Winter 2006–2007

Paying Attention

The commodification of the sensorium

Jonathan Beller

With the increasing banality of globalization, a new attention to attention is emergent. Networks and film production companies dream up new ways to sell eyeballs to advertisers (as industry parlance has it), internetworks reconceive themselves as the media companies that they are (Yahoo!, Google), and “angel” investors pour hundreds of millions into social networking platforms (MySpace, Friendster). This is the attention economy, built upon the premise becoming conviction, becoming fact, that human attention is productive of value. How has it happened that whether conceived of as informal workers, content providers, gamers, consumers, prosumers, or audiences, we, the people of Earth, still have something that corporations want? Like clean air, attention is something that once could be had for free but is now being encroached upon as the next and perhaps final frontier. Attention is now a commodity, and a special kind of commodity at that.

That’s a theory, at least. In the realeconomik, as distinct from a theoretical analysis that would correlate a radical transformation of perception and the senses with historically unprecedented levels of global immiseration, Seth Goldstein, an entrepreneur, has lucidly formalized the new relationship between attention and capitalist production by starting an attention business that has two sides. These sides are economically as well as dialectically linked. On the one side, there is the Attention Trust, dedicated, it is said on the Trust’s website, to the protection of online users’ attention. To protect our right to our own attention, the Trust offers free downloadable software that tracks and records registered users’ web usage in order to make us aware of the value we create as we move through cyberspace (as data trail and as human time interfacing with machinery). Later, perhaps, the Trust will arrange to sell our attention for us. On the other side, there is Root Markets—an effort to securitize attention, that is, to bundle and sell attention on secondary markets. For this side of the business, Goldstein has teamed up with Lewis Ranieri, the principal innovator in the 1980s “revolution” that brought about the securitization of home mortgages. Through the institutionalization of standardized lending practices via statistical measures including income, debt, and credit score, securitization allowed for massive numbers of home loans to be bundled in large packages and then sold on secondary markets as low-risk securities.

Like Google’s “Adsense,” which auctions searchable terms to the highest advertising bids, Root Markets’ business plan to securitize attention is among the emerging strategies for the computerized parsing, bundling, and remarketing of attention—taken together, these various strategies for the capture of attention mark a significant mutation in the conceptualization, character, and monetization of what Marx called “productive” labor (labor that produces capital for its capitalist). The rise of the internet along with the market valuation of internet companies allows us to grasp this simple fact: as with previous if still extant labor markets, the commodity being sold in capitalist media is productive power itself.

Not too surprisingly, this (counter-)revolution in the expropriation of human “sensual labor” (Marx again) has a history. The gathering and organization of attention by mechanized, standardized media, which is visible in early, though still persisting forms, including coinage, printing, and lithography, really becomes a thing unto itself with the advent of cinema—the open book of the industrialization of the senses. Phenomena such as the cult of the celebrity or the fetish for the painted masterpiece are revealing—the celebrity is not an individual but a social relation characterized by the accumulation of attention, and similarly the masterpiece accumulates the value of all of the gazes that have fallen upon it—inasmuch as they illustrate an important aspect of the attention economy. The productive value of the gaze accretes in the organization of social being, i.e., publicity. This visual economy, the attention of spectators, produces the value, which is to say, the fact of both the painted masterpiece and the media icon. From the practical function of cinema and allied visual technologies we may derive a mediatic model for the extraction of surplus value—one in which spectators work in deterritorialized factories (museums, newspapers, cinemas, televisions, computers) to produce value for media companies and those investors who have a stake in the fourth estate. The cinematic century posited that looking could be treated as value-producing labor; the digital age presupposes it.

