People in tech circles often talk about the “attention economy” with knowing nonchalance. Instead of things being scarce, they note, the real shortage these days is people’s attention. Hence the ferocious drive to capture people’s attention.
This analysis is true as far as it goes. What it fails to address is that the “attention economy” is not really an “economy.” It is a predatory invasion of our consciousness. Sellers are using every possible technique to colonize our minds and emotions at the most elemental levels in a relentless attempt to prod us to buy, buy, buy.
Author Matthew B. Crawford made an eloquent case for the “attentional commons” in an opinion piece, "The Cost of Paying Attention," in Sunday’s New York Times (March 8). “What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common?" he asks. "Perhaps, if we could envision an ‘attentional commons,’ then we could figure out how to protect it.”
Crawford recounts a series of all-to-familiar intrusions upon our attention: ads on the little screen used to swipe credit cards at the grocery store…. ads for lipstick on the trays at airport security screening lines…. “endlessly recurring message from the Lincoln Financial Group” along the moving handrail on an airport escalator….the ubiquitous chatter of CNN and TV ads in the airport lounge.
“The fields of vision that haven’t been claimed for commerce are getting fewer and narrower,” Crawford writes. He concedes that you can put on headphones or play with your smartphone – but the point is that neither of these strategies prevent a shared social space from being destroyed. Without such spaces, we are deprived of the opportunity to develop certain types of attitudes and relationships. Our inner imagination and ability to reflect atrophy. Such subtle, inner virtues that pale in the face of cold, hard cash!