There’s a peculiar thing about attention: it is a limited resource. So many places are vying for that attention of ours, so much information and so little time. And yet the sense of being overwhelmed by distraction is not a new phenomenon. Our brains have evolved to focus on relevant information through millennia of natural selection. Even if the result is far from perfect, cognitively we cope today as we always have.
The limits of our attention, however, are not only located in the realm of cognition. I would like for you to give a moment’s thought to the intricate complexities of communication that form us as a social species. And I’ll start things off by telling you the name of a man who died twice.
Carlo Giuliani. 10 years and a few months ago Carlo died while he spoke out for something he believed in. He was shot in Italy and by the nature of his tragic death his name became the rallying cry for a movement in its infancy.
Youthful revolt questioning the way the world was governed garnered public attention. Anti-globalisation was a serious contender to become the next big thing, political parties in Europe and the Americas started to form around the idea of reigning in the rising power of the international finance sector. And then, just a few months after Carlo was shot, two airplanes crashed into the very symbol of capitalism. With the lives of the people in New York the terrorists took away the voice of a generation. Carlo’s name could no longer be heard.
The whole world was watching the US and the anguish, the shock and frustration of her people. Fixated on the aftermath we had no ears for anything else that might be going on. Not collectively at least. Communication has a lot to do with power. And the most powerful military force and cultural hegemon of the world commanded attention. We could not look away. The war on terror framed our world as the cold war framed the world before.
But for all those watching from afar it was only the perception of the world that had changed. The problems remained the same. Only this time the voices of those who wanted to call attention to these problems no longer got through. In an attention economy there are only so many items that will be elevated into a status of public debate. Society, much like the brain of the individual, has filters. These filters are the media.
Only what passes the threshold of being pushed through those gates, media outlets that are being monitored by enough people to create the context of a collective conversation, becomes an issue that is on the agenda. Having outsourced our policy making to professionals it is that agenda that is being worked on by politicians.
Imagine for a moment that history turned out differently. Imagine, not that the plains did not crash, nor how those in power reacted, but rather that the filters had allowed other topics to rise to a level of public discourse. Imagine that the headlines had been different. That people turned to other sources to find a common narrative of the world. That the agenda had continued to be filled with the items we were about to put on it a decade ago.
Today many who used to get the better end of the globalization bargain are for the first time experiencing the sting of systemic inequality that engulfs the world. For the first time they feel utterly powerless and robbed of their agency. This is not a new feeling for others. A new name was heard in their rallying cry. Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight and the voices that demanded change could no longer be silenced. In the European Union the demands of a young generation are strikingly similar albeit facing much less dangerous opposition. There is an underlying sense of insurrection against a system that denies agency to its subjects connecting these incidents. And with new filters, new media outlets, there are now more places where this sense may be turned into a shared identity.
Today we find ourselves asking the same questions that were being asked roughly ten years ago. Not just the 99%. Youth in the world is demanding an answer. Always have, always will. It’s just that we did not pay attention.