etc. artists are highly capitalised in the global market. Difference is integral to marketing tactics, some use it whilst others are exploited by it. Their differentiated ethnological artefacts – of reverie and worship – bolster the broader art-belief system.

Where the attention economy becomes a shadow economy

Conversely, the “shadow economy” is based on a model of inattention; that is, of a deliberately impaired, deframed attention. Art moves from its autonomous sphere into other life systems as an undetected entity, an immeasurable energy, a stealth activity – be it alternative-energy development, sustainability, house painting, mortuary-service provision, tourism, water-purification systems, financial services, culture and development, physics, motor sports, translation, to name but a few well-known and documentable examples. Yet it is NOT institutionalized in the de facto position of the artworld, because it remains invisible to the latter’s attention-focusing devices.

Thus a shadow economy is dependent on the structures of the broader economy even as it shifts the emphasis on where value is placed and how it is defined. In the case of art practice, the context is moved, creating other spaces and places where “art” can surface. But content is no less crucial than context. Rather than a brand name, in this case the artist’s single signature, sense-based cognition is produced, whether singularly or collectively authored. It can be a movement, a text, a monument, a chorus made together in unison or in disparate systems comprising a larger whole. Though it may be seen, it is outside the frame of the attention-driven artworld.

Shadow economics on and off the web

The attention economy really took off with Web 2.0 – less a technological paradigm, really, than an innovation in capital accumulation based upon the private captation of community-produced value – and has admittedly done so with the complicity of the users’ community. Increasingly though, this model of attention-in-lieu-of-remuneration has faced a two-tiered challenge from its own shadows: a post-media response from the “sensual web” of the pre-existing unplugged world, which might ironically be termed “web 0.0” – that is, not the web at all, just the broad cognitive network of human interaction; and an explicit expansion for developing instruments and resources to run user-generated content on public websites. This focus on paid web-usership may be called “web 3.0,” and though it is technologically embryonic, it may ultimately be a platform for remunerating not the classic category of “authorship” but the more extensive and more inclusive category of “usership.”

Being net-based or neighborhood-based is not the issue, for ultimately this new economic model is in the shadows of the mainstream attention economy. In both counter-models, the resources themselves are siphoned off from the edges of the attention economy. Seen from the viewpoint of shadow economics, there is no contradiction between 0.0 and 3.0, their common “host” being the attention economics of 2.0.

Being the change we want to see

To sum up, the attention economy – through its foundations and similar apparatuses – has no choice but to fund knowledge production ventures, of a more or less playful but nonetheless serious nature. Shadow economic players (whatever their social status or realm of activity) sieve off a portion of the resources and re-channel it to other shadowy operatives, allowing a de facto venture-capital injection that then is reinvested in rethinking the very notions described above forming the basis for renewing our modes of transmitting knowledge. What the shadow knows.

northeastwestsouth.net (n.e.w.s.)


The muddling of the term "attention economy"

Though this is an interesting and creative post, the ideas it puts forward seem a bit muddled. I introduced the term 'attention economy" in the late 80's to describe to describe anew kind of economy revolving around the desire for and of scarcity human attention. This stands outside and against the money economy in new class system of stars and fans. The term has bee misappropriated and trivialized by those who emphasize only the scarcity of attention, and somehow connect this with advertising, etc. You have now further complicated it. so be it. but anyone trying to understand the term should examine postings in my blog http://goldhaber.org and also look at my 1997 article http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/519/440 "The Attention Economy and the Net." -Michael H. Goldhaber