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The Attention Seeking Economy, Information and the Manufacture of Ignorance

Ed. note: This is Chapter 12 of Brian Davey's new book Credo: Economic Belief in a World in Crisis.

Information is lost as well as gained during the processes of economic development and change. There is a great deal of difference between direct knowledge and knowledge that is taken in through a variety of media. Much of what we take for granted is actually better understood as “consensus trance”. To orientate to the world properly we need to have a proper feel for the huge amount of what we don’t know – and there are multiple categories of unknowing.

Information is lost as well as gained

Given the cultural and psychological degradations to which our society has been subject, it is not surprising that we are in danger of passing on a barbaric worldview to the next generations. In their book Ecological Economics Joshua Farley and Herman Daly point out that we are all born ignorant and that knowledge can be lost as one generation succeeds the next. It is an illusion to believe that information, ideas and knowledge are expanding all the time.

“It is a gross prejudice to think that the future will always know more than the past. Every generation is born totally ignorant, and just as we are only one failed harvest away from starvation, we are also only one failed generational transfer of knowledge away from darkest ignorance. Although it is true that today many people know many things that no one knew in the past, it is also true that large segments of the present generation are more ignorant than were large segments of past generations. The level of policy in a democracy cannot rise above the average level of understanding of the population. In a democracy the distribution of knowledge is as important as the distribution of wealth.” (Daly & Farley, 2004, p. 41)

What I have sought to show in the preceding discussion is where there has been such a huge loss, and indeed, a degeneration of the possibility of knowing, because of the rise of non-indigenous societies that have displaced and are now dominating indigenous societies. The non-indigenous societies have evolved market forms unconstrained by any kind of ethics and infested with sophisticated psychologically informed manipulation. This has been brought about by people who have a mind-set that focuses on the measurable above all else, a mind-set that makes count what can be counted only and above all counted by money. The guiding ideology, we might almost call it the religion of this world view, is neoclassical economics.

Although there are hopeful signs in the biological sciences that some of the possibility of knowing can be recovered, it is useful to explore why it will be such an uphill struggle. How and why has it come about that non-indigenous knowing in market societies is now so detached from incredibly threatening ecological realities. How is it that a lot of people are most ignorant in the very fields of knowledge where they most of all need to be informed if humanity is to have a future.

Elsewhere in this book I draw attention to the way in which competent scientists are publishing peer reviewed studies saying that the environmental crisis e.g. in the form of the climate crisis, representsa life-threatening global emergency for humanity.

Yet most people do not accept or are even unaware of the magnitude of the threat. Billions of people are reluctant to look at the “inconvenient truths” thrown up by environmentalists. Instead of integrating these truths into their “rational expectations” for themselves and their children, they are turning instead to “reassuring lies” created for them by the public relations industry. It is also necessary to look to how it is possible for a number of ultimately futile corporate agendas to capture the mass discourse about sustainability and turn them to their short run financial advantage. For example, by forming coalitions around fruitless approaches that waste time and valuable resources.

Direct knowledge and media-ted knowledge

Economists are fond of telling us that they describe the world as it is, and not as one might want it to be. So let’s describe the world as it is in regard to how public attitudes are shaped.

When people had, or still have, a life gathering, hunting, cultivating and harvesting from the landscapes and waterscapes around them from places that they were, or are, managing as natural commons, they had and have an intimate daily knowledge of their natural environment. They feel responsible for that landscape – indeed they may feel a kind of love and care for it. Nature is regarded as kin. In these circumstances people feel and experience themselves as part of nature. They belong to the land and to a place more than the place and the land belongs to them.

This direct experience and knowledge can be contrasted to the kind of “media-ted knowledge” of the urban market society in which non-indigenous peoples live. This is a society in which knowledge is taken in from written texts, from televisions and from computer screens.

In the new complex urban societies where land is private property and people have no intimate relationship with it, the connection that generates vernacular knowledge of the land has been largely broken. Daly and Farley’s idea of lost knowledge applies here. But knowledge takes a different form too. Knowledge is now media-ted knowledge. There are knowledge and information providers who are often different from knowledge users or consumers.

