Matthew Crawford sees that the space for sociability in public spaces is disappearing

by Mr. Sheehy

BD: What you mean by a political economy of attention?

MC: A few years ago I was in a supermarket and swiped my bank card to pay for groceries. I then watched the little screen intently, waiting for its prompts. During those intervals between swiping my card, confirming the amount, and entering my PIN, I was shown advertisements. Clearly some genius realized that a person in this situation is a captive audience. The intervals themselves, which I had previously assumed were a mere artifact of the communication technology, now seemed to be something more deliberately calibrated. These haltings now served somebody’s interest.

Over the last ten years a new frontier of capitalism has been opened up by our self-appointed disrupters, one where it is okay to dig up and monetize every bit of private mindshare. And very often this proceeds by the auctioning off of public space; it is made available to private interests who then install means for appropriating our attention. When you go through airport security, there are advertisements on the bottoms of the bins that you place your belongings in. Who decided to pimp them out like that? If my attention is a resource, and it is, then the only sensible way to understand this is as a transfer of wealth. It is an invisible one, but the cumulative effects are very real, and a proper topic for political reflection. Maybe for political action too.

BD: And people who want to guard their inner life are forced into themselves. It forces you to put a book in front of your face.

MC: Right, that’s one of the hidden costs. What’s lost is the space for sociability in our public spaces. Like you say, we’re driven into ourselves with sort of an arms race between private attention technologies versus the public ones.

Of course there’s another solution. If you have the means you can go to the business class lounge which in some countries like France is silent, there’s just nothing. That’s what makes it so incredibly luxurious. When you think about the fact that it’s the marketing executives in the business lounge who are using that silence to think — to come up with their brilliant schemes which will then determine the character of the peon lounge — you begin to see this in a political light. When some people treat the minds of other people as a resource, to be harvested by mechanized means, this is not “creating wealth,” as its apologists like to say. It is a transfer of wealth.

Matthew Crawford in an interview with Brian Dijkema for Comment Magazine. I find that idea about the loss of space for sociability fascinating. So often when folks rage about manners and the change in what is polite, particularly regarding phones, I find myself thinking there must be something more–that this will all move in a vastly different direction than we anticipate. Crawford’s insight, I am convinced, captures something that is crucial but difficult to recognize–the nature of the public space we’re used to experiencing is changing. In much of my experience, for example, I have to spend some good money to find a restaurant without a TV hanging in the corner. So if I want to live as one who prays constantly, or one who stops to converse with others, or one who simply sees more than what is thrust before me, I am facing a difficult obstacle–the very nature of the space around me–and as I am finding, choosing not to own a cell phone has not exempted me from these challenges.