Events - 26.04.2013 - 00:00 

The rivalry for attention

What impact does the commodity “attention” have on our society? Three guest speakers at the conference on “The Future of Content is Context” focused on the power of concentration from different angles.<br/>


26 April 2013. For two days, the conference dealt with issues connected with contextual studies at the University of St.Gallen. On the first day, the focus was on responsible management, multidisciplinarity and entrepreneurship in society.

A panel discussion on the second day homed in on the question of the impact that attention has on our society under the heading of “From Vanity Fair to Neuromarketing. Do We Live in an Attention Economy?” Andreas Herrmann, Director of the Center for Customer Insight at the University of St.Gallen, introduced the discussion. In the management expert’s neuromarketing research, attention plays a big role in consumer decisions.

A cultural history of attention
Emmanuel Alloa, HSG Assistant Professor of Cultural Theory and Cultural Philosophy, provided an insight into the development of the “concept of attention” in the history of thought. Attention, once conceived of as an “insurance policy against tedium”, had turned into a rare commodity in a dynamic society. According to the economist Jeremy Rifkins, we have been living in an “age of access” since the turn of the millennium: in a time in which society has been re-creating itself through the exchange of information rather than goods.

The new “immaterial” economy suffered from information being understood as something detached from its distribution channels. In fact, however, the value of information was only created by its distribution. According to the architect Georg Franck, attention itself had developed into a new currency. The expression “to pay attention” was evidence of this, said Alloa.

A drug for a sense of well-being
Christian Elger, Director of the Center for Economics and Neuroscience at the University of Bonn, explained how stimulus processing controls our concentration in the brain. The neurologist runs a research centre for applied biomedicine, in which researchers develop strategies to cure disorders of the nervous system. Elger used brief tests to show how the brain processes information and how attention is generated. Attention activates the brain’s reward centre. If it is missing, this triggers negative sensations and pain. No wonder, then, that everyone in the “access society” is struggling for attention.

Michael Hagner, Professor of Science Studies at ETH Zurich, outlined how our perception of attention has changed. “In the 17th century, the audience chatted during concerts. 200 years later, chatting in a concert hall was frowned upon.” The educated middle class had elevated attention into an ideal. This could easily be seen in educational methods: children had to learn to pay attention in order to guide their thoughts into well-ordered channels.

The veneration of products
Attention had developed from the intellectual ideal of the late antiquity philosopher Augustine into an economically quantifiable unit, for instance in the advertising value measurement of attendance figures and the counting of page impressions in the internet: who clicks on what, how long do they stay with a medium and its contents?

Bernard Stiegler, Head of the Cultural Development Department at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, established a connection with the psychology of capitalism. “Emotional decisions characterise everyday social life – they control our innovation behaviour,” he said. Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, of the emotional predilection for products, was more strongly present in today’s consumer society, noted the media theorist.

Attention as a cornerstone of education, as an emotional drug, as a rare commodity in the service society: these were the aspects treated in the panel discussion and the subsequent discussion with the audience. A counter-concept for the mind’s permanent exposure to noise in an interlinked society? A cultivated power of concentration and silence on all channels, was the plenary session’s conclusion.

Photo: Photocase /

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