The Attention Games

What Americans choose to concentrate on, now more than ever, is an ethical matter.

Rick Bowmer / Evan Vucci / Manuel Balce Ceneta / Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Susan Walsh / AP / Marco Vacca / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

On Wednesday afternoon, in the ramp-up to the midterm election, the president of the United States posted a video to his Twitter feed: a political attack ad focused on Luis Bracamontes, the “illegal immigrant,” as the ad calls him, who was convicted of murdering two deputies in Sacramento, California, in 2014. “Democrats let him into our country,” the ad’s text reads—the line is false—while footage of Bracamontes plays in the background. As the convict sits in a courtroom, laughing, apparently admitting to murdering the two cops and vowing to “kill more,” crashing drumbeats heighten the tension that spreads over the sound-bitten story. The ad’s video then cuts away from a single person to a crowd of them, traveling to a time in the unspecified present, to footage of people—members, by implication, of the caravan that the president has been keeping in the forefront of the American consciousness—who yell, who run, who push through gates, doing nothing wrong save for endorsing the president’s preferred characterization of those he insists on seeing as other: as a threat. As an invasion. As an infestation.

It is painfully clear what Donald Trump, under the auspices of the American presidency, was doing with the ad. He was attempting, in the heady handful of days before the crucial midterm elections, to question the motives of an entire population of people: the dirty politics of the swift boat, expanded into a swift fleet. Here, in a 53-second, Twitter-aired ad spot that has, as of this writing, garnered 5.1 million views, is a culmination of the promise Trump tacitly made when, in 2015, announcing the commencement of a presidential candidacy that had already been fueled by racist lies, he descended the escalator at his gilded tower and accused Mexicans writ large of being rapists and criminals. Not just racism, but swaggering racism. Racism that has been assured that it can voice itself, in the marbled atrium and out in the open, and face few meaningful consequences save for a victory in a presidential election.

Those responsible for the now-infamous exploitation of William Horton in the 1980s were ashamed of themselves enough to distance themselves from that ad, both at the time and later on. Trump’s invocation of Luis Bracamontes, however—a Wag the Dog–level distraction, waged not through fake war but through fake news—professes no such shame. It is, instead, blatant and gleeful and practically giddy. “The hoods are off,” my colleague Matt Thompson put it last year. The hatred has metastasized. Wag the Dog whistle.

None of it—the racism itself, the crudely manufactured attempt at a last-minute October surprise—comes as a shock. What is notable about the Bracamontes ad, though, is its treatment of racism as a useful spectacle. The spot is in one way a dog whistle operating with the subtlety of a cowbell; it is also a nearly guaranteed way, in these heady days before the midterms, to hijack the American media’s attention. It is a thing—an outrageous thing, a hateful thing—that would, via the forces of its own awfulness, compel everyone to look at it. And thus to look away from other things.

Look away, the ad cajoled, drumbeat by drumbeat, from the horrors of Pittsburgh, from the worst episode of anti-Semitic violence in the nation’s history. Look away from the fact that Trump’s hateful rhetoric against immigrants helped to fuel the murders. Look away from the series of pipe bombs that had been sent the week before to members of the American government and the American media. Look away from the voter suppression. Look away from the fact that the White House’s effort to frame the group of migrants making their way north through Mexico as an “invasion” has been acknowledged, even on Fox News, as an absurdist lie. Look away from the migrant children still locked up in cages. Look away from the murdered journalist. Look away from the wind-ravaged island, and from the other ones. Look away from the poisoned water. Look away from the rising seas, the seething storms, the menacingly heating air. Look away from the apathy. Look away from the empathy. Look away. Look away. Look away.

* * *

Distraction has been a common word, within the political media, over the past days. So has misdirection. What their popularity suggests, to some extent, is the failure of the Trump administration’s efforts to distract and misdirect and otherwise mislead: The journalists, the words make clear, are onto him. But the reality-TV president is well aware of the Streisand effect; he understands how readily he can hack the workings of the American press when he, as president, chooses to distract and detract and lie.

