Climate Change and the Attention Economy

January 7, 2020

The questions posed by the ecological crises – notably the climate emergency – are a series of provocations. These questions drive us back not only to intimate connections between our actions and the fate of the earth and our atmosphere, but to the intimate realm of our attention and capacity to care both individually and collectively.

The climate and ecological emergencies are ‘signs of our times’ that raise political questions far beyond the conventional realm of environmental policy. Our individual and collective responses are heavily mediated by parallel struggles in the new frontier of the ‘attention economy,’ where our freedom to embrace the conviction that another world is possible is deeply compromised by political and corporate-sponsored media complexes with ever more sophisticated capacities to target, monetise and colonize our attention and capacity to care and act wisely.

The climate emergency and wider ecological crises are beginning to touch on the foundations of human meaning and meaning-making, and they are doing so at a time when the global ‘one percent’ is exerting unprecedented levels of influence on our shared imaginaries through their ownership and control of media and information technologies. During the past two decades, concentrations of global wealth have been accompanied by the rising concentration of ownership of, and control over, multinational media corporations.

As a result, and as the Perspectiva network has noted, the battle for our attention is nothing less than the defining problem of our time. It has come to determine election results. It underpins the digital economy. And perhaps most controversial of all, the attention economy can erode what Perspectiva describes as our ‘social competencies’ while shaping who we become as human beings:

Due to the sheer volume of information we have available, we’ve witnessed our attention becoming increasingly scarce. Our various news feeds, messages and social media notifications are in a constant battle for our attention – they are the competing forces in the so-called ‘attention economy.

Attention’ is ‘that to which we attend.’ As William James once observed in his book The Principles of Psychology, what we attend to is reality, and our perception of reality is closely tied to where we focus our attention. Only what we pay attention to seems real to us, while what we ignore seems to fade into insignificance until we are blindsided and events such as climate change suddenly call out for attention. As James adds:

Each of us chooses, by our ways of attending to things, the universe we inhabit and the people we encounter. But for most of us, this ‘choice is unconscious, so it’s not really a choice at all.

This raises important questions about freedom. The cultivation of our capacity for attention and care is not only an individual concern but increasingly a public one that will eventually demand a series of public policy responses in areas that span wellbeing, media literacy and commercial interference in the public square.

In her review of Michael Lewis’s book, The Undoing Project, Tamsin Shaw describes how the findings of social psychology and behavioural economics are being employed to determine the news we read, the products we buy, the cultural and intellectual spheres (or virtual bubbles) we inhabit, and the human networks, online and in real life, of which we are part. Political parties have begun to harness this power, as witnessed in the Brexit referendum and in the most recent UK General Election.

Underpinning this process is a ‘dark triad’ of psychological traits and their correlates with states of wellbeing, which was used by Cambridge University’s Aleksandr Kogan in a personality test designed to draw information from Facebook users in 2014. The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr published this triad in a tweet sent as background for her coverage of the Cambridge Analytica story:

  • Psychopathy (referring to a communication model characterised by bold, aggressive behaviour, a tendency to violate norms, and impulsiveness);
  • Narcissism (referring to a model of communication characterised by self-confidence and great pretentiousness); and
  • Machiavellianism (referring to a tendency to flatter others or distort facts for their own benefit; calculating and cynical, and given to far-reaching plans).

As Shaw noted in her review, the behavioural techniques that are being employed by governments, political parties and private corporations do not appeal to our reason – they do not seek to persuade us consciously with information and argument. “Rather, these techniques change behaviour by appealing to our non-rational motivations, our emotional triggers and unconscious biases.”

Yes, another world is possible, but how shall we begin to imagine – let alone create – it when the global media complex has convinced us that it is easier and more entertaining to imagine the end of the world than the end of our dominant economic system, and when sophisticated social and other media targeting has become so refined as to trigger emotions designed to override reason and collective self-interest?

As background for answering this question, the philosopher Timothy Morton notes that the ‘Anthropocene’ is not only a period of man-made disruption; it is also a moment of blinking self-awareness in which the human species is becoming conscious of itself as a planetary force. We’re not only driving global warming and ecological destruction. Tragically we know all too well that we are doing so.

For the most part, this knowledge takes the form of a kind of dissonance or disavowal, largely because of the gap that exists between our knowing and our capacity to act. Our capacity to act is constantly compromised by the absence of choices in capitalist and consumerist systems, and by the media systems that feed our imaginaries and dull our collective capacity to imagine alternatives to the status-quo.

One of the great challenges of responding to the ‘Anthropocene’ is the crucial shift in the relationship between human agency and time. In the realm of the ‘attention economy’ our deep immersion in technological platforms and mediated realities offers a sense of time accelerating. The gap between action and reaction seems to be closing, and news cycles defy historical horizons as we become enclosed in captivating circuits of spectacles that undo and destabilize narrative and our capacity for narrative itself.

At the other extreme, the geological rhythms of the earth and atmospheric systems are under attack, together with their regenerative and life-sustaining patterns. Climate change has been described as a form of ‘slow violence’ that escapes our increasingly tenuous grasp of the rhythms, complexities and interdependencies that define us, our bodies, and the ecological systems that form the web of our own existence.

In an age of degraded attention spans it has become doubly difficult – and yet increasingly urgent – to focus on the toll we have exacted over time by the slow violence of ecological degradation. Rob Nixon, in his original thesis on ‘slow violence’ and the environmentalism of the poor, poses the question of how we can bring home – and bring emotionally to life – threats that take time to wreak havoc; threats that never materialise in one spectacular, explosive cinematic scene. So part of our response to the climate emergency is the imperative to slow down in our own lives and responses.

Leisure and downtime are a condition in which there is no compulsion, and where there is a relaxation of the all-pervasive modern human impulse to exert control. Part of our frustration with the commercialization of the holiday season comes from a deep sense of contradiction that crystallizes our wider intuition about the hyper-mediated world we now inhabit 365 days a year.

Consumerism and our forced immersion in the commercial imperative to acquire things with haste and undue care (especially at this time) poses a particular contradiction in the midst of what is supposedly a contemplative pause in our lives to bring care to our loved ones and rest to ourselves, and approach our intentions for the upcoming new year with a renewed quality of mindfulness.

The franticness and restlessness of modern life has a lot to do with the loss of the contemplative faculty. The totalization of the world of work, including the active life, contributes to this loss of a vital dimension of human experience. Life is impoverished and becomes mere industry if it loses all contemplative moments.

We live in an age of disenchantment and ecological destruction that has followed in the wake of our lonely enclosure in cultures of technology, consumerism and hyper-individualism. Some of the insights and the tools for a counter-movement are emerging, notably in the resurgence of the ‘commons’ as an idea, and in the upsurge of contemplative tools as an embodied form of resistance to our capture by the ‘attention economy.’

The rescue of our atmospheric and ecological commons will turn on our responses to that most intimate of commons – the ‘mindful commons’ – where we liberate that which makes us most human in order to pause, reclaim time, and take care of each other and the earth.

Peter Doran

Dr Peter Doran is a lecturer at the School of Law at Queens University Belfast and a writer for the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s Earth Negotiations Bulletin at UN negotiations. He is the author of A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: Reclaiming the Mindful Commons (Routledge 2018).

Tags: building resilient societies, Consumerism, digital technologies, imagination, the commons