May I have your attention, please?
No, really. Would you literally “give” me your attention? It would do me a lot of good, as attention is in short supply these days, what with all the apps, and notifications siphoning it away.
Millenial tech-evangelists declare we live in the “attention economy,” though I don’t think this is really as new as they think.
Attention is your only capital. Always has been. And people are trading attention with each other constantly. That is what we are paid for when we work. Someone with money wants your attention.
They either want to deploy your attention, doing things they could do, but which is beneath their attention. Think house cleaning, security guard, child care. People who would hire want your attention to substitute for their own, so they can focus their attention elsewhere.
Or they want your attention because you have attended in detail to something, some craft, that they need and cannot do themselves. They will literally pay you to attend to problems they cannot solve. Like entertaining themselves. Concert goers pay for the privilege of hearing the musicians’ years of attention to detail, and their expression of attention as art. Readers buy books to access authors’ attention paid creating narrative landscapes (and the lessons, enjoyment, and emotion found therein.)
Since we all have only 24 hours in a day, we have a limited stock of attention to dole out to those who want it, it is a zero sum game. Who benefits from the attention you muster? You are either abdicating your attention for use by someone else, or you are focusing your attention to create something that is uniquely your talent. Your attention is worth something, and the more expert, rare and practiced your attention, the more valuable it becomes to others.
Do we give it away for free? Sometimes. In loving exchange. And sometimes we give our attention to others. There are plenty of attention seekers. Why is that? Some are trying to fill up an empty well within themselves, and having the attention of others gives them satisfaction, though the desperation that comes from needing to fill one’s soul with other’s attention is bottomless. It’s one thing to manipulate another’s attention because you intend to use it. But manipulating it because you “need” it personally? Therapy time.
But the more insidious attention seekers want your attention because… whether they tell you this or not… they have found a way to sell your attention to others for significant amounts of money. Eyeballs, and time, and your personal energy are valuable. That is what is being identified by the phrase “attention economy.” However, it is no different today than it was in the day of Nielsen ratings for TV programs. Eyeballs equate to advertising dollars. Attention converts directly to sales. Aggregated snippets of millions of people’s attention can be worth millions of dollars. So there are plenty of people and companies aggressively seeking your attention. It is the only way they can make money.
Some people hone their attentive capacity to identifying the exact moment to sweep in and reap the product of your attention, to turn around and sell it as their attention. These people are either plagiarists or agents. They are likely the people who have outsourced their drudge work for YOUR attention, because they have found out how much more profitable it is to reap the harvest of other people’s attention.
But every ounce of attention you give away is attention you did not spend honing your craft, building the skill or ability that you can turn around and sell. Every second stolen is literally stolen from you. Beware the technologies, increasingly supported by self-teaching algorithms, that are designed explicitly to acquire and hold your attention. We are susceptible to them, and their harvest is literally our loss. Someone once said, “If you aren’t paying for the product, you ARE the product.” Facebook is free for a reason.
We are forever trading on attention, and the decision is, “Do you want to give your attention to the lowest bidder, to become a drudge worker, or do you want to focus your attention so profoundly on developing a skill, or expressing your experience, that others pay exorbitantly to have it or its products?”