The New MacGuffin

A few minutes after starting this site, I looked up “Attention Age” and found that a lot of people have thought of this term lately. However, few seem to have appreciated this as a paradigm-level change. One article discusses Attention as a “scarce commodity” and focuses on the massive efforts to capture individual attention, and thereby induce desired behaviors in a small percentage of respondants. Nobody seems to describe the way this change has altered the meaning and effectiveness of language itself.

In the Attention Age paradigm, there is a new axiological value, a central object of commerce, what the film industry used to call “The MacGuffin”. In “The Maltese Falcon”, that ugly statuette was the MacGuffin.

In the twentieth century the MacGuffin had been Gold for a very long time. This eventually gave way to petroleum, which can be burned, making it immediately useful, a paradigm-shifting difference. After that our most highly valued substances were ever more volatile, some with a “half-life” that made them physically dangerous to handle. This difficulty may be why power eventually found its home in Information, which is even more volatile and dangerous, but also far more portable.

The next logical step in the sequence has no lifespan at all, only lasts a moment, but is infinetely portable and travels at light speed. Now the MacGuffin is Attention, but not simply the momentary focus of a person’s gaze or thinking.

The reason I keep bringing up the term, Paradigm, is that certain conditions fell into place for a crystallizing effect on our politics, our economy, our social mores, our sense of place, even our individuality. Suddenly we found ourselves in a new context, and we still don’t have the vocabulary to comprehend it. Language has a lot to do with how we see and understand the world. By “a lot” I mean, absolutely everything. Without the word, we have no world.

So when I assert that the MacGuffin of our time is now Attention, I mean something very specific. I refer to the aggregated attention of large numbers of people. At least a Superbowlful of pairs of eyes and ears. The voices, so far, amount to grunts of approval or opproprium, and sound travels much too slowly to keep up with the viral image.

The natural assumption, from the previous paradigm, is that the value of so much public attention lies in what all those people might be induced to do, or buy, or hold opinions about. That is a false MacGuffin, not at all important in this new context. The value is in the fact that all those eyeballs are focused on the same object, in the same moment of time. That’s it. That’s all. The more of that you can grab, the richer and more powerful you are.

This has changed the balance of power, so that many of the rich and powerful people of yesterday have just had the rug pulled out from under their feet. Uncertainty, of which we have heard so much complaint in the last few years, used to be the basis for entrepreneurial adventure or a horserace. But today’s uncertainty is of a different kind. If you have money in a bank, there is no longer reason to assume that bank, or that money, or its intrinsic value, or the interest rate, or anything else, will stay the way you left it. A pile of gold would still be a pile of gold, and the problems had to do with finding and keeping it. Nowadays, a pile of anything at all has a kind of half-life, like a “bit-coin”, that can rise or fall in nanoseconds.

Brain science has shown that the neurons that light up when a person becomes aware of something are the exact same neurons that light up when a person acts in response. What this means is that in the same moment that all those thousands or millions of humans percieve some event, they become momentary captives of that perception, whatever it is. The power that aggregated human attention offers is the power of control over vast segments of the population.

This idea is worth a little deep contemplation. While it is sinking in, I will digress a bit. Here I am, writing about a profound change in the human world of experience, a change that has shifted the balance of power. And who is aware of this change? My opinion, which matters about as much as one of the leaves blowing past my window in the autumn breeze, is that the more people become aware of this change, the better off we’ll all be; and conversely, the longer we go on asleep to this amazing change, the greater the cataclysm will be that inevitably follows on such an historical event. And one thing stands out, as a purveyor of such an idea: it now takes aggregated attention for any idea to gain currency and become an effective force for good. And in the new Attention Age, if you want that, you had better line up, because it is now the MacGuffin, and everybody is seeking it like they sought gold in the 1840s.

Ages are not always and everywhere consecutive. It is still early days for Attention. The current President got where he is by making the most noise in a time when our filters for signal have been benumbed by a plethora of sources. This will not last long, and to maintain power he will have to come up with a new approach. I don’t see the man has having any others to choose from. As the Attention Age paradigm solidifies it will cerainly present different parameters. A MacGuffin, in real life, usually undergoes refinement over time. If the present period is not so destructive as to be terminal, that is.

©Copyright 2017 Peter Barus