Paying Attention – The Ultimate Currency

Everybody at some point in time had somebody – a parent, a stern teacher,  an irritated spouse – who would point their finger at you and say “pay attention!”  Little did that person know that they were actually requesting a payment.  A deposit that in a lot of ways is no different than a dollar, a nugget of gold, or wampum. A currency by definition is something that can be exchanged for goods and services which is a measure of value on the market.   Generally, there is a finite amount of the money in the world.  If it was unlimited it would have no worth (and hence the reason you can not buy anything with dirt or air).  Human attention, like anything of value such as currency, oil, and diamonds,  is also a limited commodity.

Attention I would define as the selective cortical processing of information to something specific in either our external environment or internal world  which limits or prohibits processing of other elements in one’s lived experience.  The neurologic system of attention is essentially a filter which will let some information in and exclude other information. If we think about our brains akin to a bank, an oil well, or a mine,  just as one can only get so much out of them; there is only so much attention a human can give. There are certain regions in our brains, namely, the parietal lobes primarily, that can only handle so much information at one point in time.  The question then becomes “what information is going to get prime time and which is not?”  That is where we choose what to let in and what not to let in.  These attentional systems which act as the information gateways to our minds are the neurological currency which defines our lives, our relationships, society, politics, and, yes, real work monetary economies in a very meaningful way.  Just as we have to balance our accounts and make decisions about what to spend our money on, we have to decide what we are going to let our brains process.  These attentional payments go on at every moment of our lives and how we choose to make those allocations can effect every level of our existence. 

Lets think of  some examples.  Driving requires a certain degree of attention so that we can stay on the road, avoid hitting people,  and stop for red lights.  When we choose to reduce our attention by texting  or drinking alcohol we place ourselves and others in danger.  Additionally,  a marriage requires that each person devote some amount of processing to their spouse’s needs to ensure that the relationship remains happy and healthy. If the guy spends all his time watching sports, hanging out with his buddies, and staying late a work; then that becomes a problem – it’s a fundamental lack of attention to the marriage.  In extreme examples, people can give too much attention to the wrong thing.  Think of the crystal meth addict neglecting her child for another high, the patients with obsessive-compulsive disorders who are socially isolated because of their preoccupation with germs, or the anorexic who starves herself because she is solely focused on her appearance.  Finally, let us not forget about the politicians, news agencies, and marketing firms who are attempting to steal our cortical resources at every opportunity.   Whether it be one of those  irritating pop-ups on a web page or a  Maxim cover showing a dew covered woman in a sheer dress, they are all trying to divert our brain processing  even if for only a moment. Because every company selling anything knows that, without a person giving some level of attention to a product, a sale is never going to happen. Never. It’s the reason marketing commands billions.  Its why Lindsey Lohan - a drug addled tacky imbecile - still appears on magazines; she grabs people’s attention, even if it is because of disgust.

The rules and value of attention go beyond the individual.   Societies are collective organisms that are also governed by the attentional resources of their individual human components.   As a result, where those attentional resources go dictates real world allocation of value (i.e. money, human resources, and political will).  Like the individual, these resources are also limited.  Thus nations, corporations, and  societies of every size are subjected to the same book keeping rules to determine where this precious resource will be directed.  With the profusion of media at every conceivable level (internet, cable, etc) a society’s ability to process important from unimportant information can often get confused and watered down.  For  instance, it strikes me as inappropriate that the death of Michael Jackson or Paris Hilton’s latest  arrest should trump and distract the American populace from more important issues such as the Gulf Coast oil spill or an ongoing national financial crisis - but it does.  Additionally, one thing that should be kept in mind is that attention precedes action and conversely inattention guarantees lack of action.  Thus, where attention is collectively directed will predict the movement of money, the likelihood of votes, and the direction of social development.  On the flip side, distractions such as Paris Hilton, reduce our ability to collectively deal with problems that affect our society and thus predict inaction.