A growing body of literature suggests how little difference there can be, in the end, between journalists’ intentional corrections of Trump’s untruths and their unintentional amplifications of them: The logic of “Don’t think of an elephant” has its analogue in the national mind. And so a discussion on CNN, searingly criticizing the bad faith and blatant racism of the Bracamontes ad, can register among the public, effectively, as simply another discussion of the Bracamontes ad. Oxygen is oxygen. Air is air. As CNN’s Kate Bolduan put it on Thursday, “Sources are telling CNN that the point of this video … is to change the conversation, to change the argument on immigration from family unification to invasion.” The panel that the network had convened for the occasion went on to conduct an impassioned discussion not of immigration or family reunification, but of the Bracamontes video.

Americans typically think of attention as a relatively straightforward proposition: a thing people have, and a thing people give. The attention economy. Attention as currency. Attention as something that is, figuratively and sometimes literally, paid. The slights and sleights of Donald Trump, however, make clear the limitations of those frameworks: There is more to attention as Americans tend to give it and receive it and exploit it in 2018. Yes, attention is capital. But it is also something deeper than that. It is also a moral good. It is a force that, summoned or squandered, has the power to bend the arc of human lives.

“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” William James observed, more than a century before a constantly chirping bird would come to serve as a metaphor for the way many Americans consume their information. He was making an existential point—you are, in many ways, the soft sum of your inputs—but he was also making a moral one: We have a choice in the daily decision of what to see, what to read, what to learn, what to know, whom to listen to, what to attend to. They are choices that also render, attention being a limited thing, in the negative: Each book read is another book not read. Each story heard is another story not heard. This is true for the individual mind; it is also, in its way, true for the national. The zero-sum nature of attention is the fundamental fact of journalists’ editorial decisions, and of audiences’ consumption decisions, and of the algorithms that define news feeds that define, in turn, the experience—the term was James’s long before it was Mark Zuckerberg’s—of the user.

And the individual choices—news consumer by news consumer, editor by editor, news feed by news feed—amplify. They become the terms by which some events are elevated and others are ignored, by which some people are seen and others are left in obscurity, by which some emerging truths are brought into sharp focus and others are allowed to recess. What we care about, as a we: This is determined, minute by minute and day by day and week by week, by a series of decisions that are profoundly ethical in nature. Attention has always had a moral valence, one deeply connected to the evils of apathy; the matter is heightened now, though, as people are exposed to one another in ways that were never possible before.

There was a time, not too long ago, when media theorists worried about “information overload”: the notion that the proliferation of news and facts, especially as occasioned by the rise of the commercial internet, might impede people’s ability to make everyday decisions. Those anxieties now seem quaint, replaced as they have been by more targeted fears about information silos and filter bubbles and fake news—but, still, the dangers of overload remain.

One of the problems facing the current moment, the economist Tyler Cowen argues, is not merely the proliferation of news that is fake, but also the proliferation of news that is true: Everyday consumers simply have too much information to make reasonable sense of, Cowen suggests. And the too-muchness is its own kind of problem, because it allows for a very particular kind of mass cynicism: Consumers, now with a glut of information at their disposal—even the true information!—can cherry-pick their realities. And the sources who provide the fruits in question—journalists, academics, experts of all sorts—are also subject to the forces of informational glut. Via social media and cable news and other platforms of constant exposure, those people are revealed in multidimensional ways that they never would have been before. “It’s not quite that you have discovered that the emperor has no clothes,” Cowen writes. “But perhaps you have noticed that he (or she) is missing a few critical garments.” His column is titled “How Real News Is Worse Than Fake News,” and it makes an extremely convincing argument.

What the column is also talking about, however, is attention: the way the modern media consumer is made to pay attention to elements of information-generation that were, in an earlier age, largely kept from view. One of the massive cultural shifts that has taken place in America over the past decade is a broad movement away from a news economy driven by scarcity—the space in a newspaper, or a magazine, or a broadcast—and toward one driven by abundance: the 24-hour news cycle, the proliferation of news sources, the limitlessness of the digital page.