Since the early 1990s, pre-internet, I have been arguing that during the last century in and as cinema and other media technologies, capital, that is, leveraged exchange with productive labor for the purpose of profit, has undergone a metamorphosis—not just imperialism or globalization, but cinematicization.[1] By the last decade of the twentieth century, it was possible to see that Marx’s labor theory of value, in which workers gave capital more labor time than they were paid for (for Marx, this dissymmetrical exchange with capital was the source of all profit), was being superceded not by marginal utility theory (which comfortingly suggests that profit does not inhere in exploitation but from differentials of supply and demand) but by what I call “the attention theory of value.” By abstracting the assembly line form (in French, the chaine de montage), and introjecting that form itself into the visual realm such that spectators’ practice of connecting a montage of images moving in front of them was not just analogous but homologous to workers in a factory assembly line producing a commodity, cinema brought the industrial revolution to the eye. In an emerging interpenetration of the economic and the visual (in which the filmstrip became the assembly line of the visible world), spectators “assembled” the image-commodities, at once valorizing the cinema and producing continuously revised versions of the world and of themselves within a matrix of industry and profit. This new machine-body interface known as the cinema acted directly on the imagination to harness attention as a force of social production. The visible world and the Imaginary (the unconscious) became technologically linked and constantly retooled to create an industrial technologization of the Imaginary that today has become generalized. Moving images, the utilization of which valorizes their media as well as modifies spectators, result in the continuous modification of a collective, variegated operating platform that images the world and its relations in exchange for pleasure, social “know-how,” what-have-you. Thus “the image” creates the techno-social modifications necessary to engineer the adaptive forms of social cooperation that have become the prerequisites for the preservation of capital and capitalist hierarchy.

One should emphasize that as with assembly line production, in the cinema and mass media both raw materials and worker/spectators are modified in the process of making a commodity-image. People and their objects/images are modified along with everything else, from the bank accounts of capitalists, the economic scale of production, and the built environment, to behavior, the sensorium, and cognition itself. Without the screen, there would be no globalization. If, with respect to the dissolution of traditional societies under the onslaught of industrialization, all that is solid once melted into air, as The Communist Manifesto put it, in the twentieth century all that is solid melted into film … or more generally, into images, television, computers. Hence, “the society of the spectacle,” as Guy Debord called late capitalism, hence “simulation,” as Jean Baudrillard characterized the hyperreality-effect of the ecstasy of communication, hence, “cyberspace” and “virtual reality.”

Because the increasing penetration of the image into the life-world poses huge problems for language function (ultimately demoting and even short-circuiting its processes of making the world intelligible), one could (and should) link the techno-capitalist intensification of visuality to the intellectual history of discourse analysis that begins with linguistics, through to psychoanalysis, structuralism, semiotics, deconstruction, post-structuralism, and postmodernism and culminates, as it were, with the famous disappearance of the referent (“being”) from representation and the near-simultaneous decline of master narratives. These intellectual movements, all really within the province demarcated by the field of linguistics (which itself came into being with the advent of cinema, very likely as a result of the suspicion that language was simply one medium among others), are thus to be understood as representing various inflection points of the increasing failure of language (and therefore humanism) laboring under the intensive onslaught of visuality.

Most recently we have the inflection point called “Reality TV,” which for accuracy’s sake should be written properly with a hyphen, Reality-TV, if for no other reason than the fact that this nomenclature signals the historically achieved inseparability of one term from the other. Today, it is possible to discern that media transformations not only affect the organization of perception, production, literary form, affect, subjective interiority, monetization, state power, the built environment (down to the molecular-genetic), and war, but also that, when taken together, this thoroughgoing reorganization of social relations on a planetary scale constitutes nothing less than a world-media system. Among other things, this system signals that we have entered into a period characterized by the full incorporation of the sensual by the economic. This incorporation of the senses along with the dismantling of the word emerges through the visual pathway as new orders of machine-body interface vis-à-vis the image. All evidence points in this direction: that in the twentieth century, capital first posited and now presupposes looking as productive labor, and, more generally, posited attention as productive of value.

