Friday, 20 March 2015

The ‘attentional commons’? Many years ago, oh before your time surely, as a student of information science I recall a moment of minor enlightenment when I understood a key point about information in a consumer society: information consumes, and what it consumes is attention. Several decades on I have just been intrigued by this article by Matthew B Crawford in the NYT. He posits an ‘attentional commons’ on the grounds that there is ‘a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed.’ The short-hand term for this legitimised aggression is spam, e.g. all those spam phone calls you may still get, and the spam snail-mail through the door, the interference from the charity salesperson on the high street, spam information on public display boards and so on. Crawford’s article feels like a worthy but desperate rear-guard salvo attempting to defend the collective during the assault on privacy. Is anyone interested? Part of the problem perhaps is that in a fierce battle around private attention intensified by personal networking technologies, to most people, collective social relations don’t seem such a big deal. Crawford suggests: ‘Of course, you can seal yourself off by putting on noise-canceling headphones, staring at a smartphone or opening a novel. But what is lost is the public space that is required for sociability, the kind that depends on people not being self-enclosed.’ Did we really have our own right to silence that it was possible to ‘sacrifice’? A couple of hundred years ago, strolling in London, you’d have been bombarded with spam of all sorts, with peddlers and beggars and tradespeople flinging demands and offers of all kinds at you. Go back further in history and reflect on any urban context, and you have to wonder how we can have come to assume a right not to be addressed. The class system did that, to an extent, otherwise there was an assumed right to spam others. Personally (ha) I would love to have the right not to be addressed, but I suspect it is a weak twentieth century social construct, and not robust enough to defend societies against the exclusionary momentum symbolised by gated communities, for example. And I wonder if Crawford has been paying attention, if I may put it like that. There is a counter-argument, and I fancy Keith Hampton would be pointing this out gently – people are more likely to spend time together in public spaces than they were 30 years ago. Something is going on here, and it may have to do with the shift from societies with strong normative centres to societies that are almost chaotically diverse. Try not to take it personally. As I noted some time ago, we still haven’t done our thinking about the changing nature of privacy.

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