Conference PaperPDF Available

The pharmakon of paying attention



This talk examined the disciplined definitions of attention in relation to economic value and problematised the oft-used critique of an attention economy in relation to a labour theory of value. Rather, it is is suggested that a theory of monopoly rent may be of more use. The corollary to this is the argument that the technologies do not determine the state of affairs, but rather that, as the latest stage of 'grammatisation' following Bernard Stiegler, we should understand attentive media as a pharmakon.
The pharmakon of paying attention
Sam Kinsley
The Politics and Economics of Attention
Bristol, 14th Dec. 2015
this talk
1.Reflect on ideas of an ‘attention economy’
a.the basis of value this undergirds interaction on the internet
3.Problematise how the value of attention is
4.Offer a theoretical intervention to think
Economising attention
[T]he wealth of information means a dearth of something
else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information
consumes. What information consumes is rather
obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.
Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of
(Simon, 1971: 40)
We are drowning in information, yet constantly increasing
our generation of it. [...] There is something else that
moves through the Net, flowing in the opposite
direction from information, namely attention.
(Goldhaber, 1997)
disciplined definitions
Measures of interaction
Attention is focused mental engagement on a particular
item of information. Items come into our awareness, we
attend to a particular item, and then we decide whether to
act” (Davenport & Beck, 2001: 20)
The unconscious ‘automatic’ nature of procedural responses
(which can be influenced)
disciplined definitions
Political economy:
Equating attention with labour
‘labour itself becomes “a subset of attention, one of the
many kinds of possible attention potentially productive of
value”’ (Clough, 2003: 361 citing Beller, 1998: 91).
attentive media
What we understand as capacities to ‘pay attention
are largely mediated
Interactions are data, thus recorded
Some of the information presented is organised
according to programmes using that data
Data are aggregated and used for ‘editorial’ decisions
about how information is served
‘attention capture’
“TF1’s job is helping Coca-Cola, for example, to sell its product.
What we sell to Coca-Cola is available human brain time.”
Patrick LeLey (TF1 CEO)
Measurement of proxies for interaction:
a media ecosystem delivers ‘attention’ to
advertisers / consumption through advertising
metrics, e.g. cost- per-click-through, cost-per-
context or nature of attention rendered is ignored:
as long as a quantifiable metric is achieved the cost
remains the same
‘attention capture’
Clip from the BBC ‘Click’ programme about the
Amscreen OptimEyes platform:
serving internet adverts
Much of the economic rationale of the internet is
based on acting upon those measures to serve
Performed through ‘real-
time’ bidding for adverts
as a page loads
(milliseconds) based on
data about the user
In order to model attention over time, we need to
be traceable:
Data is stored on devices as ‘cookies’ that act as a
unique ID for you in databases ~ makes you
The cookie is the enduring
token, the ‘impression’ is the
leur œil se fera —Edouard Manet
Attention capture’ systems constitute their own
world, rather than measuring our world-ing.
They assume a form of ‘world’ disclosure based
What can be captured/measured by the system
The ontology/epistemology of HCI
individual / collective
“I'll consume my consumers, with no sense of humour”
Grace Jones, Corporate Canibal
Tendency to see attention in terms of the
Rhetoric of data– ‘double’, ‘exhaust’, ‘shadow from
which value is extracted
Rhetoric of personalisation
individual / collective
All of the data captured are also aggregated. We
are modelled both as individuals and as aggregates.
All personalisation requires modelling us as a class,
category or ‘type’ – e.g. segmentation.
LTV & attention
Understanding the individual labourer as the
source of economic value
Immaterial labour: digital technologies ‘change the
relationship between the intellectual content of work
and its material execution’ (Berardi, 2001: 51)
An “attention economy” ‘consumes not only work
time but also nonwork time or living time… [T]he
crisis of the [attention economy] is determined by the
contradiction between economic time and living
time’ (Marazzi, 2008: 146)
attention & rent
Thinking about collectives:
Aggregate data, and access to the markets it defines, is
the resource over which monopoly rent can be
Ad-serving exchanges/systems extract rent from [a
model of] attention.
Contradiction in the ‘uniqueness’ of the attention
commodity and its replicability as a ‘type’.
These calculative understandings of attention are all about
Their measurement is a rendering discrete of our actions:
‘all technical processes that enable behavioural fluxes or flows
to be made discrete . . . and to be reproduced, those behavioural
flows through which are expressed or imprinted the experiences
of human. … [T]he digital is the most recent stage of
grammatisation, a stage in which all behavioural models can
now be grammatised and integrated through a planetary-wide
industry of the production, collection, exploitation and
distribution of digital traces’ (Stiegler, 2012)
Affective and visceral flows
Comingling of desires & other energies
Almost impossible to measure!
Flows of signification ~ attention
Expression of actualised desires in a particular milieu
Difficult to measure
Proxy for attention: measurable & reductive
(manufactured) phenomena in a controlled system
Canonical e.g. = Facebook
Phaedrus: writing as artificial memory (hypomnesis)
opposed to the autonomy of thought (anamnesis) – it
is ‘both a poison and a cure’
Stiegler: this autonomy always has something to do
with heteronomy (exteriorisation) - while Plato
opposes them, Stiegler argues they constantly
compose: opening up transitional spaces of
The pharmakon is at once what enables care to be taken and
that of which care must be taken – in the sense that it is
necessary to pay attention: its power is curative to the
immesurable extent to which it is also destructive (Stiegler,
2013: 4)
Not graspable as normatively good or foundational, but
represents so many composed forces always tending
towards their own decomposition (entropy)
Studying transductive relations, the terms of which are
constituted by the relations themselves
Understanding the values of a system as negotiated and
There’s a danger of technological determinism in
assuming ‘path dependencies’ of an ad-based
“The Alternet” – Sarah T Gold
Plays into an ‘algorithmic
It can be otherwise, e.g.:
foiling measurement: ‘dark nets’,
becoming a trader ~ blockchains
thank you for paying attention
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.