Desire Modification in the Attention Economy
November 4, 2015 4:20 AM   Subscribe

The Future of (Post)Capitalism - "Paul Mason shows how, from the ashes of the recent financial crisis, we have the chance to create a more socially just and sustainable global economy." (previously; via)

"Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience." --dfw, this is water

Albert Wenger helps set the stage a bit...
Land, Capital, Attention: This Time It Is the Same
Only 1% of the global population now controls about 50% of all capital. And in another critical historical parallel, the ruling elites everywhere directly or indirectly represent the interests of capital. Capital has replaced land as the factor against which policies are measured. Take quantitative easing for example, which is aimed at reducing the cost of capital on the belief that this will continue to create jobs.

But the new technological disruption has already arrived and it is digital technology. This is a new set of machines and networks. Unlike their earlier predecessors they are universal machines which as they get better can eventually do anything. And the results are that capital and labor are no longer long-term complements which has been driving down labor’s share of the economy and depressing wages. Digital technology even means that less and less capital is required for most endeavors (see for instance how much cheaper it is to start a new company today than it was even a decade ago). Capital is no longer scarce and labor even less so.

Where is the new scarcity? It is human attention. With birth rates thankfully decelerating almost everywhere, peak population is finally a possibility. We all have only 24 hours in the day and we need to work, eat and sleep. That puts a hard limit on how much human attention exists. At the same time digital technologies are producing unprecedented amounts of information that we could pay attention to. On Youtube alone 100 hours of video is uploaded every minute. Increasingly you can measure how valuable something is by how much attention it controls (e.g., Google, Facebook, etc).

And just like previous scarcities one of the reasons that attention is scarce is that we are bad at this new technology. As society we have lots of information locked up through copyright and patents instead of making it available to everyone. As individuals we too often lack a purpose other than making money and we will happily watch another cat video in our limited free time than read a challenging book. Over time we will get better at all of this and it will let us achieve amazing things as humanity, including free education and healthcare for everyone and cleaning up the mess we have made of the planet. But none of that will happen as long as we keep ourselves trapped in a belief that capital is scarce and that everyone needs a job.

So yes, this time is the same. Once again technology is fundamentally shifting scarcity and the ruling elites are controlled by the prior scarcity, this time capital, which is trying hard to maintain its power. The sooner we all begin to understand this, the better our chances of a peaceful transition. The longer we wait, the more we will be like the land owners who didn’t get industrialization and led us down a path of violent change.
So broadly speaking, in a nutshell, the politics of the attention economy amounts to: Shock the middle class - "The basic structure of politics is that the median voter's income is below the national average income, so redistribution is popular. The job of the anti-redistribution party is to stand up for popular positions on other issues. Ronald Reagan was against Communism and 'welfare queens' and George W Bush 'kept us safe' and defended traditional marriage."

As Mason mentions, capitalism is adaptive; how might it adapt? To maintain inherited class hierarchies in a burgeoning global social network — to extend the 'enclosure movement' from land and capital to attention itself — requires the cultivation of productive identities and the advertising of tribal affinities[*] (to justify one's existence ;) through 'brand management' of one's reputation and social credit 'score': How Companies Are Reducing Consumers to Single Numbers [1,2,3,4,5,6,7]
Policymakers should discourage the expansion of credit scoring into life scoring—or, at the very least, require disclosure of all the data and algorithms behind the scores to the people being scored. There needs to be a recognition that scoring can be “highly reductionist[,] atomizing complex, contingent relationships into simplified, one-dimensional measures that cannot provide a full and multidimensional picture” of individuals. It’s not necessarily an innovation to celebrate. Rather, it can be a prelude to the discrimination that’s rightly condemned. And before succumbing to the voyeuristic thrill of submitting friends or strangers to the consumer-facing versions of these scores, everyone should carefully consider the reliability of their sources.
Moving from 'markets' to 'algorithms' just shifts the problem unless they are beneficent 'machines of loving grace' out there that look beyond the efficient frontier.

