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The image overtaking the object; the re-financialization of financial products; software eating the world; reality tv; gamification of a routine. The simulation of a thing poisons the thing until it becomes the thing itself—world as simulacrum of world. This is pervasive, only growing with the increasing abstraction of every part of our lives. Per media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, “a map has replaced the territory.” And we are overwhelmed by the map.
This arcane world map necessitates the use of symbols and models that stand in for webs of cause and effect.
For people, our common signifier is attention. Without an ability to accurately assess the qualification or value of people we do not personally know, we rely on a combination of fame and celebrity, media coverage, Internet popularity, and localized notions of reputation and buzz to informally quantify a person’s gross receipt of attention into a measure of their merit. The flawed oversimplification of this model is that notoriety is actually correlated with its deservedness; that “press is success.” We’ve heard the book is good but we don’t have time to read it. Media businesses worked to popularize this model decades ago, cultivating a national desire for attention and celebrity that would catalyze their ability to control the perceived value of people for profit, at the cost of exploiting our innate need for love/care/attention from others. Our desire for attention is constant, but the rise of self-focused Internet platforms shifted the landscape and now every online person competes alongside advertisements and traditional celebrities for attention from friends and strangers. Any individual now has the opportunity to achieve at least a modicum of fame; to receive more relative attention and thus accrue more value. Living among flawed models has taught us that success within a simulated system requires optimizing for numbers themselves, rather than the underlying things they represent. Where attention and praise once followed the production of value, attention itself now produces the value; thus born the influencer, the reality tv star, the troll. The symbol has become so universal, the simulation so real, that the “Attention Economy” has become the economy.
Many of us engage in self-simulation to participate in this unfolding economy, presenting idealized versions of ourselves in virtual spaces. We understand that fully gaming the system is the clear path to “winning,” that saying and doing anything that leads to more attention, irrespective of truth, increases perceived value. High-achieving participants cultivate attention until the artificial value it begets is self-sustaining, cyclically generating more; the symbol becomes the data. The mutation of populism seen throughout the past year, particularly the rise of Donald Trump and related outsiders like Steve Bannon and Alex Jones (who thrive on the attention-summing combination of praise and disapproval), signifies the raw value we assign to notoriety. With real power now in the hands of once-comical attention-gamers, we might call what has emerged “Attention Politics,” a new more terrifying sibling of the Attention Economy where we apply the incorrect popularity-reflects-worth model even when choosing our society’s leaders. Policy and behavior fade away as people in power realize they can maintain it hand-in-hand with our attention.