The New Attention Economy And The Rise Of Authoritarianism

Sometime between the Presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2016 a paradigmatic shift in communications technologies took place that altered the balance of power for all humanity. We can understand this as a kind of crystallization from one state to another, in which the world appears the same before as after; but everything operates according to new principles.

In the early years of the twenty-first century it was already possible to inform millions of people of a natural disaster, the rise or fall of the stock market, or the progress of an election, in real time. But this was only an improvement in speed and efficiency to well-established broadcast and print media. Possibly its early development was a blessing during the height of the AIDS epidemic and the Katrina disaster. But it had barely achieved escape velocity as yet.

What really changed the game was the development of interactive connections, public websites that could demand information as well as supply it. Among other new possibilities, this soon allowed unprecedented precision in organizing and mobilizing voters. Obama pioneered hyper-responsive campaign strategies in which millions of volunteers were deployed with precision to knock on only the most likely doors, using up-to-the-minute talking-points, as the tides of public opinion churned. This, besides winning the White House, got an award from the advertising trade (as Noam Chomsky pointed out.) Over the course of the Obama years, interactive personal internet-aware devices developed much further, and were adopted almost universally. Advertisers learned the intimate hopes and fears of “consumers” with microscopic accuracy, and could take their money and deliver the goods in hours rather than weeks. Thanks to built-in GPS systems, people who visited a medical specialist suddenly got ads for remedies purporting to address their very own complaints. The internet became a highly sensitive tap on the national pulse.

Suddenly it became possible, not only to reach millions of people with messages relevant to their personal habits, but to target particular segments of society according to their individual prejudices and complaints (Eddie Bernays, widely considered the father of Public Relations, would be restless in his tomb: he had professed belief that his new field offered world peace.) The “going viral” phenomenon showed that if something really took off, it didn’t matter much what it was, as long as human beings could not resist clicking on it.

Nobody was prepared for the power this new ability would give to a determined autocrat with a team of media specialists and a few Russian oligarchs behind him. A candidate could arouse anger or terror in an instant, and provide convenient scapegoats, and have millions of people all sharing one identical moment of xenophobia at the same instant. It was only a matter of time before some sociopath would put this new power into practice.

This is not simple, but if we understand how it functions, we understand the speed and penetration with which an expert can manipulate public opinion, and what is more dangerous, the range of public emotion. The simultaneous, aggregated attention of millions of of human beings is the most potent economic force in the world. It has the two components of raw, momentary attention, and the sort of content which arouses the primitive region of the brain concerned with fear and rage, and not much else.

Welcome to the Attention Age.


©Copyright 2017 Peter Barus