Attention Deficit Disorder
The afternoon sun angled through a tear in the tent. Ma Bao-Zhi grunted, then shifted his face towards the shade and screwed up his eyes. In the absence of light, the retinal burns from his always-on pupil-tracking HUD-halo danced before his field of vision. He sat up and stretched. It was a new day.
The corner of his visual field that was perpetually occupied by the DistroNet feed blinked. A major announcement was incoming from the most influential association of experts that he had ever been a part of: The Council Of Two Million With A Remit Of Everything.
The upstart replacement of last year’s not-hegemon, the Coven of Eight to the Seven; Masters of Knowledge, the Council had, yesterday, consisted of just over 50.3% of the surviving inhabitants of what had once been Taiwan SAR. However, as he scanned the headlines, he noted that an overnight disputation on the meaning of Buddha-nature had resulted in nearly two hundred being purged from the membership roster, and, more importantly, from the Council’s ReDistroList. Ma had never posted to any discussion regarding Buddha-nature, for which he was now extremely thankful.
Attention Distribution Cannot Be Gamed, he though, nodding to himself. It was a mantra every child knew, and it was obviously true. ‘Gaming’ would imply an illegitimate practice, and since the attention economy was inherently legitimate, any practice that arose thereof could not be ‘gaming’. The use of randomly-assigned attention redistribution lists to strengthen the network-influence of an association of experts was one of the most powerful practices there was - without it, no modern association of experts could compete.
With the saccadic grace of long practice, his pupils flipped to the updated, slightly smaller ReDistroList, and settled down to start his highly-encouraged ten hours of daily network-reinforcement. Ten hours - ten icons - each one painstakingly designed by the expert it represented. The Coven of Eight to the Seven had highly encouraged eight hours of ReDistroList attention, but the Council’s superior attention ethic had led to an expert association network both wider and deeper in links, and thus, far more influential. The Coven defined their area of expertise too narrowly, and left themselves open to a ratio attack. It was a trivial task for the Council to dial down the attention ratio of key knowledge industries overnight, leaving the Coven rudderless and sinking. Ma had been a third-quartile defector, holding out longer than most; his punishment was to enter the Council with six month’s half-ratio deficit. Half as likely to be randomly assigned to other experts ReDistroList, he counted himself lucky - the fourth quartile had been exiled entirely. As is, he was comfortably off in a deficit camp outside Taibao.
Ma shook himself; introspection was an audience of one. The first icon belonged to Tracy Liu: 166kg, pink highlights and moderator by acclaim of a yaoi fandom for the ancient classic, Glengarry Glen Ross.
The minutes ticked by, and as the completion bar for the first icon flipped over into green and Tracy’s hand-drawn icon faded from sight - young Al Pacino gently cupping young Jack Lemmon’s testicles on a bed of index cards - Ma decided that he would treat himself with an hour of free attention. He rucked the covers back from his legs and withdrew his 75MHz future-proofed laptop from its pouch.
Minutes later, halfway through the boot-sequence, Ma heard the unmistakable whirring of a Bother-Gyro. He dug rapidly through the contents of the tent for the thick blanket he’d found the week before, to muffle the fans of the laptop, but the blanket had been redistributed. It was too late anyway: the Bother-Gyro’s tracking software had heard the fans.
“Go away!” shouted Ma.
< Hello Friend And How Are You And Woo! >
The Bother-Gyro hovered just out of Ma’s reach.
< Would You Like A Comestible?! Marmalade Is In This Week! >
Bother-Gyros were increasingly common, flying over the water from the Penghu Collective, and Ma had tangled with them before, when he was a high-ratio member of the Coven: an attractive target. The Collective were Min-speakers, and the language barrier was starving them of culture-based attention, and forcing them to desperate measures. He knew that while they would advertise to any moving object, their main purpose was to gain the attention of the victim. Even compared to the average camp member, Ma’s influence ratio was low…
“Hey! Bot! There’s a high-ratio family just over that wall! You can bother them all at once! Think of the attention gains!”
Unfortunately for Ma, the Bother-Gyro was also running off a 75MHz chip, which did not support voice recognition. Even more unfortunately, what little resources it did have to bring to bear were mainly concentrated on measuring the direction of gaze of the victim, and Ma’s gaze had briefly moved from the Gyro to the wall he was gesturing at. The Gyro aimed a module at the RFID tag on Ma’s halo.
Pepper-spray will catch anyone’s attention.
Whilst Ma rolled around in the dirt, the Bother-Gyro gently settled on the ground next to him, conserving battery. Proximity was worth less attention than direct eye-contact, but it was still worth something. After a minute, the database updated the Gyro on Ma’s uninspiring attention value, and it buzzed off in search of less deficient prey.
The afternoon was nearly over before Ma’s eyes stopped watering, and the pupil-tracker started to update correctly. Luckily, his HUD-halo was undamaged - it could still receive and transmit audio, video, pupil-tracking data and, indeed, record everything that Ma did. Nine hours of ReDistroList remained on his schedule, but he had bigger things on his mind. Of all the places, his deficit camp was lucky enough to be in viewing distance of a celebrity battle.
