Attention Meddling (Part 1)

Magicians and con artists stand head and shoulders above economists in their understanding of the Attention Economy. In this terra incognita, the efforts of human agents to allocate their attention productively – in harmony with their best interests — clash with a kleptocratic influence matrix that misallocates the new scarce resource to self-defeating investments. No wonder that the largest industry of the new economic order functions primarily to produce exploitable ignorance.

This shape-shifting, label-swapping, category-defying demon — recently vilified in its ominous-sounding personification as FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) — has industrialized and increasingly automated the subversion of human attention to aid in the production of ignorance. Still, “attention economy” doesn’t rank high on lists of trending topics. It is hidden in plain sight, and it requires a new sociology/criminology of ignorance to help people and organizations create an upgraded security perimeter around their attention.

Without the added layer of security, attention is routinely hijacked and vampirized. In the attention economy, what appears to happen distracts us from the happenings that matter. What the media reports is a distraction from what it doesn’t report. What we are talking about obscures what we are not talking about. How the magic trick appears to work distracts us from how it actually works. The magician’s job is merely to manipulate our attention so as to compel us to notice the former, not the latter.

The bracketing of time is an essential part of the trick, as explained by Apollo Robbins in this video.

Robbins quote

In every domain of knowledge and inquiry, these sleights of hand serve to engineer and exploit ignorance about the myriad ways, big and small, in which our attention is stolen from us and often pressed into the service unholy causes. After decades of the War on Drugs, we seem oblivious to the unchecked assault on human attention (and agency) by the most toxic drug on the market: the opiate of corrupted information. The assault remains unchecked and unnoticed largely because of hubris and a deep discomfort with examining the limits of human awareness.

So, what happens in societies, organizations or individual lives when infobese human agents can no longer provide informed consent in the allocation of their attention? They surrender their sovereignty and increasingly exemplify the prophetic resonance of the following passage from one of the Founding Fathers of modern propaganda:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
― Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda

Citations and Annotations


Influence Without Integrity – Advertising and marketing services industries are still in denial about their obsolescence, but a handful practitioners do speak out on occasion about the industry’s complicity in creating media platforms that victimize consumers. Here, Hearts & Science CEO Scott Hagedorn lays out what has long been an open secret:

Fraud has moved to the top of the funnel. Identity hijacking has become huge. There are more fake Facebook and Twitter profiles than people in several pretty big countries. The scary thing is: We buy them. Those identities are active. They are sometimes promoting and messaging disinformation and chaos. There is a red thread back to advertising and marketing.

There’s nothing more awkward than Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate [testimony]. If the government tries to regulate it, it will get it wrong. But if we can help advertisers vote with their dollars to influence the product design and experience, that would be helpful.

Attention Management – In To Control Your Life, Control What You Pay Attention To (HBR, March 15, 2018), an attention management guru delivers penetrating glimpses into the obvious:

“Attention management is the practice of controlling distractions, being present in the moment, finding flow, and maximizing focus, so that you can unleash your genius. It’s about being intentional instead of reactive. It is the ability to recognize when your attention is being stolen (or has the potential to be stolen) and to instead keep it focused on the activities you choose. Rather than allowing distractions to derail you, you choose where you direct your attention at any given moment, based on an understanding of your priorities and goals.”

Informational Hygiene – From Thich Nhat Hanh’s the Art of Communicating.

Nothing can survive without food. Everything we consume acts either to heal us or to poison us. We tend to think of nourishment only as what we take in through our mouths, but what we consume with our eyes, our ears, our noses, our tongues, and our bodies is also food. The conversations going on around us, and those we participate in, are also food. Are we consuming and creating the kind of food that is healthy for us and helps us grow? When we say something that nourishes us and uplifts the people around us, we are feeding love and compassion. When we speak and act in a way that causes tension and anger, we are nourishing violence and suffering.

Resistance to Culture — In a kleptocracy, resistance to theft comes with a price. Reclaiming one’s attention often entails adjustments (e.g., leaving Facebook) that we may find it difficult to explain to others. On this point, I find comfort in Erich Fromm’s guidance in the Art of Being:

“If other people do not understand our behavior—so what? Their request that we must only do what they understand is an attempt to dictate to us. If this is being “asocial” or “irrational” in their eyes, so be it. Mostly they resent our freedom and our courage to be ourselves. We owe nobody an explanation or an accounting, as long as our acts do not hurt or infringe on them. How many lives have been ruined by this need to “explain,” which usually implies that the explanation be “understood,” i.e. approved. Let your deeds be judged, and from your deeds, your real intentions, but know that a free person owes an explanation only to himself—to his reason and his conscience—and to the few who may have a justified claim for explanation.”

The Death of Truth – Former book critic Michiko Kakutani attempts to make sense of the present epistemic crisis in “The Death of Truth”, reviewed in The New York Times (July 18, 2018).

“A central challenge for anyone attempting to make sense of our current predicament is figuring out what is distinct about the age of Trump (what is, to use a popular phrase, “not normal”) and what is a continuation of previous trends. What is a difference in kind and what is a difference in degree. The title, “The Death of Truth,” implies truth was alive before, and that this era signals its demise. But anyone who lived through the George W. Bush years and the Iraq war (something Kakutani devotes a few pages to), or has spent any time reading American history, knows that official deception about the most important matters of life and death is by no means a new phenomenon.”

The Subversion End Game — As reported by BigThink, 34 years ago, a KGB defector chillingly predicted modern America.

“What it [subversion] basically means is: to change the perception of reality of every American to such an extent that despite of the abundance of information no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families, their community, and their country.”

“As I mentioned before, exposure to true information does not matter anymore,” said Bezmenov. “A person who was demoralized is unable to assess true information. The facts tell nothing to him. Even if I shower him with information, with authentic proof, with documents, with pictures; even if I take him by force to the Soviet Union and show him [a] concentration camp, he will refuse to believe it, until he [receives] a kick in his fan-bottom. When a military boot crashes his balls then he will understand. But not before that. That’s the [tragedy] of the situation of demoralization.”

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