The Ecology of Attention
The Ecology of Attention
MEDIA ENTHRALMENTS AND ATTENTION REGIMES
Let us imagine the surface of the Earth seen from Saturn through a high-powered telescope that would not only allow us to observe the movements of human bodies, even inside their houses, but also to record and speed up their developments over the centuries. We see them every day, going in their masses to the fields, factories or offices, taking public transport and getting into cars that coagulate in traffic jams. We think we understand that they move in this way because of functional necessity: producing food, clothing, tools, and the skills necessary for their continued existence.
From the eighteenth century, we notice that a certain proportion, negligible to start with but soon growing to a majority, remains almost motionless, their eyes fixed on sheets of paper or glowing screens. Some only give themselves over to this immobility in the evenings or at the weekend, when their productive movements have come to an end, but an increasing number give themselves over to it almost all the time, to the point that it becomes hard to tell when their immobility has a productive function and when it is relaxation unrelated to work. We see them make micro-movements which very subtly affect the sheets of paper or the screens they look at, and which suggest they are contributing to productive collaborations. But, starting in the twentieth century, we also see the proliferation of a variety of devices into which they seem to speak, and more recently make hand gestures, and which seem to allow them to communicate with each other with increasing speed and over ever greater distances.
Indeed, adjusting the telescope we see multiple networks, in the form of periodicals, telegraphic lines, radio waves or fibre-optic cables, being established between them with increasing density. For a few decades, this communication seemed to be organized from a few central points, which sent out the same messages to all the surrounding places of reception; but, starting in the 1990s, highly interactive networks developed at a remarkable pace. At the beginning of the third millennium, the surface of the inhabited regions of the Earth seems to be completely covered by a thick, dense cloud of messages, sounds and images circulating in a great many directions - let's call this the 'mediasphere' - to the extent that, in the middle of this entanglement, it becomes very difficult to distinguish who is speaking and who is listening, who is producing and who is receiving, who is carefully working and who is having fun.
The Mediasphere Seen from Above
Despite their apparent physical immobility, all the Earthlings seem acutely mobilized by what circulates in this mediasphere. It is hard to fathom why, from the middle of the twentieth century, they are sometimes glued in their millions to little screens in order to watch trim young people push a leather ball around, climb mountain passes on bikes, or hit the top half of each other's body with large coloured gloves. During other less physical and essentially verbal contests, held every three or four years between people generally wearing ties, they seem to decide, through the insertion of paper into ballot boxes, who among them will take charge of the administration of their future interactions within vast associations called 'nations'.
However complex the effects produced by the entanglement of multidimensional communications mixing with each other in this mediasphere, we can clearly see from Saturn, if the unfolding of the decades is sped up, entire generations start to grow their hair, wear only black clothes, be outraged by the sexual escapades of a politician, cry over the death of a princess, buy up addictive gadgets or criminalize the wearing of certain clothes - all with striking synchrony. And so the general function of this entire mediasphere, of which we had difficulty d