Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Fear and Loathing in the Attention Economy

"Many are saying that it is disrespectful to do what we are planning to do. I can see the point, but while I do not wish to dishonour Thatcher as a person, I can see no other way to protest at the kind of send-off she is getting. I wish she were getting a quiet family funeral, then I would have stayed away." - Message posted on Facebook about turning away from the Thatcher Funeral cortege

The bombing of the Boston Marathon Finish Line is delivered as spectacle violence

Over the past few days two events have been represented globally that are themselves symptomatic of the attention economy developing around us. The Attention Economy is ably defined by Wikipedia:
Attention economics is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity, and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems. In this perspective Thomas H. Davenport and J. C. Beck define the concept of attention as:
Attention is focused mental engagement on a particular item of information. Items come into our awareness, we attend to a particular item, and then we decide whether to act.(Davenport & Beck 2001, p. 20)
As content has grown increasingly abundant and immediately available, attention becomes the limiting factor in the consumption of information. Attention economics applies insights from other areas of economic theory to enable content consumers, producers, and intermediaries to better mediate and manage the flow of information in light of the scarcity of consumer attention.
The two events I refer to are

1. The Bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon.

2. The Funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Both of these events, while very different in terms of effects, are examples of what I see as a virulent attention economy which all of us are forced to participate in. The above two links are evidence of this, both leading to live news blogs updated by the minute from major media conglomerates.

What has disturbed me the most about the Boston Bombing, apart from more senseless bloodshed and suffering, is the total spectacle nature of this act of violence. Bombing the finish line of a mass sporting event (a considerable time after the 'main event' - i.e. the winner and so on - has actually finished) does little other than appropriates mediated spectatorship, turning it into a visualization of carnage, fear, panic and death. With no demands issued or responsibility taken thus far, this looks like a heinous attempt to spread fear and nothing else. Whoever is behind this violent act is using the spectacle offered by the marathon to spread fear and anguish.

Within the context of the attention economy we can see the Boston Bombing as an example of attention without a message. Central to this attention without a message is the flow-on effect of the mediated compulsory witness perspective. By 'witness perspective' I mean that the addressee is positioned by the media in a temporal and spatial perspective that is immediate and present in relation to the events depicted.

Even a cursory search online for accounts and explanation of the Boston bombing returns reconstructions, looped videos of the blasts, eye-level street views of the explosions and the scenes immediately afterwards and piece to camera from on-site witnesses. These images combined with live updates (often containing inaccurate information) and resulting in an uncritical sense of distance from the events. There is little commentary or reflection in live updates and streamed images.

Compared to the horrible events in Boston, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher is a more contentious spectacle. Here the mediation of history is being constructed through digital rhetoric and authority. An example of this contention is Prime Minister David Cameron urging the populace to participate in the perspective he supports by claiming "We are all Thatcherites now".

Many lining the streets for the Thatcher funeral cortege are expected to turn their backs on the hearse. This is an act of embodied resistance to the witness perspective as it is arranged according to authority. The above opening quote from Facebook, spoken by a woman intending to turn her back on the cortege is interesting in how the spectacle of the funeral is contrasted with Thatcher "getting a quiet family funeral". In the 'quiet family funeral' there are no witnesses outside the 'family'. The spectacle and subsequent demands made on attention are severely limited by this structure.

The implications of large scale events mediated in the ways described here for a global attention economy are dramatic and important. In the case of the Boston Bombing I feel ill at the thought of random acts of violence conducted in order to catch the attention of as many people as possible. In a grim prophetic comedy, this scenario reminds me of the bombings conducted in the Terry Gilliam film Brazil;

                         Deputy minister, what do you believe 
                         is behind this recent increase in 
                         terrorist bombings?

                         Bad sportsmanship. A ruthless 
                         minority of people seems to have 
                         forgotten certain good old fashioned 
                         virtues. They just can't stand 
                         seeing the other fellow win. If 
                         these people would just play the 
                         game, instead of standing on the 
                         touch line heckling

                         In fact, killing people

                         In fact, killing people  they'd 
                         get a lot more out of life.

               We PULL AWAY from the shop to concentrate on the shoppers. 
               Helpmann's voice carries over the rest of the scene.
                         Mr. Helpmann, what would you say 
                         to those critics who maintain that 
                         the Ministry Of Information has 
                         become too large and unwieldy... ?

                         David... in a free society 
                         information is the name of the 
                         game. You can't win the game if 
                         you're a man short.

The funeral of Margaret Thatcher stands as an attempt to establish a place in history for a political figure. As witnesses to the spectacle of her funeral people must adopt the position offered by an invisible 'Ministry of Information'.

"The Conservatives' attempt to enforce a national day of mourning for their former leader was announced so far in advance of the key event as to be macabre but at least half of the public aren't buying it" Laurie Penny, The New Statesman
By turning away from the funeral cortege the 'turners' (not a pun perhaps on the famous 'The lady's is not for turning' quote from Thatcher) bypass that perspective but they do not alter it. If we consider the insidious mis/use of the eye witness perspective which has already resulted from the Boston Bombing, perhaps it is all the more vital that alternatives are developed to the enforced temporal and spatial code of the mediated witness today. Whoever bombed Boston wants the kind of attention to the event that a funeral of an ex-Prime Minister is getting across the Atlantic today.

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