"Imagine it has data tentacles everywhere, reaching into browsing and buying records; game worlds; chats; texts; friend networks; phone conversations; airline, banking, utility, and entertainment records; GPS locations; surveillance cameras; whatever. It could know more about us that a spouse or lover knows. It could figure out who we really are, and what we really want—down to the dreams we won't admit to ourselves—and then steer us in that direction, onto new paths that optimize who we are, that lead us toward the lives we're best suited to live." --Linda Nagata, The Red: First Light

Another way...
Machines for thinking
A terrific balance between delightful stories and thoughtful analysis is found in Jerry Kaplan’s relatively short book, “Humans Need Not Apply”. An entrepreneur and AI expert (he is one of the personalities in Mr Markoff’s story), Mr Kaplan has done some serious thinking about how AI will transform business, jobs and most interestingly, the law. The book glimmers with originality and verve...

To the problem of skills not being well matched to the needs of businesses, he proposes a “job mortgage”. Companies would agree to hire a person in future in return for a tax break; the person would take out a loan against the future income to pay for the training. This way, educational institutions get clearer economic signals about what skills they should teach.

To lessen income inequality, Mr Kaplan gets even more inventive. Companies would get tax breaks if their shares are broadly owned, using a measure he bases on the Gini coefficient. The American government would let people choose the firms where some of their Social Security (national pension) funds would be invested. Spreading stock ownership, Mr Kaplan reckons, will diffuse the gains from companies that, using AI, make oodles of money but employ few.
also btw...
  • The trust machine - "The notion of shared public ledgers may not sound revolutionary or sexy. Neither did double-entry book-keeping or joint-stock companies. Yet, like them, the blockchain is an apparently mundane process that has the potential to transform how people and businesses co-operate." [1,2,3]
  • Don't Automate, Obliterate - "All of this kind of thinking is premised on the principle of 'don't automate, obliterate' – too much of what is currently being debated in the policy realm is about automating existing processes and further enshrining categories that made sense historically but no longer do. It is time to figure out what government and society can and should look like now that we have digital technologies."
  • Discovering why we are not technologically doomed to inequality - "The overarching theme in all this work, however, is profound: it is that inefficiency and rent (whether it’s increased or is simply being divided differently) are important causes of inequality, and that power in some form or other is central to these mechanisms. The important lesson to draw is that policies can be developed that at the same time create greater prosperity and distribute the fruits more equally — though they may be policies it will take brave politicians to put in place as they will challenge current power structures."
  • The difference between social democratic and liberal intuition - "Liberals don't really believe welfare is a good thing, but instead view it as a necessary thing in order to save people from total destitution... I don't share this liberal view of welfare. Rather, I think welfare is incredibly good and cool. In fact, I'd like to increase welfare expenditures by trillions of dollars each year."
  • Data shows that welfare doesn't have a corrupting influence on poor people - "Studies rebut a long-cherished belief in America, on the right and left, that welfare encourages bad behavior by the poor."
  • Former IMF chief economist backs 'people's QE' - " 'There is clearly something else you can do if you get to zero (inflation) and still want to increase spending. You can buy goods. Which one should you choose? We haven't asked the question in the crisis but we should', he said. Blanchard said that this does not mean central banks would buy goods directly. Rather, governments can increase their fiscal deficits by spending on infrastructure projects. Central banks can then buy this debt with newly created money."
  • Trekonomics - "Brad DeLong: Social credit! Quantitative easing for the people! Monetary policy via direct crediting of seigniorage to everyone's bank account, in equal shares!"
  • Negative interest rates and helicopter money could be a marriage made in heaven - "If strongly negative interest rates were ever implemented, they would spread through the deposit system. By itself, that would gradually shrink the money supply — and this is a reason to worry that negative rates could be contractionary. The hope is that the banks, which create most of the money in circulation, would expand their balance sheets (lend more at slightly less negative rates than charged on deposits, and profit from the margin) to make up for negative interest cost on their own reserves. But if they did not do so enough, there would be a case for expanding the money supply directly — and helicopters would be the most effective way to do so."
  • Negative real rates signify a broken financial system - "In short, the best explanation for why private markets are forcing interest rates to zero is that the banking system is broken. The system which functioned for centuries on the basis of unsecured, reputation-based, interbank lending no longer exists. ZIRP is just evidence that the financial industry is turning to government as a source of the liquidity that the financial industry is no longer capable of creating on its own."
posted by kliuless (22 comments total) 90 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh God.

