Monday, 10 August 2020

Bernard Stiegler and the Attention Economy

I was sorry to hear about the death of Bernard Stiegler last week. The range of his work takes in the gamut of French philosophy and German critical theory, while delving into political economy and having a few choice things to say about the attention economy. This makes his summation in a short blog post partial and difficult, and so for those looking for something more comprehensive and technical should check this paper out.

Stiegler's particular concern was technology, or what he refers to as 'technics'. Working in a space adjacent to Latour's actor network theory and Deleuze and Guattari's work on assemblages, for Stiegler technology was inorganic matter that had been reorganised by human hands with purpose. As our tools are used we change or "humanise" the natural environment, and we transform and reconstitute ourselves (a la Marx). Technology is always socially bounded and conditioned and therefore can be thought of as a physical form of memory, both in terms of how we use relate to it but what these tools say about the society that made them. The second key point for Stiegler is technology is imbued with memory through use, and as we become familiar with sets of tools these technologies structure our perceptions and how we experience time.

That time is complex, historical, and multiple (i.e. runs at different rhythms depending on the ensemble of social relationships) is readily accepted, but reaches a new level of intensity in the age of what Stiegler terms 'cinematic memory'. Here, what we might crudely characterise as the distinction between everyday experience and memory congealed in technology collapses as we assume a more intimate, symbiotic relationship with our tools. This means a blurring and a merging of the rhythms of time. The perceptions of time or, to be more precise, the immediate future becomes one always already ordered (anticipated) by the structuring of life by the technical imperatives of our technologies. As Stiegler put it, living time is conditioned by dead memory. At its most simple, the modes of perception encouraged by social media participation condition the cognitive processes of its users. An opinion is formatted as a hot take, a thought is structured like a tweet, an approach to an event is framed by instagramming imperatives. With our "technical disposition" structuring our consciousness, the spread of technology engenders a certain uniformity. The rise of the attention economy is a product of and a qualitative leap forward in the universalisation of particular perceptions of time. And with it comes a diminution of individuation - something encouraged by earlier phases of capitalism, but now shut down as attention encourages a process of de-differentiation.

Our current period then is characterised by 'hyper' attention. 'Deep' attention belonged to the age of the printed word, now our technologies enable the circulation and consumption of 'technical temporal objects'. These are fleeting things providing an immediate hit before the next one comes along, and then the next, all jostling to be seen and consumed and crowding perception to the edge of the horizon. The levelling of consciousness accomplished by cinematic memory and hyper attention marks its proletarianisation: minds are not brainwashed but are sculpted and moulded to fit into the homogenised circuitry of the social. This threatens diversity and difference, prescribes a limited range of individuation, and introduces new forms of dependency and alienation. Living in this time is frequently overwhelming because the demands of attention heighten the sense of everything happening everywhere simultaneously. Unsurprisingly, anxiety is the generalised pathology of the age.

In his small book, For a New Critique of Political Economy (2009), the proletarianisation of consciousness, unsurprisingly, entailed a functional recasting of desire (the libido) to churn out the consumers appropriate to the attention economy. This was a historical and, at times, a conscious accomplishment - a process of desublimation on which the social order depends. Indeed, following Marcuse's arguments that almost presented 50s and (early) 60s America as a smooth, enclosed system of domination, the proletarianisation of consumption was the precondition for mass consumer markets and, therefore, an increasingly important counter to capital's tendency to crisis (that 2008 was a crisis beginning in mass home ownership, and how 2020's biopolitical crisis occasioned the present slump demonstrates capitalism's heat sink can, in turn, precipitate crises of its own).

What Marcuse didn't see at the time of One-Dimensional Man is visible in the mature attention economy. The flattening of diversity and the erosion of difference ultimately undermines novelty and innovation on which attention depends. The extreme short-termism and the ubiquity of hyper attention is ruining mental health and making people into, from its perspective, less efficient consumers. And the new age of technology is enabling capital to destroy the means of life itself at an ever greater pace. These contradictions rule out the possibility of a smooth, coherent system of domination. For all its simultaneity and levelling down, the attention economy can generate metrics and matrices for the (quantitative) appreciation of others, but cannot finally accomplish the full reduction of human beings to tools. As the gaps widen and the contradictions build, the possibility of its other becomes visible. This other is an economy of contribution, an altermodernity little different in conception from what can be found in Hardt and Negri: an imminent, familiar communism haunting the attention economy with its possibility as attention grows, spreads, dominates.

Stiegler's project was simultaneously a thinking through of power, domination, and economy in the 21st century, but it was also an enterprise of recuperation. The history of technics was, he argued, something Western philosophy had at times forgot, and at others actively repressed. And it's easy to see why. For Stiegler technology is irreducibly social and socialising. Technology is never innocent or neutral, it can be deployed to build things, including class relations. The traditional philosophical emphasis on contemplation and cognition in isolation from the real conditions of thinking and doing meant it apprehended a distortion of the social, and entered into crisis in the 1960s when the early attention economy and the relationship of consciousness and technics became increasingly evident. They could no longer be ignored, and so the tradition as we understood it collapsed leaving the materialist philosophies and philosophies of difference and complexity the field. Stiegler's work then is a matter of correcting the record and cataloguing the conceptual repressions and narrative ruses philosophy has spent centuries administering to deny the basic social facts of what it is to be human.

Louis Althusser once described philosophy as the class struggle in Theory. Stiegler can be counted as one of the militants who fought the good fight from our side. It's down to us to carry on where he left off.

Image Credit.


david walsh said...

In the simpler world of the 1920's the pioneer urban sociologist, Lewis Mumford, cited "technics" as, amongst other things, a way of understanding our experience of time and velocity as witnessed by someone in a city as against someone living in a deep, unchanging countryside. His main work in this area was "Technics and Civilisation" which I still have somewhere. But thanks for bringing Stiegler to my attention - I'll try to read more.

BCFG said...

“At its most simple, the modes of perception encouraged by social media participation condition the cognitive processes of its users.”

If this were true humanity would be well and truly fucked because it would mean the world depicted in Idiocracy becoming true and who could then think at the appropriate level to then develop anything?

In that dystopian world, Boffy’s dumb fuck alt right (ultra ultra right) bullshit around COVID-19 would be embraced as scientific truth! Maybe the beach goers are already there!

This then has all sorts of implications, somehow some great people rise above all this and are not affected, while a mass of people descend into herd like thinking.

maybe it could be argued this is all system generated but sounds more Nietzsche than Marx to me.