Monday, December 31, 2007

Paying Attention to Attention

[Hauled up from my Newsgroup archives; originally written June 21, 2006]

I hit a minor traffic jam on the way home, the other day. It was a “rubbernecker jam,” caused by some cars stopped by the side of the road, people out of the cars, probably exchanging information, but I was busy trying to get by them both safely and as fast as possible, so I didn’t see much.

It often makes sense to slow down. If there are people walking around by the side of the road, common sense suggests you shouldn’t speed by in the adjacent lane. I usually try to get as many lanes over as possible, and to slow down as little as possible, especially if the highway is near “jam condition,” i.e. when traffic flow is near maximum and the average speed is near 40 mph. Under jam conditions, anything that slows traffic will turn the entire highway into stop-and-go, because speeds below 40 have lower flow rates. Behind you is maximum flow rate, ahead of you is less than that. What do you think is going to happen?

Some people slow down to look at anything that catches their attention, though, even things that aren’t hazards. In fact, the slowing down adds a new hazard, but what is that, or the inconvenience of jamming the highway, compared to satisfying your curiosity?

I have very low impulse control when it comes to curiosity, so I should probably be a sucker for rubbernecking. But I’m also a contrary cuss, and I don’t like having my attention grabbed like that. Besides, it’s not as if an accident scene is something I’m particularly interested in.

Other things I’m not particularly interested in include political press conferences, presidential addresses, interviews of grief-stricken family members, stories about celebrity trials, celebrity marriages, celebrity divorces, prostitution rings, home invasions, the growing menace of meth, the growing menace of illegal aliens, pedophiles, and how they use the internet, stories about the internet generally, and pretty much anything that is followed by the words “News at 11.”

So I generally confine my TV news viewing to The Daily Show, and occasionally PBS. I get a newspaper, and I’ve got this internet thing going as well, not that you should be interested in that.

The thing is that attention, mine and yours, has a price tag. It always has, at least as long as I’ve been alive, but the competition for attention has been increasing. Even in strict economic terms, that means that when someone grabs your attention, they’re stealing from you. In more meta terms, philosophical even, they’re making you less free.

There are a lot of ways of grabbing attention. Loud noises, flashing lights, grisly images, those work pretty well. So do good looking women, children, and kittens. Or puppies. Oh what fools they were for rejecting The Puppy Channel!

What also works is making you afraid. There’s a lot of that going around. It’s related to making you angry, and there’s a ton of that, too, as well as making you gleeful because someone else (the right someone) is going to be angry or afraid. That’s the stock-in-trade of some right-wing hatemongers, but don’t kid yourself, your politics only speaks to which someone is trying to make you afraid of, or angry about.

But what to do about it? It’s a conundrum, because “Every knock is a boost.”

When someone tells you how much they hate a certain commercial, they are nevertheless spreading the information in that commercial, and sensitizing you to it. The reaction itself spreads it, like sneezing with a cold. The same thing applies when one complains about hate speech.

A friend of mine is a physician in Florida, and he has a colleague who got sucked into a malpractice and fraud scandal. The colleague had all charges eventually dismissed, and he won all civil actions, but the publicity was devastating. Personally devastating. Professionally, his business increased, even during the time when he was still under suspicion but not exonerated. My friend’s assessment came down to “There’s no such thing as bad publicity. People knew they’d heard of him, but they didn’t know why, so he got more business on name recognition.”

Maybe correct, maybe not, but the principle is there. Certainly at some level, infamy becomes a burden, but it’s chilling to remember that Ted Bundy was getting marriage proposals up to the day he was executed.

One idea is to try to ignore the advertisers, attention grabbers, hate-mongers, and the rest, but that isn’t what I do in rubbernecking incidents. I try to deal with the surrounding effects. So maybe the answer is to ignore the originating factor and to concentrate on those who give their attention to it. Don’t attack the leaders or the spokesmen, attack the followers.

You read Ann Coulter? Why would you ever want to gawk at such a car wreck?


black dog barking said...

Attention is indeed the coin of the realm. Some years back the internet marketing geniuses were talking about eyeballs as the measure of success, a metaphor for attention.

The state of what passes for news is appalling, we *are* constantly driving by a news wreck. Compounding the matter is the complete ubiquity of squawking teevees, they're everywhere and always on. I'm not a luddite but the old method of news transmission has its faults and charms -- going to the town baseball game, gossiping between pitches about affairs foreign and domestic (and really domestic) -- sponsored by the nice firms with their names on the outfield fence and the uniforms.

(Tactical tip for engaging annoying followers: while there is little concern about *being* stupid, we have enormous aversion to *looking* stupid. Quietly observing that a particular statement makes one look stupid gets the subject changed fast.)

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