Parts and Processes

“Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts or happenings. It consist mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever flowing through one’s head.”

-Mark Twain

Every website, every game, every video, every post (yes, even this one!) competes for our attention, because we have a finite amount of time in the day, and more views means more revenues. This economy, just like the normal economy, is not a thing which can be held or seen. It was not designed from our intent, it was born from the coupling of curiosity and technology. We know it exists because we can infer its existence from how it has changed our collective behavior. It runs on views and likes and click-through rates, and its marriage to money via ad space and data collection has caused us to care about it, and to exploit it. We both feed and nurture it when we post, or tweet, or subscribe, as well as measure it and mine it for all it is worth by collecting data and turning it into ad revenue.

The existence of this attention economy is both fascinating and restrictive. It cannot be seen or heard or even felt. In spite of this, it is inherently tied to the landscape of the internet, which means its existence depends on our ability as humans to cooperate and establish global communications via networked computers and smartphones and satellites. It thrives on our need to proliferate information, to share ideas and tell stories. But still, it is not a thing, it is a process. And the process has an influence on the very entities which create it.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this process though, is that we can identify it and know that it exists; we can measure it, we can profit from it, we contribute to it, we nurture it. It is our collective interactions that allow this, which unintentionally create this attention economy. It is a type of emergent property: a property of the group that the individuals within do not have themselves.

In evolution, emergent properties are another one of the big puzzles. Life itself is an emergent property of interacting molecules. Consciousness is an emergent property of interacting neurons. Culture is an emergent property of interacting humans. Obviously, we do not know exactly what creates these properties, regardless of the tremendous amount we already know about the elements which cause them.

Actually, we do know a great deal about the attention economy. We know that it is constrained by the time we have in a day to spend online, and it is constrained by the number of people who interact with it. It is built upon our need for social interaction and to be part of the group, to know what others are interacting with and talking about. It is also, obviously, built upon the physical infrastructure of the internet, and all of the inherent requirements that are necessary for the internet to exist. And of course it has overlap with our normal economy, as well.

Many parts and processes interacting and informing the others, forming a web of various stacked systems and software. If one of the underlying elements is adjusted, the emergent properties are affected. They could perhaps even cease to exist, should drastic changes be made to those foundational elements. If a cosmic event were to wipe out all electrical devices on Earth, would the attention economy disappear? Or would all of our attention be focused into rebuilding it?

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