attention theft

A very long time ago, at the 63rd World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow in August 2005, I went to a talk by Charlie Stross, who would go on to win the Hugo Award for his novella The Concrete Jungle.  It was in that talk that I first heard the phrase attention theft.

Over the years since, I’ve thought a lot about attention theft.  One reason is that when I first realized that such a thing as attention theft might exist, I started noticing it everywhere.  The ads on television that are louder than the shows on before or after them, or the hypnotic quality of a good television show, or the song I can’t get out of my head for hours or days on end.  (I find KC and the Sunshine Band particularly problematic myself.)

I find this idea of attention theft, that the world is trying to steal from me the limited processing power I have in my skull, a remarkably powerful idea.  And it ties into other ideas.  Also years ago, before I went to Charlie Stross’s talk, I read The Meme Machine by Dr Susan Blackmore.  And this started a cascade of ideas that have been with me since.

Organisms in the world compete with one another for scarce resources, light and water, food and shelter from the harshness of the world.  So what if we were to think of the human brain as an environment, where the primary resource is processing power.  Attention.  Think as well of ideas as organisms of a sort, competing with one another for this scarce processing power.

The song we can’t get out of our head becomes successful in this view of the world, taking the space in our skull that can’t then be occupied by other songs.  The strange little ideas, like this idea of attention theft, that we keep coming back to over the years.  These are the successful organisms in this world.

What I like about this view of things, which ties into the experience we have of the world, is that it isn’t the ideas that we think of as valuable or refined or sophisticated that survive.  I spend more time with KC and the Sunshine Band than I do with Mozart, something of a failing on my part perhaps but I like what I like.  KC just made better driving music.

Rather, we need to come at things from the other side.  Success is measured not by the perceived quality of the idea, but rather by persistence and longevity.  There are innumerable of Mozart’s contemporaries that have been lost to time and the music historians, whereas Mozart persists.

~ by Jim Anderson on 21 May 2016.

One Response to “attention theft”

  1. […] from them, the attention of those in our audience.  This is the positive side, the useful side, of attention theft.  If I am standing in front of the room, nothing I do there matters if I don’t have the […]

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