The technics of attention – thinking about the attention economy through Stiegler’s philosophy of technology

In a final post about the ESF sponsored conference, Paying Attention, held by DCRC in September, I have recently written about the concept of technicity in relation to the capacity for attention. What follows is the text from that post, I hope it is of vague interest…

Attention, as a capacity, is always and already situated in a socio-technical milieu, within which it is invited, cajoled, conditioned and broken. This has not least been brought into sharp relief in the contemporary milieu by global communications networks, and how they are searched, and ‘always on’ social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. As a capacity, then, we need to attend to the embodied and cultural foundations of attention. Undergirding much of the discussion of the attention economy, and its politics, at Paying Attention was the conceptual grappling with what we can call technicity.

In his valuable discussion of how we might ‘relearn’ how to understand and describe the ‘complicated, messy, fluctuating tange of technical mediations and collectives involving specific bodies and times’, Adrian Mackenzie highlights Heidegger’s critical question:

How can we deal with the fact that technology today displays itself everywhere as a constantly shifting, open-ended and groundless ordering of everything that exists, and yet we find it almost impossible to think about how we are collectively involved in that ordering, except in terms of an increasingly untenable anthropocentrism which elevates us, as ‘the human’, to the summit of all things[?] (Mackenzie 2002, 4)

To say that to critically engage with this question is difficult is perhaps an understatement. However, a number of scholars have explored the concept of ‘technicity’ as a means of gaining some theoretical purchase on the technological nature of being. Technicity is not a settled concept (see Mackenzie’s Transductions for deeper discussion) but for the purposes of this review we might understand it as the capacities of a body which are indivisible from technologies. Accordingly, and following Steigler and Derrida (after Heidegger), we can understand technology not as a ‘supplement’ to bodies (or to cultures for that matter)-for neither body or technology comes ‘first’-but as the tools and equipment that necessarily co-develop with human beings.

Technicity is an elementary concept for understanding being in the world. Human ‘subjects’ should not be seen as stable. Instead, there is an ongoing process of ‘subjectivisation’ that is located in the body but incorporates a range of other actors. We are always and already ‘in progress’ – the experience of ‘subjectivity’ is a temporary settlement principally located in a body, but held in relation to affects, other bodies, and things. Following Mackenzie’s rendition of Steigler’s reading of Gilbert Simondon, we can understand technicity as the capacities and affordances of the body-technology ensemble. Important to note here is that neither ‘the human’ nor ‘technology’ comes first: they co-develop. The technicity of beings and technologies figures them as always and already in a localised assemblage of practices and a generalised ensemble of relations:

‘Technicity pertains to an iterability associated with technical elements and derived from a singular, site-specific conjunction of different milieus. Technicity can be found within different contexts broadly ranging between small sets of tools to ensembles composed of many sub-ensembles’ (Mackenzie 2002, 14).

Following Steigler, technicity offers a way of understanding how individual experience is exteriorised, which allows subsequent generations to experience, individually, a past that one has not lived and add something to it. As Nathan Van Camp argues of Stiegler’s rendition of technicity: “the human is not constituted through its opposition to the animal, but rather through its relationship with technics, or, as Stiegler calls it, inorganic organised matter”. Conference speaker Ben Roberts has suggested in previous work: ‘the exteriorisation of the human into technics–writing tools and so on–raises a fundamental aporia of origin’. Stiegler explains this aporia of origin thus: ‘The paradox is to have to speak of an exteriorisation without a preceding interior: the interior is constituted in exteriorisation’ (Technics and Time 1) .  Thus technicity is a double-bind between being both constitutive and a supplement of ‘the human’.

In the light of this conceptualisation of technicity, we can, and should, read the content of Paying Attention as various articulations of the ways in which the the socio-technical milieu of the attention economy exhibits, (re)conditions and is constituted by technics. As Patrick Crogan has recently argued, Stiegler introduces his account of digital technologies by characterising the contemporary era as one in which the tendency toward the industrialisation of memory approaches. As Steigler noted in his paper at Paying Attention: our collective experience of how we become individuals, or ‘transindividuation’

“has become the object of industrial technology, based on a social engineering, where attention and relational technologies develop via social networks etc. This social engineering has as its goal… the capacity to render [the social relation itself] industrially discretable, reproducible, standardisable, calculable and controllable by automata.”

Whether intended or not, the ‘social engineering’ of the corporatised ‘social web’, in which we are all enrolled as producers of value i.e. attention, is a direct attempt to (re)condition the technics of attention.

Tiziana Terranova, in her paper ‘The bios of attention’, offered an expert introduction to the biological/physiological foundations of attention and the bio-politics of its constitution as a commodity. For Terranova, the question is “how to re-conceptualise our understanding of attention as productive power in such a way as to subtract it from [a] reductive economicism”. We can thus understand attention as a capacity formed from technicity. Attention, therefore, is ‘the process by which value is produced as insperable from the production of subjectivity – that is from the invention and diffusion of common desires, beliefs and affects’. Attention must accordingly be seen as a relational product of the socio-technical milieu.

Ben Roberts addressed the economies of attention in coding open source software and the apparently crypto-neoliberal rhetoric surrounding them from economic theorists such as Yochai Benckler. For Roberts, the principal problem with such rhetoric is that it unproblematically argues that ‘creative labour is highly differentiated and thus less easy to hierarchically manage’. Following Galloway and Thacker, Roberts suggests that the ‘liberation rhetoric’ around distributed networks is in stark contrast to actual, contemporary, workings of power. To understand networked modes of production Roberts argues that we might need to rethink new modes of labour, which ‘liberatory’ economic theorists such as Benckler apparently ignore in favour of thinking only about means of production. Roberts ties this to Lazarrato’s understanding of immaterial labour, which he contrasts with Benckler’s theorisation of networked production. Roberts suggests that Free Software might be seen neither as the rising efficacy of liberated individuals, nor as new modes of production but as new forms of individuation. This means thinking of individuation as the “individuation of networks as a whole and the individuation of the component parts” (Galloway and Thacker 2007, 60). The network’s potential will thus only be realised in new forms of ‘trans-individuation’ (following Steigler – see above). The technicity of networked attention, understood as focussed forms of ‘immaterial labour’, is therefore realised in processes of trans-individuation betwixt and between networks (and their constituents).

Finally and more broadly, we can see the problem of technicity as underlying many of the issues raised by the diverse range of speakers at Paying Attention. For example, Stanza’s artistic interventions into the technical circuits of the city as a means of production illustrate and ciritque the ways in which attention and memory are enscribed in the physical manifestation of urban spaces. Elizabeth Van Couvering’s investigation into the political economics of internet search, as an industry, highlighted how new forms of technical logic have emerged in the re-figuring of the metadata that describe users as the most saleable asset. The performance given by Simon Poulter humourously set in relief the many and varied ways in which attention is conditioned and fixed in the mundane technical practices of everyday life.

In thinking about technicity we are questioning the assumptions which form the basis of established understandings of technology, usually as either the somehow separate driving force of society or as the upshot of cultural production. More specifically, in thinking about and questioning the technics of attention we are critically engaging with the basis for what has been characterised, in the discussion of Paying Attention, as the new economic, political and sociotechnical milieu of the networked society.

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