Achtung! (Eyes here please.)

There was a short “film” (or ‘single channel video art piece’, as defined by Wikipedia) produced in 1973 by Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman called Television Delivers People which made the then-provocative argument that commercial television essentially functioned to deliver people to advertisers, meaning the product of TV is you, rather than whatever slapstick show you happened to be watching:

Stills from “Television Delivers People” (a “film” of rolling text with no images)

The narrative sat comfortably with the origin story of evil “mass media”, in which consumers were basically brainwashed into buying the status quo – both figuratively, as in subscribing to some fairytale of heteronormative (white) nuclear families; and literally, as in being persuaded to buy whatever brand of washing powder the proverbial Brady Bunch family preferred, either by seeing it on the show or being unable to look away during the ad breaks, and then robotically reaching for the “correct” brand on their next shopping excursion.

Of course, these days it’s much easier to fall prey to that sinister “propaganda for profit” (aka money-generating business), because you don’t have to wait for your next trip to the supermarket to be triggered by the washing powder that you saw on TV last night. Got a smart phone? Beware of that “un-thing”:

A sleeping iPhone X is the un-object against which all others must be currently judged. It can do almost anything you can imagine. It can book a flight, pay for your train ticket, show yesterday’s Colbert, shoot and edit 4K video of your child’s first steps, and record your debut hit record.

But you wouldn’t know it just by looking at it. An iPhone X that isn’t physically in someone’s hand is just a weirdly-shaped drink coaster (yeah, it’s waterproof) and this means that, by design it wants to be in your hand. In order to be of use, and for you as a human to attach any value, emotional or otherwise, to this hunk of glass, well, you’re going to need to be distracted by it as often as possible. It will flash, it will throb, it will coax you with its siren song. If you so much as tilt it, it will burst into life when it sees your face.

Yet while the insidiousness of the almost cutely simplistic message of Television Delivers People has become so much thicker (Alexa Delivers Pizza?), there’s a curious new(ish) focus on the value of attention, and the injustice of being robbed of this precious commodity, rather than the hard-earned money we hand over for shit we don’t need. To wit, a recent “Sunday essay” in The Guardian, called “Technology is Driving Us to Distraction”, posits:

What do you pay when you pay attention? You pay with all the things you could have attended to, but didn’t: all the goals you didn’t pursue, all the actions you didn’t take and all the possible yous you could have been, had you attended to those other things. Attention is paid in possible futures foregone. You pay for that extra Game of Thrones episode with the heart-to-heart talk you could have had with your anxious child. You pay for that extra hour on social media with the sleep you didn’t get and the fresh feeling you didn’t have the next morning. You pay for giving in to that outrage-inducing piece of clickbait about that politician you hate with the patience and empathy it took from you and your anger at yourself for allowing yourself to take the bait in the first place.

I said new(ish) focus on attention above because the idea of an “Attention Economy” is not new: economist and 1978 Nobel laureate Herbert Simon coined the term to describe the fact that thanks to the massive discrepancy between the amount of information available to us and the limited amount of attention each of us have, (most) human beings are incapable of being 100% rational when making decisions because we simply don’t have the computational capacity to process all information to do so. In short, we are not robots.

Simon’s ideas continue to be relevant and challenging in terms of how we choose to manage our resources. But this new fetishisation of attention as the disappearing treasure which could have led us to all sorts of unfalsifiable situations (“oh, if I hadn’t been obsessed with Khaleesi and her dragon children, I could have spared my child the trauma of growing up knowing that her parents enjoyed watching dragons on the telly!”) is also frankly rubbish. As if that weren’t enough, “science” brings in the goldfish:

That said, at least goldfish don’t have to deal with the embarrassment of poor grammar. Pay attention, human meme-makers!