While the above paragraphs cram one hundred years of cinema history, political economy, and mediatic transformation into a few sentences, the following paragraphs set themselves a more difficult task—to describe the present situation of labor in relation to capital, of bodies in relation to capitalized ambient social machinery, and to point towards some possibilities for the next ten years or so: economic, cultural, aesthetic, and political. Attention has become indispensable to production, both as a conceit and a practice. While some commentators sound cautionary notes, others speak of the Goldrush. Internet theorists such as Michael H. Goldhaber and Georg Frank note that the competition for attention is the defining aspect of an increasing number of business practices. Goldhaber, while cautionary when it comes to issues concerning the proprietary rights to words being accorded to corporations and the unscrupulous mining of attention by email spam and the manipulation of hyperlinks to alter search result hierarchies, notes the decline of the material economy and the emergence of a “new natural economy”—the attention economy.[2] This economy, it should be noted in passing, is about as natural as the nature depicted in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, in which every human emotion as well as all aspects of the built environment, again down to the molecular level, have passed through a media-program economy. (Think: genetically engineered fruits, grains, vegetables, pesticides along with the public consent to utilize them as capitalist bio-software, i.e., programming, i.e. mediation, i.e., not nature.) Frank has an idea of “mental capitalism” and understands that mass media has always traded information for attention. He observes a primary economy in which eyeballs are sold to advertisers, and a secondary economy that is not directly monetized that he calls social crediting (in effect when attention is paid to others by peers, colleagues, fans, etc.).[3] Both thinkers understand, as do I, that the emergence of the attention economy has its origins in prior modes of economic and perceptual organization and that it marks a monumental transformation in the production of value. However, what drops out of these accounts both here and in the blogosphere which is all abuzz with attention to attention, is the question of the Third World, of the Global South, of the “planet of slums” as Mike Davis calls it, of the more than 2 billion people who live on less than two dollars a day.

Planet of slums, an apt appellation. Right about now, we are crossing a planetary threshold: half of the world’s population lives in cities. This number, more than 3.2 billion, “is larger than the total population of the world in 1960.”[4] By 2020, the number of people living in slums will be more than 2 billion. A single mega-city like Mexico City or Mumbai will soon have a larger population than the estimated urban population of Earth at the time of the French Revolution. Not only those who occasionally allow themselves to wonder about the fate of this emerging world of near starvation, bare-life, and effective non-existence with respect to representation and political economy, but even almost all of those who passionately warn of the horror that exists and the horror to come, believe that the existence of these huge masses of people is somehow extra-economic. While massive poverty is at times acknowledged to be caused by the contradictions of capitalism (particularly the structural adjustment imposed by the World Bank and the IMF in coordination with Euro-American foreign policy and military power in order to service debt), even most radical critics of capitalism believe that the existence of the slum dwellers, what Davis calls “the informal proletariat,” is really outside of and external to capital’s productive base. The slum people in Karachi, Jakarta, Maputo, Kinshasa, among hundreds of other cities, along with the rural poor whose traditional ways of life have been demolished by agribusiness and the money-system and who provide, as it were, the raw materials for slums (in the form of those who migrate to cities), are, from the prevailing economic point of view across the political spectrum, extra people—so much slag thrown off by the world-system. Economists are fond of pointing out that the entire African continent only accounts for about 1% of the world’s economic activity. How many times have we heard that Africa could cease to exist and it wouldn’t make any difference to capitalism? But, and here we must pause to wonder, what kind of economic operation is it when people’s (indeed a continent’s) sole function is to be rendered as data, statistics, information, that can be rendered as “meaningless” or as “a potential threat to stability?” Isn’t this a new moment of planetary organization when humans can, from an economic and representational point of view, be reduced only to the bodies that underlie information or a set of concepts or images—a new order of accounting? This data-crunching reduction and/or mantel of sheer invisibility, this brutal calculus that renders human biomass into a mere substrate for information, is symptomatic of the qualitative transformation of the cinematic mode of production into the world-media system, now organizing attention on a global scale in two distinct registers: that of the enfranchised, who are to “understand” and/or dismiss huge swaths of the planet in a few lines of symbols or in a couple of isolated images as they make their daily movements, and that of the radically disenfranchised, who must attend to this dissymmetrical order of representation through a continuous and lifelong struggle for sheer survival as they make their way through a life in which they count for next to nothing. Like the more familiar relationship to the image of the first-world spectator, this latter relationship too must properly be cast as a new form of work: just being there, staying alive to be counted in the spectacle or not, to be constructed in the world-media system as an infinitesimally small bit of the reasons required to build walls around countries, fund new weapons programs and surveillance technologies, institute new adjustment programs, and launch political campaigns and wars in the high-intensity illumination of the spectacle. This is work, mere survival beyond the frame of representation, to become a standing reserve of information, just as it is also work for the global spectator who must be constantly enjoined to see and therefore produce the world and itself in accord with capital’s accounting. The human has become the medium for information; put another way, the medium is human, despite the fact that human potential is foreclosed by its function.