*starts reading*
posted by longbaugh at 4:27 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


David Graeber had a piece in the Graun last week that might be worth adding to the mix?
posted by longbaugh at 4:44 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


"The attention economy" and "attention scarcity" get thrown out sometimes and sound very cool but I'm not sure I'm really convinced they're that big of a deal beyond advertising and media (but I repeat myself). The idea that our productive economy is held back (in terms of how much it produces--as it can be by labor/land/capital/energy) by a lack of attention just doesn't ring true when you think about it. If everyone suddenly had twice the attention to 'spend' on everything, my intuition is that per-view advertising rates would just decrease.

Of course, if we all had twice the attention to spend on improving efficiency at work, or something like that, then you could say that was scarce, but that's just labor.

Great collection of links to chew on, though!
posted by ropeladder at 5:07 AM on November 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Interesting, I'll attempt to make time to listen to and read some of this.

I'll note however that, if your reform plans that place technology towards the forefront, where imho it belongs and as this appears to do, then they depend upon us retaining or even gaining more control over our technology, such as via Richard Stallman's vision for free software, and the new cypher-punks vision for fighting mass surveillance.

If we do not gain control over our devices and encrypt our communications, then we could develop towards a fascist artificial intelligence that oppresses us and/or suppressed our cultural evolution.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:22 AM on November 4, 2015


But we won't, because the people with the reins are still self-serving pricks.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 5:47 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Maul Pason. Sorry if this offends.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:36 AM on November 4, 2015


Spreading stock ownership, Mr Kaplan reckons, will diffuse the gains from companies that, using AI, make oodles of money but employ few.

A good example of why I'm skeptical of the many proposed technocratic solutions to wealth inequality. The logic here was the same logic behind abandoning defined benefit pension plans for 401Ks, which have turned out, by design, only to fatten the financial sector, leaving working Americans without enough to retire on [more, via NPR].

But the new technological disruption has already arrived and it is digital technology. This is a new set of machines and networks.

The "machines of loving grace" that these strains of thought are producing are not Brautigan's, but Adam Curtis'. They are calm, "rational", sometimes even well-intentioned systems theories that, due to the blinkers of privilege and the illusion of control, mirror and reinforce, in their basic premises and goals, the problems that they aim to solve. Big-data and surveillance-driven government and economics will inescapably produce an iron cage as a result, reflective, if occasionally unconsciously, of the prejudices and best interests of the elite.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:37 AM on November 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


Along the lines of ryanshepard's deferences, I'll assert G. William Domhoff's framings that were popular in the 60s are as true then as now. The present web presence looks as flaky as anything did on Angelfire, but his tackling of what was once called the Social Register, was an academic and descriptive alternative to polemic-- I knew Das Kapital to be "true" (I was reading Michael Parenti at the time), but found Domhoff's descriptors more applicable. And I can't exaggerate the importance of the details of David K. Nobles' America by Design-- its title belies its accounting of technology and its cultural adaptation, not a political indictment at all, a kind of non-fiction Player Piano.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 7:11 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Maul Pason. Sorry if this offends.

Are you OK with it befuddling?
posted by thelonius at 7:37 AM on November 4, 2015


If everyone suddenly had twice the attention to 'spend' on everything, my intuition is that per-view advertising rates would just decrease.

If you think of "attention" not in terms of "looking at stuff" but in terms of "what I devote effort to paying attention to", then a lot of things that directly affect poeople's well-being become attention-economy relevant, and improvable by policy.

You don't need to spend as much time and effort on your driving, and the larger context of driving - filling your car with gas, worrying about insurance payments, focusing on the act of driving, spending two hours a day in traffic, etc etc - if you have sensible city planning and public transit. The hard calculus of child care and working hours gets a lot easier if you've got national child care programs.

In many domains we already expect these headaches to be just gone, and the alternative is unthinkable. I don't need to worry about whether or not the water coming out of my taps is drinkable, ever. I don't need to worry about whether or not the meat I buy at the store is safe to eat, or the restaurant I'm in is going to make me sick. But this is the root significance of the feminist phrase, ""the personal is political" - not just that your existence is a political act, but that the problems that afflict you, that seem like personal problems, are very likely to have their origins in public policy, and can be addressed - and redressed - in that same policy.