Most of the things that we think we know we have got from others via a medium of communication, not from direct experience. There has been a choice of someone to write and publish information about something in the hope, the belief, or the expectation that it will capture the attention of an audience, a readership or viewers. Secondly, there are the choices of readers, viewers, or listeners to decide to devote attention to the information that has been provided.

To be sure, there are still stories, rituals, ceremonies and people who wear badges and uniforms to signal their allegiances. However, these dimensions of knowledge are mostly detached from land-based natural processes and increasingly colonised by the mass media and other forms of knowledge management. For example, information about a variety of processes is generated by experts in a technical language that is difficult to fathom unless one has the relevant expertise. This will often lead to another link in the chain between information provider and general public – a journalist who acts as a simplifier, a populariser or the pop science publications of academics.

In the previous chapter I introduced a concept called “the economy of attention” and related it to the onslaught of the marketing industry as it battles to steal our attention at every opportunity. At this point, it is necessary to add that it is not just brand marketers that attempt to grab and manage our attention. There are a quite a range of other processes that try, and succeed, in managing what we devote our attention to.

When we are involved in paid work our employer can oblige us to focus our attention on the work tasks in our job description. On many other occasions we must devote our attention in a variety of public institutions and public duties. For example, children must give their attention to their teacher, now and then I must give my attention to the tax office by filling in their forms.

In other circumstances we have a degree of discretion and choice what we devote attention to. We can, if we are so minded, decide to devote some of our attention to political tasks, like the green movement, out of a sense of community and collective responsibility, if you like, out of a sense of citizenship.

For most people, everyday life means that they must routinely devote most of their attention to their domestic tasks, maintaining the house, looking after the children and other dependents, getting the shopping in, and to their work. What they allocate their attention to is therefore partly “drilled”. Much of the corresponding personal relationships therefore have a rather automatic, routine, character. At the end of the working day most people are often tired. They are not really able to devote their attention to highly complicated issues. Because so much is asked from them in their work, in their consumption and domestic activities and in the raising of children, they are continually under time pressure. That has the consequence that they have often no more mental energy to do other than sit in front of the TV and give themselves over to the simplifications that the mass media “gives” them.

This business of “allocating attention” therefore happens everywhere in society. Naturally the print, and even more the electronic mass media function as attention capturing, directing and channelling agencies. The radio and TV media are the attention capturers and channels of our society par excellence. There is a huge interplay between them and politics and economics. One might even say that political power is the power to have priority access to the mass media to set the agenda for policy and to frame political debates. Political and economic activity are sub sets of a bigger process of allocating focused attention alongside attention given to various diversions, sports, game shows, celebrity gossip, dramatic entertainment and so on.

The politics of attention in our society has therefore become rather like a one way street – or at least it was until the internet gave people a limited power to speak back. The power structures want people to devote this “scarce good” that measures up the units in which our lives are measured, exclusively to their agendas. They oblige people in their jobs to devote their attention in a particular direction, and in their free time too they make what is a theft of their time. This happens through bombardment with advertisements and the domination of the mass media discourse. They spread sweet dreams or broadcast programmes which function to tranquilise, to reassure and to escape. Hollywood is a dream factory.

In the circumstances it is not really surprising that people are vulnerable to having their opinions and understandings shaped by campaigns planned in the public relations industry which, together with the advertising agencies, work closely with the media organisations.

By and large, conventional economic theory does not consider where people get their information and ideas. It is just assumed that people have fixed, not malleable, tastes; that they act individualistically and rationally with all the information that they need; that they are not swayed by the influence of others. What is missing is any exploration of the way that opinions, values and tastes are shaped collectively by a mediated and selective presentation of reality and by the framing of issues in the media. What is also absent is the possibility that opinions, values and tastes could be largely moulded in such a way as to match the interests of powerful people in society. This alternative critical viewpoint is not really compatible with economic models or the ruling ideology in which “the voters” and “the consumers” are really taking the ultimate decisions.

