Un projet Labex Arts H2H
en /fr
2012 - 2016

Cracking the Attention Code: Figuring Attention as Code, Not Capital.
By Dominic Smith

Dominic Smith Lecturer in Philosophy School of Humanities University of Dundee


Arguably more than any other factor, attention appears as a limit to the expansion of the Information Age. This is why Big Tech companies invest into studies of attention: to better understand how to exploit and monetise the attention consumers pay to their products in a distracted marketplace. It is also why a whole subfield of contemporary Business Studies is devoted to the ‘Attention Economy.’ Attention, then, appears as a code that the neoliberal thrust of our Information Age wants to crack.


But what if one of the greatest obstacles to achieving this is the failure to figure attention in other than crudely economic terms? What if the key to cracking the attention code is not to figure it as a ‘commodity’ or ‘capital’ , a supply of ‘available human brain time’, or something that must be ‘paid’, but rather as ‘code’? What happens if we treat the statement ‘attention is code’ not as a figure of speech, but rather as an ontological description, in terms of connotations of ‘code' emerging out of contexts of law, sport, and computer programming?


Apparently slight, this shift harbours danger. If it is true that the Information Age is failing to crack the attention code by figuring attention as capital, then figuring it as code may overcome this in favour of increased exploitation of attention by neoliberalism.


Faced with this danger, this paper will argue that it is more ruinous to continue figuring attention as capital than to recognise it as code. There are two reasons for this. First, where attention is figured as capital or a commodity, it appears as analogous to a ‘fossil fuel’, and experience shows that, rather than facing up to structural problems in how it capitalises on natural resources when faced with ecological crisis, the neoliberal tendency is to make Research and Development investments that maintain the structural status quo. This status quo is damaging because it continues to treat what it recognises as finite as if it were infinitely exploitable, whether gas, oil, or attention. Second, framing attention as code offers increased opportunities for resistance. To figure attention in terms of code, I will argue, means taking it out of a crudely economic framework that has become ‘bankrupt’, and to open it to other possibilities for thought. For example, when we figure attention as ‘code’, we can think of it in terms of the following: a jurisprudential capacity to generate principles of attention (in the legal sense of ‘code’), a ludic capacity that generates rules for games capable of sustaining states of deep attention and ‘flow’ (in the sense of ‘code’ operative in sport) and, further, an active capacity to programme attention, rather than having it passively ‘programmed’ or ‘hacked’ (in the computing sense of ‘code’).


The paper has three parts. Part one draws on authors including Jodi Dean to argue that Foucault’s concept of ‘technologies of the self’ needs to be updated to take into account issues of attention as code. Part two draws on Catherine Malabou’s work on the politics of plasticity, arguing that her conclusions can be expanded by moving beyond neuroscience and the brain, towards a focus on attention as embodied and ‘ecological’. Part three concludes by drawing on authors including Jonathan Crary and David Graeber to cash out some of the institutional and economic consequences of figuring attention as code for the Information Age.


About the author

Dominic Smith is lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Dundee, Scotland. He has taught philosophy at the Universities of Dundee and Edinburgh, and is a member of the teaching team for the Art, Philosophy and Contemporary Practices degree, run in connection with Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee. His research interests lie in phenomenology and contemporary European philosophy (Husserl, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Deleuze), philosophy and art, and philosophy of technology. He has published in each of these areas, and is currently working towards a book length study on the philosophy of technology.


Key words

Attention; Crary; Economy; Political Economy; Information Age.

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Un projet Labex Arts H2H