The Cost of Paying Attention

Photo courtesy of the New York Times

A FEW years ago, in a supermarket, I swiped my bank card to pay for groceries. I watched the little screen, waiting for its prompts. During the intervals between swiping my card, confirming the amount and entering my PIN, I was shown advertisements. Clearly some genius had realized that a person in this situation is a captive audience.

Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.

What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an “attentional commons,” then we could figure out how to protect it.


Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I heard only the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. I saw no advertisements on the walls. This silence, more than any other feature, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows, your neck muscles relax; after 20 minutes you no longer feel exhausted.

Outside, in the peon section, is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it.


I think we need to sharpen the conceptually murky right to privacy by supplementing it with a right not to be addressed. This would apply not, of course, to those who address me face to face as individuals, but to those who never show their faces, and treat my mind as a resource to be harvested.

Read the rest from the NYT.

I’ve been privvy, in some way or another, to this for years. I grew up in a second or third-generation suburb where everything was quiet, businesses were very small, and billboards far between. On top of having hypersensitive hearing, I just liked the quietude. But then I got the bright idea to go to college in New York City. In many ways, it was a big mistake.

I moved back home 5 years later, cherishing every tiny drop of delicious silence I could get. I sit and listen to the birds now, and to my cats’ faint snoring as they nap. I can hear the gardener raking leaves on the other side of the condo complex. But I consider all this rehabilitation, and it’s a slow process: 3 years I’ve been at this, healing the physical and psychological damage that living in such a loud, fast-paced, personal-space-deprived city caused me. I’m in the middle of healing my adrenal glands, shot from stressing out over too much overstimulation for too long.

And in the culture I, as a USian, live in, it’s an uphill battle. We are a country where TV commercials are louder than the programming, where we print advertisements on our goddamn eggs. It’s hard to find silence anymore, to find a space where you can get away from “being addressed”, as the article’s author so aptly defines it.

While boycotts are not a great tactic for broad, lasting change, I think it’s definitely viable as a method of staying sane. Boycott marketing, inasmuch as you can figure out how to do that. Reclaim your time. Turn off the TV, use ad-blocking software on your computer (Disconnect, a favorite of mine, develops software to make you invisible to ads that track your movements online, among others that accomplish similar and important things), pay in cash whenever possible so analytics algorithms can’t track your spending habits, and just, y’know, try to avoid centers of high density marketing and consumerism whenever possible. You never know what kinds of tracking technology any given space is equipped with, anyway.

How do you avoid advertising and media overload?