To understand the mechanisms by which non-indigenous “homo economicus” are trashing the planet we need to escape from the facile idea that consumers have independently formed innate preferences and that these innate preferences also inform their political thinking. A good start to understanding what happens in the real world is to take a quote from Edward Bernays. He was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and drew on his uncle’s ideas, and those of other psychologists interested in group psycho-dynamics and crowd psychology, to establish the “propaganda industry” in the 1920s. This was later renamed “Public Relations” to disassociate it from the successes that Dr Goebbels had had using the same techniques to enrol mass support for the Nazis in Germany. (Bernays, 1928). As Bernays put it:

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.” (Bernays, 1928)

Crucial to this control of the group mind and the regimentation of the masses is the ability to create and manipulate what has been called “the consensus trance”. According to psychologist Charles Tart, groups agree on which of their perceptions should be admitted to awareness (hence, consensus). Then they train each other to see the world in that way and only in that way (hence trance). The emperor without any clothes is an example of this idea. Another example is explained by Tart himself:

“Suppose we are talking with several co-workers at the office. On the surface level we are friendly but on another level we may be rivals competing for promotion. As a result, our conversations have hidden agendas, such as an implicit contract that we will focus on the surface friendliness and not notice the hidden rivalries in order to smooth our interactions, thus, avoiding the extra stress that would be generated through open rivalry. A second hidden agenda might be to preserve our self-concept about not being aggressive. A third might be to spy out information about our rival’s intended actions that might be useful to us. An atmosphere of friendliness might make it more likely that a rival will be lulled and say more than he or she might say if he or she remembered our rivalry. A fourth hidden agenda might involve demonstrating our own superiority by being relaxed about a rival” (Tart, 1994, p. 202)

As a result there is a surface veneer of friendliness where no one looks too deeply underneath.

What often sustains the group trance is the fear of ostracism. There are taboo things that one cannot say or question – among business, government and most economists the very idea of questioning growth is not allowed, otherwise one is banished to the group of tree huggers and eco-freaks who are not to be taken seriously.

With their approach that simply adds up the actions and ideas of individuals, economists have no way of making sense of “the group mind”. If, as Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society” then the very idea of a “group mind” is absurd. Even while, desperate to be seen as a loyal member of the inner circle of power, the economists, politicians and mandarins develop a keen sense of what they can and cannot say to each other and in public. The desire to belong is a strong one, especially for ambitious people, so even while the official’s theory pictures all of us acting as independent minded individuals, the reality in the centres of power is very often abject conformity and sycophancy to the ideas and opinions of those who are more powerful than oneself.

Meanwhile, in society as a whole a great deal of effort and a lot of money is spent on managing collective perceptions and mass opinion. The operations of the PR industry are crucial to understanding mass ignorance and mass values on the environment. In 2010, science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway published a book called Merchants of Doubt which drew parallels between what has been happening in the discussion of climate change and other public policy debates about smoking, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. A number of contrarian scientists were working with conservative think tanks and private corporations to “keep the controversy alive” on these issues and challenging the scientific consensus. The PR industry was at work. (Oreskes & Conway, 2010)

There is a certain irony in all of this as conservative economists like to claim the superiority of the market because it is supposed to best produce what corresponds to the aggregation of individual preferences. How these preferences are formed is supposed to be of no business of economists. Yet here we have a lucrative market served by companies and foundations that seek to shape the preferences of the public by creating doubt where the scientific consensus is that no such doubt exists. In other words this is a market sector that exists to distort the accurate formation of preferences.

But then to the faithful among the neoclassical, since the market is the optimal way of organising resource allocation, if any problem arises which the market cannot resolve without significant intervention from outside, then it must follow, inevitably, that the problem is not real.