It wasn’t entirely by chance, of course. Celebrity Mechas were very power-hungry, and required tethering to the grid network, and deficit camps had the tendency to spring up in unused land along grid lines. While city dwellers might have had the massed influence to force such a destructive event outside their municipal margins, a deficit camp by definition could not face up to even the most minor celebrity’s choice of land-resource.
This particular battle was between the gigantic robots piloted by a pornography magnate and a man who was extremely good at making videos of cats. Hovering cameras darted about the provided every possible angle around the machines, while in-cockpit vision was granted by cameras attached to both control modules. There were no adverts - the battle itself drew all the attention the participants needed.
The pornographer had outfitted his mecha with water sprinklers, providing the substrate for projected holograms of noted starlets and their riveting performances. The cat man, showing disdain for the practice of up-attending, had a far more stripped-down mecha, bowing to demand only by having a control module shaped like a cat’s head. While his initial surge in influence had been off the back of a pet British Shorthair, his true power came from his decision to breed several thousand of the creatures and lock them in a vast complex filled with pastel colors and assorted common household items. Cuteness, too, can be brute-forced.
As the two machines started to stride towards each other, Ma watched camp-dwellers who sought influence more than health run between the legs of the mechas. Like so much in the attention economy, it was a dual payoff. Simply being near a mecha guaranteed a proportion of the attention that the pilot was constantly exuding, and that was worth the risk of injury in itself. But, if a camera tracked by millions happened to autofocus on a lucky expert? Why, a single second’s worth of attention was more than the expert might otherwise see in a lifetime.
The battle was joined, and as the mechas stamped to and fro, they came closer and closer to the western edge of the camp - the edge furthest from Ma. Even those experts in the camp whose lack of attention ethics had placed them dangerously close to exile from their associations could not help but pay heed. Lasers flashed, missiles flew, and clouds of smoke emerged even when not strictly necessary. In fact, the battle, like most battles, was more bark than bite: it was considered bad form to actually kill another celebrity, not least because it tended to alienate part of your potential audience. After all, who didn’t enjoy both pornography and cat videos?
The din didn’t just attract the attention of experts - from miles around, Bother-Gyros wheeled in, guided by the very human tendency to correlate decibels and attention. Ma gazed in wonder as a two flocks of gyros of different manufacture, bathed in the proximity wash from the mechas, each mistook the other flock as the source of attention. Overriding the normal guideline that led them to disperse for maximal coverage, the gyros spiralled madly in ever decreasing circles as they sought to increase that flow.
As he watched, the gyrating super-flock, consisting of nearly a hundred Bother-Gyros, whirled into the cloud of spray being produced by pornographer’s mechanical contraption. A hundred automatic protection circuits flared into action, and the mass of gyros punched in the opposite direction - straight into the air intake ducts of the cat-mecha.
One gyro would have been unfortunate. Five would have led to an emergency shutdown. But no mecha-designer had considered such a freak occurrence as the emergent behaviour so briefly displayed by the gyro-flocks. Admittedly, QA and Safety were neglected disciplines ever since the advent of the attention economy - who would dedicate their lives to a discipline that involved something so unquantifiable as preventing rare occurrences? After all, it’s not as though someone might lose their accumulated attention - just their lives.
With a massive crunch, the flywheels at the center of the cat-mecha broke apart, releasing a torrent of kinetic energy, and sending parts of the mecha in every direction. The pornographer tried to backpedal his mecha away from the burning debris, but his attention elsewhere, he stepped directly on one of the experts that had been trailing his footsteps. As his machine overturned, the pornographer clutched at the control panel, seeking the emergency eject key, but by chance also fat-fingering the steam overcharge system. The porn-mecha’s control module blasted off the chassis - straight into the side of one of the few fixed-wall buildings in the camp. The steam explosion, while softer, was far more deadly.
Ma had hit the ground as soon as he saw the first gyro sucked into the air-intake - luckily so, as burning debris had taken out several of his neighbours. Now, his view obscured by what remained of the same three foot-wall he had urged the gyro to surmount earlier that day, he flicked his eyes to open a newsline. The events of the past minute had gone viral - his feed was already filling with commentary from the other side of the world. Every last survivor would soon be bombarded with requests for commentary on the death of the celebrities.
Celebrities plural? The feed from the cat-mecha was still active. In fact, the explosion had blown the control module right over the camp, landing to the east, far from the screams of the scalded and poisoned camp dwellers. Ma held a rag over as much of his mouth and nose as he could reach through his HUD-halo, and levered himself to his feet.
The cat man was alive. In fact, he was almost unhurt - a mere fractured collarbone. He was, however, trapped inside his module, and mouthing something - the audio feed from his cockpit had cut out. Ma tore his attention from his HUD-halo and looked out, directly at the smoking module in the distance.
Never mind proximity attention - to be the man who saved a celebrity from almost certain death? To be the only source of an audio feed for the sole celebrity survivor of what the international feeds were calling the Disaster of Taibao?
Ma started to trot towards the control module, avoiding the prone bodies of those less fortunate survivors, around some of whom flames still flickered. He tore his foot away from the grasp of one, whilst muttering thanks for the last few seconds of absolute attention they granted him. He stepped over a corpse, then briefly glanced behind him. The least concussed of the able-bodied camp survivors were already moving after him. Turning his back to the setting sun, Ma broke into a run.