Playing Into the Attention Economy

“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” So wrote the philosopher Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace, a book that compounds her aphorisms and notes, most of which contend with a search for spiritual purity. Gravity and Grace was published posthumously in 1947, well before the advent of the term “attention economy,” which emerged over twenty years ago and refers to the imbalance between the massive amount of information available on the internet and the limited amount of attention (and time) humans have to offer. In 2019, this disparity is more pronounced than ever: practically every online media platform is designed to apply the logic of scarcity to our minds, to treat our attention as a commodity to be harvested and manipulated. One of the cruel paradoxes of modern life is that the companies that abuse our attention treat is as much more precious than we do.

I’ve lately become increasingly aware of the mental imprint left by my addiction to services like Twitter and Instagram that buy and sell my attention. I sometimes feel like my incessant scrolling whittles my very neural pathways, so that I can only sustain thoughts that are as fragmented and jumpy as a newsfeed. After reading Simone Weil’s valorization of attention, I began chasing experiences of total captivation that, like prayer, could serve as a balm, a reset, or a cleanse. I found respite most commonly in nature, concerts, and reading; the content of each of these obviously challenged and stirred me in incredible ways, but in this blog I want to focus on the quality of the attention they commanded.

As someone who (b. 1996) exists at the interface between Millennials and Gen Zers and thus sees the devolution of my attention span agonized over constantly (see: the proliferation of condescending headlines like “The Average Millenial’s Attention Span- Shorter than Your Goldfish’s” which place the onus on the generation rather than the companies that are financially incentivized to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety), the idea of liberation via focus is particularly compelling. As a violinist, the idea is even more appealing: the question of what could make so-called classical concerts, length and all, valuable or relevant to young people is a central concern of most presenters and organizations. Weil’s precept offers a vision in which duration is an attraction, an antidote to media-induced whiplash.

Weil proposes that attention “taken to its highest degree” has value in and of itself, no matter where it is aimed. She writes that even if a problem at which we direct our attention remains immovable, by focusing on it we “advance… in a more mysterious dimension… this effort [deposits] more light in the soul.” Weil’s writings are distinctly religious, however I find in her work an aesthetic sensibility that, as with a Bruckner motet or a Bach mass, transcends its scriptural origins to act as a template for numinous experiences in secular contexts. She iterates a perspective that clarifies why it’s so common for artists talk about ideal performances in quasi-religious terms, whether it be about ego-death within the communal experience of live performance, or spontaneous inspiration that feels externally granted. Each of these sensations hinges on the quality of our attention, and I’ve come to believe that sacred experiences are beckoned by heightened awareness. I have never prayed in the sense dictated by institutional theology, but I have been lucky enough to experience the deliverance that total absorption can offer, most times through creating or observing art.

I recently picked up Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy in an attempt to further explore these ideas. I loved this book and immediately started recommending it to everyone I could (…utilizing the very platforms it taught me to critique) because it so artfully illustrates how attention undergirds most meaningful actions and encounters. Odell notes “the parallels between what the economy does to an ecological system and what the attention economy does to our attention” in that both proceed from “a false understanding of life as atomized and optimizable.” The tyranny of utility is cultural as well: if everything deemed “not useful” insofar as it cannot be appropriated and monetized is discarded, the result is an “aggressive monoculture.”

To Odell, the solution is to realign ourselves with nature and with art, places that resist being “paved over by the ruthless logic of use.” Ever since reading Simone Weil’s work, the way I experience concerts has changed to the extent that I now view engagement at length in a crowd as a conduit for purification. The concert provides what Odell aptly calls “attention-holding architecture” in that it sculpts a space where concentration can occur. In this sense, it offers a contemporary form of salvation from the twitterverse.

Odell posits that “if we think about what it means to ‘concentrate’ or ‘pay attention’ at an individual level, it implies alignment, different parts of the mind and even the body acting in concert and oriented toward the same thing.” I underlined and starred this passage because that’s something I’ve felt so viscerally and that I’m constantly seeking: art’s ability to align seemingly disparate parts of oneself is an ecstatic possibility. I remembered how at the height of my teenage angst, I used to cherish performing because it was the only time I felt like my disjointed parts made sense as a coherent whole. I recall visualizing myself as a confused multicolor paint smudge whose shades could only successfully blend onstage. I now think perhaps my maudlin teenthink was actually rather perceptive: what I felt in terms of blending I now see in terms of an alignment wrought by the extent of my attention. If unmixed attention is prayer, then maybe prayer is essentially a quest for alignment.

Prayer, of course, is also communal and connective: it seeks to align us with something beyond ourselves. Odell is interested in attention insofar as it can be harnessed collectively: "Just as it takes alignment for someone to concentrate and act with intention, it requires alignment for a ‘movement’ to move.” Odell references an idea from the Italian Marxist theorist Franco Berardi that characterizes the type of attention any collective action requires, whether it plays out on a stage or as political activism. Berardi’s notion distinguishes between connectivity and sensitivity in human relations. Connectivity is “the rapid circulation of information among compatible units,” in which compatibility is a Y/N binary and the transmission does not effectuate any change on the unit or the information, whereas sensitivity is a “nuanced encounter between ambiguous beings.” It requires plurality and time, scant resources in the attention economy. If “connectivity is a share” and sensitivity is “an in-person conversation, whether pleasant or difficult, or both,” the differentiating factor is the degree of our attention. This is a great description of good ensemble skills- I think the best collaborations are also the most spontaneously elastic, allowing for multiple forms of alignment. Herein lies the true potential of attention, its capacity to generate inner sympathy with those around us.

The idea that what occurs in a concert hall should be archetypal is always one I’ve been suspicious of, even though I instinctually subscribe to and espouse it. Evangelizing about the “power of music” without specifics ignores the ways it’s been employed violently, and erases the very real problems about access and equality that permeate our structures. However, I think the conceptual link between attention and sensitivity presents a useful optic. Musical encounters that operate on the basis of sustained attention can combat the corrosive effects of our online connections: sensitive attention, the openness and multiplicity it requires and generates, is the antithesis of the isolation and solipsism bred when we interact with algorithmic versions of one another. Pliability and humility are requisites for a good collaborative performance; the best occur when attention is distributed laterally.

Weil’s most famous quote is “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” It’s an extraordinarily prescient observation, more applicable than ever today, when attention is monetized and so vulturously coveted. I recognize more and more that to bestow attention is to demonstrate genuine care- it’s the best indication of what I value and what I want to nurture. At the same time, to devote attention to an object, a practice, or a person is also to be generous to our own artistic capacities. The word attention is derived from the Latin ad + tendere, which means “to stretch toward.” I adore this origin story because it captures that to pay attention is to kindle both creative expansion and empathetic connection. That the symbiotic relationship between these forces can be activated by the simple act of noticing seems like such a gift. By paying attention, we exercise the extension of our sympathies. So I’ll keep listening.

This blog originally appeared on The Upnote