What we might be witnessing here is an ideological consequence of market fundamentalism. In other words there might be a sort of collective denial of aspects of reality by a group of fundamentalists to avoid cognitive dissonance. What suggests this is a study of the past careers of a number of climate contrarian scientists. Earlier in their lives they were fierce anti-communists involved in research on the atomic bomb or on rockets to deliver atomic bombs. If you have a mentality prepared to contemplate fighting a thermonuclear war, climate catastrophe is probably a price worth paying in order to retain a market economy uncomplicated by state enforced mitigation policies.

For many people the best way of coping with cogent critics is to ignore them and there have been lots of cogent critics of market economics over the last two centuries. I don’t expect therefore that many will read this book – though a few might skim it looking for something that they are convinced is wrong which will then allow them to put it back on the book shelf.

Even when prominent neoclassical economists are forced to admit that a key part of their thinking is in error, the textbooks still reproduce the error and not the criticism. However, were a neoclassical economist to be reading this piece then I would imagine that they would say that this is all about politics, social psychology and not economics.

This way of putting reality into boxes that protect something by splitting off the difficulties into another box is familiar to therapists. Bankers do it too – things that might damage a company’s reputation, or are particularly risky, are placed in another company, “a special purpose vehicle”, registered in an offshore tax haven, so they “don’t really count” as a part of the bank that set them up.

Yet the problem of acquiring accurate information cannot be expelled from economics as if the insights of other subject disciplines don’t count. Since information is heavily mediated by agencies that select and shape it for their clients, there is no way around the fact that information, and its half-brother “misinformation”, arises in a field distorted by power structures. An analogy would be the way that the path of light is bent by the gravitation of objects of great mass in physics. Finding the truth to make economic decisions is problematic because interests are at stake.

The fact is that, in order to take decisions as to whether or not to buy a commodity, consumers need to know about that good. If they are environmentally aware, or concerned about social issues, they will, for example, want to know about the so-called “external costs” which, to repeat, are all pervading. That will make it in someone’s interest to try to control that information.

Managers too will want to know about many things and it will often be in someone’s interest to mislead them. For example a business purchasing drilling rights will want to know the likelihood that the well will turn out dry or how quickly it will deplete. This information is likely to be subject to distortion.

A company that knows that a gas field they bought is not as productive as they had originally hoped, and that depletion rates are quick, will probably want to get out if they can. However, to liquidate their investment they will want other suckers to believe that the gas field is productive, and worth paying money for. The same logic applied when Goldman Sachs’ traders offloaded securities that they privately labelled as “toxic waste” while misleading those buying them to believe that they were valuable.

Governments too will want accurate information. It is their job to know when production processes are risky, dirty and costly to keep serviced if they are to take rational decisions about public infrastructure. But it will frequently not be in the interests of companies to be fully upfront about these things. The fact that a quiet small town is going to be subject to an onslaught of heavy trucks passing through it, or the fact that jobs promised by a development will be taken by staff back at their HQ thousands of miles away, or what chemicals are being used in an industrial process, may be things that companies would rather the politicians and the public did not know.

Instead of a fairy story that economic decisions are taken by people appraising all the available information in conditions of “rational expectations”, realism demands that we acknowledge that decisions are likely to be taken in a variety of “states of knowing/unknowing” – developed from: (Witte, Crown, Bernas, & Witte, 2008) :

Known unknowns – things/situations that you know you don’t know about;
Delusions and wishful thinking – errors in which you (and perhaps your group) have an emotional investment which are thus, difficult to shift
Denials – things which are too painful to know so you ignore information that confirms them
Informational asymmetry – unknowns for some people that are known to others (vested interests blocking information flow);
Costly information – situations where getting to know costs so much so that that partial or inaccurate knowing or even ignorance may be chosen instead
Deception and secrecy – hiding knowns from others and/or fostering errors or delusions (by using secrecy jurisdictions and tax havens for example)
Technical information – information that is difficult for lay people without a specific competence to interpret
Taboos – things/situations that a peer group/the law/ company business culture think you should not try to get to know
Paranoias – hypotheses about the nature of unknowns that impute motives by others that are to be feared
Granfalloons– system of group belief to pursue a purpose that is ultimately futile, even destructive, but profitable for members of the coalition pursuing it.
Choosing definitions that hide and distract from problems – e.g. saying that there are no cases of shale fracking causing water contamination – by defining fracking to exclude very common drilling and well integrity failures as well as very common surface accidents and spills.
Attentional manipulation – deliberately directing attention to one process so that victims do not devote attention to some other process which remains unseen (see the cover of the book)