While the labor of looking and the labor of survival are represented above as being split between first and third worlds, or between the West and the Global South, the relationship is dialectical, a lived abstraction, and also pertains within single individuals. Aspects of the history and community that constitute us are flattered into activation by the spectacle, while subaltern aspects of our historical legacy (our affiliations, our subterranean histories, politics, and potentials) are repressed. The informatics machine that powers the spectacle correlates data through the transaction that is the image: who—that is, what parts of us (considered as the species we are)—will become the bits that run the program and what parts the bits that the program runs on? Think of it this way: there is a little human inside the screen after all, billions of us actually, human bodies captured in the vast network of capital that exist only to be signified upon. This abstract, visibly invisible problem is, not so surprisingly, a particularly material economic problem, even if few people are paying attention to that fact. But many are paying with their lives, caught as they are in the crush of the global datasphere as it machines its images and concepts, along with the very “globe” of globalization.

And it is no secret that in the production of instrumental images, a production within which the world’s poor are not so gainfully employed, there is simultaneously a mass production of ignorance. There is an economics to this ignorance as well. The Bush administration has provided ample evidence about the profits that can be made with socially produced stupidity: Americans are stupid by design. Never perhaps have forms of ignorance that include carefully calibrated racism, historical, economic and political blindness, and a sheer inability to analyze or even retain the simplest facts been turned to such productive ends. This essential ignorance marks a deeper failure (which pays those who fail with the coin of success) on the part of our political, economic, and media theorist-practitioners to conceptualize the economic parameters of the media-environment. Philosophically speaking, it represents a higher level of intellectual failure, one that leaves the question of social justice conveniently on the side of the unconceptualizable. Here we have the philosophical and political consequence of the mediatic capture and incorporation of understanding and imagination. As one of my own teachers once remarked, “Today we can more easily imagine the death of the planet than we can the end of capitalism.” This formulation is not merely a rumination on politics or aesthetics, nor a simple refashioning of Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the aesthetic under fascism in which we can experience our own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order; it is the outline of the social imaginary fundamental to the regime of production characteristic of and indeed constitutive of postmodernity.

Let it be registered then that the media have not just been organizing human attention; they are the practical organization of attention just as factories, agribusiness, the military-industrial complex, and the service sector are the practical organization of labor. Attention is channeled in media pathways that traverse both hardware and wetware. These pathways are themselves the historical compilation of body-machine interfaces: cinematization also means cyberneticization. Readers here will have internalized the protocols of mass media (shot, countershot; turn on the radio, drive; jack in; check your email) and what to do when they interface. Indeed all of us are attuned to their constant developments. Moreover, such developments are further expressions of our productive capacities. Today, labor and attention are inexorably intertwined—indeed attention may be grasped as the superset of human productive activity that contains traditional labor as one of its forms. All of the historically sedimented “dead” labor that has become capital accumulation must be constantly serviced if it is to remain profitable. Therefore the evolving matrix of human productive relations must be continuously reconfigured. This means that we invent the media; it is our needs, our desires, our practices, or rather as perfect an expression of these as is possible within a near-totalitarian matrix of capitalization that carve out the social space of each new form of mediation in advance of its arrival. These “advances” are captured by capital’s always profitable self-transformation and rendered productive of intensifying inequality—they are the viral penetration of the logistics of capital into the life-world that turns revolutionary desires (for self-realization, for survival) into the life-blood of a growing totalitarianism. As Aimé Césaire reminded Europe, it was third world labor that built Europe’s great cities—even if the colonial workers whose labor was expropriated did not end up owning them. Rather, colonized peoples encountered and still encounter the first world wealth that they produced as something “hostile and alien.” With the www, all these prior vectors of capitalist exploitation still obtain, not only in the global assembly line of computers themselves, not only in the computer/screen-mediated global debt servicing that powers finance capital and sets the agendas of nations, and not only because US taxpayers financed the development of the web when it was still a Pentagon project, but because the collectivity has built the screen/society and the web through our utilization of it, even if most of us do not own a single share of Google. Prudhoun’s great dictum, “Property is theft,” might find its current expression in this cry for the expropriation of the expropriators: “Google belongs to us.”

