Children are frequently told to “pay attention” either at school or to their parents. They are reprimanded for paying too much attention to the wrong things. Many children, and an increasing amount of adults, are diagnosed with ADHD which is effectively the lack of ability to pay attention for prescribed lengths of time.

The right kind, or direction, of attention continues to be at issue after childhood with the ‘incorrect’ choice often being couched in terms of childishness. People who pay too much attention to Made in Chelsea and too little to Newsnight, or  too much attention to Fifty Shades of Grey and too little to Ulysses are marvelled over. Why is the vacuous privileged over the virtuous?

Perhaps the real question is why is so much attention paid to attention?

It has been said that today we live in a ‘cult of busyness‘, to be busy is to be in demand; to be important. To have our attention constantly occupied is the goal. Endless reams of ‘entertainment’ in the form of podcasts, Netflix and iPlayer mean even those without busy work or social lives can feel like they have a hectic schedule. People even talk about having “fallen behind” with, or needing to “catch up” with a TV show. These seem like words more appropriate for work than entertainment.

Bernard Stiegler suggests that we are increasingly in an attention economy. Digital markets in particular are engaged with trying to capture our attention, this is, in Stiegler’s parlance, psychopolitics (as opposed to biopolitics). The holy grail of marketing departments is to create a ‘buzz‘ around a product and to have everyone’s attention directed towards it.

The amount of time spent engaged with internet enabled devices means that there are more opportunities than ever to capture our attention.  Stiegler has suggested that this situation is creating a lack of critical ability in young people. They are not encouraged to spend time on one thing, to absorb its meaning and engage with it critically. Rather, they are just expected to direct their attention to the latest, ‘buzziest’ thing and then move on.

Perhaps we can see this in the rise of fan culture. Movies, TV shows and popstars have legions of fans who swear devotion to their chosen idols or fictional worlds. They defend the honour of the objects of their affection when criticized online and advocate for them in an almost evangelical way. It is even quite common for followers of a particular franchise to extol their pride at being a fan of a particular product when it is successful. Marketers feed and exploit this passion and loyalty by giving free merchandise to fans in exchange for acting as ‘brand ambassadors‘ and encouraging their friends and online followers to direct their attention to the latest product being sold.

Stiegler suggests that this kind of attention is having a negative impact on our ability to think critically. For him there are two key ways which we engage with any kind of technology; adaptation or adoption. With ‘adaptation’ we take the objective world (in the sense of a world of objects) as fixed and adapt ourselves to it. In this approach the objective world structures our understanding and constrains us.

Alternatively, if we ‘adopt’ technology we nurture it and manage it towards a better situation. One of the situations against which he warns is becoming too enamoured of our devices and spending too much time ‘taking care’ of them and administering too them. Too much emphasis on this stops us from thinking and being critical. It does seem we are often very quick to direct our attention to new things without really considering their worth.

The focus on attention has been particularly exacerbated online due to one of the central aspects of the economic model on which the internet is built. Most online businesses are funded through advertising. The advertising model is one built on the ‘click through‘, advertising is deemed to be successful if it generates a lot of clicks and websites are deemed important if they have a lot of page views. This is perhaps the reason for the kind of hyperbolic headlines which are so prevalent on Buzzfeed and similar sites. However, advertisers are starting to see they might need to hold a reader’s attention for as long as three minutes in order to be effective.

The type of attention which is captured in this economy is of a specific type, it is not the capturing of deep, complex or sustained attention. This kind of attention is of little use to capitalist accumulation and exploitation. Rather, it is a form of attention which is quick and shallow. This is attention which is easily accumulated on a population level through metrics. Attention is desired for the ways in which it can be transformed into quantitative measures.

Digital devices which we carry around with us are so commercially valuable in an attention economy because they significantly expand the amount of time when our attention can be captured. Previously, we needed to be in the proximity of a relatively fixed piece of technology (such as a TV, radio or computer) in order for our attention to be captured now this can occur alongside almost all daily activities. There is, however, perhaps a limit to this capture of attention as we can probably only handle so much stimulation of our attention as Franco Berardi suggested in a different context ‘acceleration is destroying social subjectivity, as the latter is based on the rhythm of bodily desire, which cannot be accelerated beyond the point of spasm’.

Anyone who has spent too much time engaged with social media, TV, music and other media has probably experienced some of the twitchiness of over-stimulation. The recent rise of mindfulness is perhaps a way of dealing with these symptoms.