And in that context, a policy approach that takes away things that demand our attention to that are pure, dead-weight loss - stuff we just shouldn't have to worry about if things were all humming along properly, things we can all look at and agree are bullshit - seem like a pretty good way to approach modernity.
posted by mhoye at 7:54 AM on November 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


Sorry boys, but all this theory about "attention economics" is just distracting from the Real Economic Situation, as guy-who-is-right-too-often-to-be-listened-to Robert Reich explains, the simple fact that over the last 35 years, 'The Market' had been redesigned for the explicit goal of redistributing wealth upward. And there is nothing in anything we're talking about here that will change that pattern, which if/when it continues, will transform our system indeed.. from Capitalism to Modern Feudalism.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:06 AM on November 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


Yeah, Reich sold me. That graph was a Cisco logo suspension bridge across the century. And my fuzzy notion is the wealth and assets will be expanded, accorded by neoconservative principles of "markets" to supplant strained social services, and with government subsidies to boot.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 8:22 AM on November 4, 2015


Slavoj Žižek posits that we've accepted capitalism as the least-worst system because it was believed that for all its drawbacks, Capitalism & Democracy were fellow travelers and that the former led to the latter.

But China & Singapore are showing us that you can have a vibrant capitalist economy under an authoritarian regime. the divorce between capitalism & democracy might we what we're looking at.

Rather than post-capitalist society, post-democratic, with Capitalism stumbling along from crisis to crisis as it does. And given that the problems we face are essentially ones of the "Global commons" (environment, biogenetics, new-apartheid, finance, freedom) this could be bad.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:22 AM on November 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Only when the last tree is cut, the last river poisoned, and the last fish dead, will we realize that we can't eat money attention."
-Some bumper sticker
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:26 AM on November 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't need to worry about whether or not the water coming out of my taps is drinkable, ever. I don't need to worry about whether or not the meat I buy at the store is safe to eat, or the restaurant I'm in is going to make me sick.

Not yet, anyway!
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:26 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't need to worry about whether or not the water coming out of my taps is drinkable, ever. I don't need to worry about whether or not the meat I buy at the store is safe to eat, or the restaurant I'm in is going to make me sick.

Not yet, anyway!


I don't have aggregate evidence that policy approaches, their pragmatism and modern realization, will vanish. Even consortiums seek regulation.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 8:33 AM on November 4, 2015


To the problem of skills not being well matched to the needs of businesses, he proposes a “job mortgage”. Companies would agree to hire a person in future in return for a tax break; the person would take out a loan against the future income to pay for the training. This way, educational institutions get clearer economic signals about what skills they should teach.

This reminds me of the future system in The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell where poor people could enter into indentured servitude to a company in exchange for education and training.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:30 AM on November 4, 2015


This reminds me of the future system in The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell where poor people could enter into indentured servitude to a company in exchange for education and training.

Also The Unincorporated Man.
posted by srboisvert at 10:16 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Here's an old NYTimes article about the state of United States water systems. It's from 2009, but, well, it's not like our infrastructure is getting any better over time.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:51 PM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


related: a review by Steven Shaviro of a forthcoming book, Demanding The Future, by Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams, authors of #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO -- briefly summarized as laying groundwork for a new future-oriented leftist strategy in the face of automation, neoliberal entrenchment & atomization. i'm excited to read it.
posted by p3on at 1:41 PM on November 4, 2015


[reform plans] depend upon us retaining or even gaining more control over our technology, such as via Richard Stallman's vision for free software, and the new cypher-punks vision for fighting mass surveillance.

fwiw, from the uber thread, rms is participating in platform cooperativism at the new school next week, which also happens to coincide with the first basic income createathon in SF :P

If we do not gain control over our devices and encrypt our communications, then we could develop towards a fascist artificial intelligence that oppresses us and/or suppressed our cultural evolution.

in addition to linda nagata's _red trilogy_, ramez naam's _nexus trilogy_ offers a nice exploration of 'fascist AIs'!

re: accelerationism
  1. Full automation
  2. The reduction of the working week
  3. The provision of a basic income
  4. The diminishment of the work ethic [and potentially...]
  5. The right of migration, and abolition of borders.
-Part I : Post Scarcity Economy[*]
-Another Money Is Possible, Part II: Avoid the Next Financial Crash with People's Q.E.[*]
-What if we were free to work?[*]
-Bertrand Russell & Buckminster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More[*]
-Basic Income: An Idea With a History[*]
-Finland considers paychecks for all[*]

oh and also btw in glasgow...
Inventing the Future | December 04, 2015 | Yudowitz Lecture Theatre | Public seminar with Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams
posted by kliuless at 11:11 PM on November 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Also The Unincorporated Man.

And also student loans!
posted by Apocryphon at 10:36 AM on November 5, 2015


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