The generalized gathering of human productive capacities under the complex regulation of the matrix of relations that constitute spectacular society simultaneously extract profit and manufacture “consent.” With the rise of visuality comes the erosion of language and therefore of certain kinds of reason. As I have suggested, “consent” includes both the organization of mass desire and sensibility, as well as the rendering invisible, and thus effectively unconscious for the society of the spectacle, the situation and indeed existence of a huge portion of the global population. A third element in the paying of/for attention, an element implied by the economic and social capture of corporeal practice by vast networks of structured attention, has perhaps received its strongest formulation in the recent work of Paolo Virno. In A Grammar of the Multitude, Virno claims, more or less correctly I think, that capital has captured the cognitive-linguistic capacities of humanity.[5] These capacities, what Marx once called “the general intellect” and which were once part of the commons, have been subsumed for capitalist production. We speak, act, think, behave, and micromanage ourselves and others according to the “score” that is the general intellect—in short, the protocols or grammar of capital. For Virno, each of our acts becomes a kind of virtuoso performance of the score that orchestrates contemporary life under the regime of capital accumulation. This final subsumption of our cognitive-linguistic capacities by capital (and its huge industries dedicated to the production of signs) is the mark of the real subsumption of society by capital and the full economicization not only of culture but of what was once called “human.” That humanity, whether dancing and wailing on our screens, repressed beyond their frames, or stammering in our heads is the specter haunting the society of the spectacle—in the world of paying attention, humanity has become its own ghost.

This article is published as part of Cabinet’s contribution to documenta 12 magazines, a worldwide editorial project linking over seventy periodicals as well as other media. See for more information on documenta 12 and this project.

  1. Jonathan Beller, “Cinema, Capital of the Twentieth Century,” Postmodern Culture, vol. 4, no. 3 (1994). See also Jonathan Beller, “The Circulating Eye,” Communication Research, vol. 20, no. 2 (April 1993), pp. 298–313, and “Kino-I, Kino World: Notes on the Cinematic Mode of Production,” in Nicholas Mirzoeff, ed., The Visual Culture Reader, second edition (London and New York: Routledge, 2002).
  2. Michael H. Goldhaber, “The Attention Economy and the Net.” First Monday, vol. 2, no. 4 (1997), available at [link defunct—Eds.].
  3. Georg Franck, “The Economy of Attention,” Telepolis (December 1999), available at
  4. Mike Davis, “Planet of Slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Proletariat,” New Left Review, no. 26 (March/April 2004), pp. 5–34, esp. p. 5.
  5. Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Mutlitude, trans. Isabella Bertoletti et al. (New York and Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004).

Jonathan Beller is associate professor of English and humanities and critical and visual studies at the Pratt Institute. He is the author of The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle (Dartmouth College Press and University Press of New England, 2006) and Acquiring Eyes: Philippine Visuality, Nationalist Struggle, and the World-Media System (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2006). His current writing project has the working title The Tortured Signifier.

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