(Some things will be “unknown unknowns” – but by definition we cannot articulate them until “after the event” as this information emerges during the course of activity)

Accurate information is hard to come by, particularly in societies managed by sociopaths. Even when one tries to actively research for the information that one needs it will often be available only from and through media (ted) sources. It will be open to distortions by vested interests. It may turn out to be “misinformation”. “Rational decision making” is a concept, an idea, that deviates a long way from everyday reality.

Getting at the truth is not straightforward – and not only because of crude manipulation by spin doctors. Mass opinion is also formed by the taken for granted way that the media and “experts” present and prevent real deliberation by pre-supposing the conceptual frames in which information about issues are chosen, researched and presented. Academic discourse is a powerful force for affecting the way that issues are framed. In the case of the environment and climate change the issues are typically framed using concepts adapted from mainstream economics.

For example, by framing issues to do with climate change in economics language a powerful taboo is implicitly imported into any discourse, a taboo that does not have to be made explicit, because it is “understood” as self-evident: on no account can any options be considered that do not involve continued economic growth.

Using neoclassical economic theory as the concept system imposes a set of presumptions that limit democratic deliberation of issues. Economists enforce a view in which a mathematical procedure is supposed to give us the answer to what to do about questions like climate change or biodiversity loss, not debate and contestation of different views and value systems. Because supposedly the calculation of what people are prepared to pay is all that counts it automatically follows that the money perspective wins. As Professor of public policy, Clive Hamilton puts it in a criticism of one climate economist, Richard Tol:

“The only preferences that Tol regards as legitimate are those expressed by consumers in the supermarket and never those expressed by citizens at the ballot box. This is perhaps the ultimate conceit of mainstream economics, the equation of market behaviour with democracy itself.” (Hamilton, 2010, pp. 59-60)

What then tends to happen is that an economic mind-set takes control over the decision-making in a way that particularly favours people of wealth. The key information used to assess environmental issues are in the form of measurements that economists make. The relevant variables are the kind that economists will recognise. Financial measuring rods are judged to be the right ones. The research procedures take for granted value systems and processes of judgement that are by preference utilitarian, i.e. they do not necessarily reflect and respect the widely different ethical systems used by the public which are not all utilitarian at all, e.g. rights-based ethics.

Having destroyed democratic debate in the framing of the issues, the economists then frame the allowable solutions. Business and other “economic actors” e.g. consumers must be incentivised to behaviours that protect the environment. This is achieved by “giving nature (or its attributes like “eco- system services”) a price” and “hardwiring it into financial markets” (UNEP).

The critique of this way of doing things is found elsewhere in this book. Suffice it to say here that this situation allows what is called “environmental policy” to be colonised by corporate agendas which have very little to with saving the world from environmental destruction and everything to do with corporations gaining strategic control of value chains – for example in genetic and technical information, in production processes and resources in energy, biomass, water and land. A techno-innovation juggernaut is constructed with the help of the state…the destruction of the environment continues and economists give their blessing.

In conclusion, the emergence of non-indigenous market based societies has powerfully undermined the very possibility of acquiring the kind of adequate knowledge, connected to the necessary purposes and belief systems, that are needed to protect nature and the environment. Indigenous societies are fighting back, desperately. However, the global economic system that is destroying the environment has not just lost access to knowledge known in earlier centuries, it has evolved institutions whose role is to actively block the population from knowing and to lead them away from the knowledge that they need to protect themselves from the perilous state of the ecological system.

Photo credit: "Mall culture jakarta01" by Jonathan McIntosh - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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