1) Assuming you get the infrastructure in place for eye trackers, everywhere I guess? How does this work. It simultaneously tracks vision to ascertain attention, and then has some sort of object recognition to see what is being attended to, how exactly is that actionable information? What does that tell anyone about other important details, such as intentions?
Good question. Measuring attention doesn’t say anything about intention. When I protest outside the Fed, I am giving it attention despite my negative intentions. You might think about attention as the absolute value of value: it measures relative degree of value but not its valence.
This is just how the system works, and I actually consider it a feature. Receiving attention means gaining influence, and increased influence increases the ability to marshal resources. So, for instance, the more people that drive on a road, the more road-constructing materials it should be able to marshal. But “marshalling resources” is neither a good nor bad thing; its just what needs to be done to keep the system working optimally.
So say I am the sole user of a largely unused road, and that road has fallen into disrepair because of lack of use. I might want to try and raise a big public stink about it and attract attention to this cause, with a Twitter campaign or whatever. Now that might not be enough to attract the resources to fix all the potholes, but the system has suddenly taken notice of an issue that had previously fallen under the radar, and it is more likely that at least some of the necessary resources will find their way to you, or that someone who knows how to get those resources will find you.
But the idea is fundamentally that the crowd handles all these issues in a distributed and decentralized way. In order to get those resources directed one way or another, you just have to ping the system and amplify that ping enough to get it to happen. Someone, somewhere, will be spending their days scanning twitter for people needing road repair and will be able to put them in contact with the people who have a bunch of road construction equipment looking for places it can be used.
2) How would this deal with things like apathy? The system doesn’t really provide incentives to act. Who is directing the resources, whose managing the labor to distribute said resources. Is all of this supposed to be part of the infrastructure too? Automated, etc.?
3) You mentioned it earlier, so I know you’re aware, but what about people paying attention to and only caring about Stupid Shit. How does an attention economy not just break down into a constant exercise in creating more and more scintillating, attention grabbing shit. If everyone is just paying attention to American idle, when does shit that no one wants to pay attention to but which is nonetheless important ever get taken care of. How can a handful of people interested and attending to very niche interests, say, scientists, ever marshall enough of the attention-bound resources necessary to meet their tasks? Especially with a lot of little known and understood problems, such as you typically find on the fringes of understood science, you’ll have a small number of “marbles” designating need where in reality a ton of marbles are needed to garner the resources necessary for the research.
I take these questions to be two sides of the same basic coin: what happens if people pay attention to the wrong things, or don’t pay attention enough, or otherwise aren’t good attention payers?
In the long run, if we aren’t good attention payers, then we die. There isn’t a system in the world that will protect us from ourselves. The attention economy isn’t meant to protect us from ourselves, it is just meant to solve the coordination problem.
This is an ant mill.
When an ant is placed in a foreign environment without a trail to lead it home, it will wander aimlessly, which is probably the best method for stumbling onto the lost trail. When it encounters another ant from the same colony, it follows: maybe that ant knows the way back!
When the entire colony is massively displaced and loses its trail it swarms around itself like a spiral galaxy, since all the ants revert to the best-guess default behavior of “following another ant”, and none of them have any idea where to go. Unless disrupted, the ants will continue to spiral around themselves until they all die from exhaustion.
These ants have no protection against their basic drives, and they have an intense drive to follow the trails of their fellow ants. This drive is usually a really really good thing, because the system they have set up ensures that “following other ants” will almost always help solve the Ant Coordination Problem. But when the whole colony is displaced, those basic impulses and drives spell doom for the whole colony.
Ant colonies provide rock solid proof that an agricultural society composed of millions of semi-autonomous individuals can survive for millions of years, and the ant mill is still a well-organized system built on those same stigmergic principles. It just has no direction and isn’t going anywhere. Coordinated, organized activity doesn’t guarantee any kind of evolutionary success or sustainability. It is certainly possible that bringing an Attention Economy online will have this result.
