Ennui, anomie and the attention economy

Like cats mesmerised by laser pointers, our attention is easily hijacked. Not surprisingly, given the kind of world we live in, it’s a trait which often gets exploited. The three-card trick; bared flesh on a magazine cover; rumours of immigrant takeover. As the internet commercialized it quickly diagnosed our readiness to give and call for attention, and accelerated the exploitation process (cunningly disguised) to supernatural speed and intensity. We hardly even had to pay for the privilege, except in something called personal data which we barely knew we had in the first place. But something else is going on too, massively amplified by the internet though not necessarily created by it.

We many of us live in societies and places where people are crying out for attention. Maybe most of us, crying out for attention. Could this be because we Moderns are spoiled products of an infantalizing society: arrogant, needy princelings with little awareness of our privileges and our responsibilities to the world? “The world”, including each other. “Each other”, including co-inhabitants, animal and spirit, in every corner of this, the third rock from the sun.

There are cultures where a disastrous, amoral outcome like the birth of princeling society would be inconceivable. Cultures where people are raised steeped in dignified humility, immersed in a story of gratitude and courage, confident of their place in the eternal dance of the universe*. Cultures where people must successfully graduate from infancy if they are to achieve full personhood, or otherwise be non-persons. But our culture is not like that. So we prey on each other while remaining prey to our own infantile fears. Someone notice me! …says everyone online. (Ahem.) Someone attend to me! …say all the celebs, politicians, passersby and hermits. Validation, please!

Is it simply that we’re empty? Brought up hollow by a culture that’s forgotten how to give its children peace and equanimity because it’s too busy priming us for a life of consumption and competition – for which we must be always be on edge, never resolving our what-ifs or quenching our desires? Give me something or someone to cling to! …we cry. Anything that fills the wordless void within!

Does it matter? Well, yes, if you’re concerned by what may seem to be the inexplicable attraction, to countless people today, of malevolent con artists and reality-defying interpretations of what just happened. In observing that phenomenon we may see attention craved and attention scorned; attention fed and rewarded and denied again. Hearts hungry to be filled, a million times over. It’s a phenomenon described in this insightful article as the attention economy.

Personally, I’m bothered by where this seems to lead. I see the attention-driven march of militarist-authoritarian solutions to the challenge of organising mass society. (Name a country where that’s not on the rise.) Violent authoritarianism is probably civilisation’s default setting, to be fair: the maximally efficient way to rally millions of truculent, unconnected strangers into a single, virtual entity such as a nation. A lot of heads were cracked in the past few centuries in the effort to temper the inherent, organised cruelty of that process, and reaffirm what is, I believe, our organic default: fairness and kindness (mostly). But it feels today like civilisation wants to revert to its happy place – tyranny and oppression – and I sense that this is connected with a global sense of things teetering. This feeling that something is maybe about to capsize.

When people are exhausted by precarity, antennae scanning furiously for information about something imminent and unnameable, that’s when they – that’s when we – are most vulnerable to having our attention hijacked. Sometimes by cat memes (we thank you, internet), and sometimes by the most infantile and amoral among us, damaged beings who have no-one’s best interests at heart other than their own.

*In connection with culture and dignity, credit to the makers of and speaker in this video, for a perspective on everything that matters.

Image from wideopenpets.com