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Have you realised that every single time you retweet a demagogue, you’re a ca-ching in their attention cash box? They couldn’t care less about what you say but they almost literally jerk off on the fact that you are saying something at all.

Raw human attention. You’re either paying, or you’re not.

Graffiti: hand holding burning stick of dynamite
Graffiti at Berlin Dreilinden

As somebody who speaks English as a second language I often find myself marvelling at the way it works. Case in point: to pay attention. Pay, as in: give something in order to receive something in return; attention as an item in a transaction, a good that can be traded for a profit. Good old, straightforward Adam Smith-ish capitalism.

Obviously, ze Germans disagree. As if to prove a stereotype about us just by how our language works, my own tribe seems to fundamentally reject the idea of making a profit with something one has received without any hard labour of their own.

If you didn’t sweat for it, it’s not yours to sell. The measure of human attention that you individually have to give is a gift of nature, or of God; in either case, you just have it, so the only morally acceptable thing to do with it is to give it away for free: Aufmerksamkeit schenken – to give attention, as in: not paid. When Germans devote their attention to something or somebody, linguistically speaking, they don’t expect any particular delivery in return.

And the Germans are right. (Oh, of course we are, don’t give me that look.)

Human attention can’t be traded in a profitable transaction, because it precedes money (or any more direct concept of value) in the value creation chain; it is worth a lot more than cash, because it enables any transaction in first place.

  • No attention – no eyeballs
  • No eyeballs – no value proposition
  • No value proposition – no deal
  • No deal – no transaction

Attention is the gatekeeper of the most powerful API on earth: human consciousness.

The single most significant place where streams of data – digital or analogue – intersect with the tangible, living world they are embedded in is the very surface of the human body: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin.

Traditional marketing and demagoguery are quite alike in the sense that both try to:

  • get your attention at almost all cost;
  • bind it to a specific event;
  • pull psychological triggers from a more or less elaborate playbook;
  • guide your actions towards a specific outcome.

That last point is were the two vary greatly, though.

The marketing playbook usually aims to get you to do something: stay on a web page, click a button, buy a product, tell a friend.

In the playbook of psychological warfare against civil societies, however, more often than not the goal isn’t to get you to do something, but to confuse you – to keep your attention caught up in a web (sic) of literally fucking EVERYTHING, in order for you to not do ANYTHING.

The one thing a demagogue is absolutely terrified of is not facts, nor arguments, nor your rage and fury – it’s disengagement.

Prove them wrong a thousand times a day, they’ll be delighted just as long as you keep your attention focused in their direction. Take you’re attention away from them, they’re done. It is you – or all of us, rather – who have absolute power here.

All this isn’t new, but as everyday people, we tend to avoid thinking about it. Why? Because it propels each of us – you, me, the person next to you – in a position of intimidating power and terrifying responsibility?

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