Which is also to say that “attention,” in today’s media ecosystem, means something slightly but meaningfully different from what it meant under the previous regime. News consumption demands not just consumption itself, but also selection among so many, many choices: CNN or MSNBC or Fox or PBS or Showtime or Netflix or The New York Times or The Washington Post or NPR or The Atlantic or Vice or The Gateway Pundit or Facebook or Twitter or your favorite blog or really any blog or multiple other options—ongoing, demanding, incessant, proliferating—competing for your precious time and, with it, your precious attention.

The anxieties accompanying this paradox of informational choice might help explain why, recently, “mindfulness” has arisen as a cultural preoccupation. And why, among the memes that have gained traction of late, the one that made jokes about the affordances of the expanding brain—the mind that is uniquely capable of transcending its own gray limitations to espouse a shimmeringly holistic view of the universe itself—caught on. Intelligence is a relative thing, in the sense that what it means to be smart in the America of 2018 is quite different from what it means to be smart in the America of 1918, or 1818; brilliance in 2018, the galaxy brain suggests, involves the ability to overcome the limitations of one’s own meager mind. It is to achieve the kind of holistic understanding embodied by Google, climate scientists, Janet from The Good Place, and pretty much no one else. Beings uniquely able to see things whole, and to see them true.

A holistic intelligence is at play when American journalists, rather than simply informing the public that Donald Trump has issued a pre-midterms campaign ad, report on it as part of a broader project of mass distraction. At play as well, however, is a reminder of how ill-equipped American media systems are to report on a president who, as information overload incarnate, has so effectively weaponized preoccupation.

In his sweeping book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, the legal scholar Tim Wu offers a history of the ways that attention has been summoned in America from the 19th century to today. He talks about the industrialized media systems—the newspaper, the radio, the television, the news feed—that have proven lucrative for those who have controlled them precisely because they have found canny ways to convert human attention into financial capital. Wu offers, as a shorthand for those systems, a useful, summative term: attention harvesting. The phrase is intentionally ominous. Attention, after all, is not only uniquely intimate, but also profoundly manipulable. To be a part of the media ecosystem of the present moment, teeming with news that is false and news that is true and news that is wanting above all to be looked at, is to live in a constant state of dazzlement. It is to be often plagued by the form of fleeting blindness that comes when you look too close at something too bright—when, for a moment, all that is visible, within your addled eyes, is the floating of fictive stars.

[ Read: The Image in the age of pseudo-reality ]

The Attention Merchants was published on October 18, 2016, which is to say it was released roughly a week after the content of Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tapes was reported by The Washington Post; roughly a week before James Comey would disclose that the FBI was reviewing emails that had been stored on Hillary Clinton’s private server when she had been secretary of state; and roughly three weeks before Trump, who began his campaign with a declaration of division, would win the presidency of the United States in spite of it all. The book was released roughly three months before Trump would take the oath of office and use the attention convened upon him to spread lies and fears about “American carnage.” It was released in the period before the news cycle would become so chaotic, and its attendants so addled, that people would regularly make jokes about what a long year today has been. It would take only a little while longer for those jokes to stop being funny.

The word distraction comes to the English almost directly from the Latin: distrahĕre, “to pull asunder.” Lurking in that history is the recognition that the state of distraction is not merely annoying or inconvenient; it can be destructive and dangerous. To live in the present American moment is not merely to inhale, constantly, an air of etherized cruelty, or to have one’s very experience—what I agree to attend to—denuded and deluded in the unending demands of the attention harvest. It is also never to be quite sure what is being overlooked, as the president race-baits and cable news bites, as breaking news competes for attention with ongoing emergencies, as Americans lose our ability to tell not only truth from fiction, but also truths of momentary significance from truths of existential urgency. Flint. Yutu. Climate change. Disenfranchisement. Worsening inequality. Systemic injustice. So many more. What will happen if we fail to pay them the attention they are due? Where does the distraction end and the destruction begin?