my brain has too many tabs open: the problem of attention in digital capitalism

I’ve just ordered this print which I’ve been obsessed by since Su Oman showed it to me. Leaving aside the brain as computer metaphor, which I object to theoretically and yet find myself lapsing into using in everyday life, I like it because it so neatly conveys what I see as the problem of attention in digital capitalism. There’s so much to attend to, we’re so likely to know about things that we feel enthusiasm for and it’s so easy just to keep opening another tab on the browser. Until you’ve got 50 tabs open and it’s impossible to properly attend to any of them.

This isn’t a new idea by any means but in my current work I’m trying to distinguish between different elements which too often get run together concerning the variety of things for us to read, watch, play or otherwise engage with:

  1. the objective extent of that variety
  2. our awareness of that variety
  3. our access to that variety

Digitalization generates change in all three dimensions. I think it’s useful to distinguish between them. Here are some quick ideas, relating to the three dimensions above, which I’ll write up more fully at a later point in time:

  1. the diffusion of technical facilities for cultural production, the declining skill demands necessary for cultural production
  2. the growth of new intermediaries who help filter the objective extent of cultural variety, various forms of collective filtering, various forms of algorithmic filtering, the challenge of ‘being heard above the din’ (as Dave Beer put it)
  3. new gate keepers facilitating access to previously unimaginable libraries of content, conflicts between gatekeepers which leave content dispersed between different libraries, piracy of all forms, digital rights management and backlashes against it, improved connectivity of devices, diffusion of increasingly sophisticated portable devices