But I think it is incredibly unlikely, because I think we have too much interest in satisfying our basic needs to let the system spiral into exhaustion. I will admit that it is an optimistic view of humanity, but I don’t think it is fatal to the credibility of the view.
Lets start with the issue of the “jobs no one wants”. How to we draw attention to the issues no one wants to attend to? I think people are perfectly willing to do the basic work required to feed and house and clothe themselves, and that they are willing to work as part of the system if that system is achieving those ends. So who will take out all the trash and dig the ditches and clean the toilets? Well, someone is doing all that stuff right now, and I see no good reason to think that someone won’t continue to do it in the future. I know a lot of people right now do these jobs because they have to to feed and clothe themselves, and they would stop immediately and do something else if those needs were being provided for. That’s okay, those people may be far more productive elsewhere. But that doesn’t convince me that there wont be someone who will continue to do it even if their personal livelihood doesn’t depend on it, because it needs to get done.
By grandfather used to tell a story about living in rural Texas during the depression. Their “street” was a dirt cul-de-sac with about 6 houses holding ten or so immigrant families from Mexico. At the end of the road was the outhouse that the whole block shared. My grandpa explained that he never heard anyone discuss it, but the women on that street all worked out a cleaning schedule for that outhouse, sharing duties and distributing it among themselves not because anyone wanted to or was getting paid for it, but because the job needed to get done and they were willing to work together to do it.
That said, if people are using that bathroom and you are doing the work to maintain it, then some of that bathrooms marbles will be directed towards you. So the system does credit the people who do the work. If I don’t have the skills or talent to be popular but I still want to gain influence, there are plenty of things that need to get done.
And I think that’s the general lesson for all these cases. There are lots of workers who want to work but can’t. I don’t think people suddenly stop wanting to be productive simply because their livelihood doesn’t depend on it. I’m not trying to inject some new incentive structure entirely; instead, I’m trying to unburden the system so that people are free to follow their own incentives, and then hoping that our incentives are targeted well enough on meeting basic needs for ourselves and our neighbors that the coordination problem gets solved.
Now more directly to your cases, let’s do the “paying attention to stupid shit”. How do we make sure people don’t pay attention to stupid shit? I don’t think you can, frankly, and I don’t think you should try. Let them pay attention to whatever they want. I don’t think you end up with a planet of heroin addicts and couch potatoes. I think both diseases are forms of self-medication to alleviate the stressed of modern life and avoid the system; I think if we tear that system down and let people follow their pleasures as they will, they will be endlessly creative and productive and interesting.
Again, this is the networked model, the Digital culture. People are an incredibly diverse bunch, and the overall strength of the network is improved by that diversity, so I’m loathe to reign it in. The old 20th century model was to try and abstract away from individual differences in order to have the individual fit into the assembly line system, and so the impression was that we need to standardize everyone. No wonder the masses turn to opiates under this kind of oppression. So let people pursue their passions. Some of it will look banal, but that’s because people are banal. Some of it will look like /b/ because that’s how some people are.
But its a mistake to try to eliminate this diversity by trying to enforce a narrow range of acceptable interests. Diversity of interest, just like genetic diversity, is part of what makes humanity resilient.
Finally, let’s talk about apathy. There are real cases of complete lack of interest, and they usually are associated with depression and other forms of mental illness. These are serious cases, some of which are also the result of modernity-related stresses, but these kinds of issues can have all sorts of sources. Depression, and mental health in general, is a real and serious problem.
But I don’t think most people are apathetic in this sense. Most people have their passions and will invest tremendous energy and time into developing those interests, without anyone needed to come in from the outside to enforce that investment. But most of the time, people are forced to invest their time and energy into things they have absolutely no interest in whatsoever, and that creates the illusion of apathy. Again, my solution isn’t about trying to figure out a way to get them interested in those things, but instead to reorganize the system so they don’t have to be.