All that being said, attention is a slippery thing.  To date, it is hard to quantify.  We don’t have any attentional units or currency– we cannot say that when you need to pay attention to driving, a loved one, or to a natural disaster how much is the right amount.  Right now its measured indirectly with polling, interviews, and various behavioral statistics.  With the advent of neuroprosthetics, however, we may get closer to a time when we can measure the amount of attention much as we can measure the amount of gas in one’s tank.   Just as we are beginning decode the cortical signals associated with movement and speech, we are also beginning to get a handle on the cortical processes that underlie attention.  In so doing, we may have the ability to have a handle on this commodity and in turn be better at figuring out how to use it for ourselves and our society.  So in the future, when people say that “time is money,” the currency with which it is paid is in attention. 

Living in the Giant

If you ask one of my neurons, or a myocyte taken from my arm, it won’t tell you its name is Eric. Similarly, if you ask me what my name is, I won’t say the United States of America.  Common sense tell us that the cells that make up our body are all part of a larger whole that makes up a unique and self-aware entity. In my case, it’s Eric Leuthardt. It goes against everyday intuition, however, to think of a nation as a sentient organism that is conscious.  A hive consciousness usually harkens to far-out notions like “the Borg,” which as we all know, nothing kills conversation like a reference to Star Trek.

             So putting space fantasy aside for a moment, the actual notion is likely more real than our human egos are likely to accept.  I was recently reading an article by the evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel. http://edge.org/conversation/infinite-stupidity-edge-conversation-with-mark-pagel.  He argues that ideas are essentially the new DNA of the human species. For the last 1.5 billion years the combination of nucleotides (a biologic pattern) which is encoded in DNA (a biologic carrier)  has been the cellular software that has shaped the physical development of biological organisms.  Over the past two hundred thousand years, however, he posits that ideas (a biologic pattern) carried by human brains (a biologic carrier)  are the new information bearing medium that has played the dominant role in our evolutionary development. While I think he is right that ideas held in human brains are the new form of biologic information that shapes development, he misses the mark in its importance.  Ideas are not only the “DNA” that are shaping our human development, they are the DNA that underpins a whole new form of life– a “social macro-organism,” or more simply, the Giant.

             It’s probably a bit of our own hubris to think that the evolutionary process stopped aggregating living components when it came to us.  Ongoing biologic development has favored compiling biologic structures.  It started with the formation of amino acids, which eventually became combined into proteins.  Proteins then became embedded within plasma membranes to form the first single celled organisms.  These differentiated and eventually formed molds, slimes, and early plants.  Complex cellular structures eventually became mobile and more differentiated. Creatures were no longer clusters of cells, but had specialized substructures (different tissues, organs, appendages, etc) that did various things to give them some selective advantage to survive – legs to run, gills to breathe, teeth and claws to hunt.  Eventually after a lot of trial and error, humans and their idea-carrying brains came on to the scene.  My question here is why would nature stop aggregating life forms for higher levels of specialization and survival benefit? 

            Our government has already tacitly acknowledged that certain groups (i.e. corporations) can be treated as “people” in the eyes of the law.  Namely, a corporation (a group of humans) has a legal personhood with rights equal and equivalent to single human. Corporations can exercise human rights against real individuals and the state, and they can themselves be responsible for human rights violations.  Wikipedia is quick to note, however  “that corporations are not living entities in the way that humans are.”  Really?  Why not?  It’s a cluster of organisms (humans) that consumes resources,  is built to grow, and has behavior that is distinct from any of its components with regards to self preservation.  That is the same description of any multicellular organism – humans included.  One could counter that a corporate entity  (i.e. company, nation, or social movement),  is not self-aware like a human. There is an absence of sentience like a living breathing creature (no matter how primitive).  Returning to the individual homo sapien– is any one of the cells that make up my body “aware” of my thoughts, my feelings, and my intentions?  No - just as any one cell or any one part of a body is not equipped to understand my higher order consciousness, so to we as individual humans may not be able to appreciate the sentience of a larger social organism. Who is to say self-awareness hasn’t already happened on the large scale, but we don’t have the capacity to understand or communicate on that level.

The perspective is a little disconcerting because it demotes one’s self-perceived importance in the world. I am in relationship and in someway bound by the giant I live in.  Using a medical example to underline this point.  I typically take care of myself and try to avoid any physically self-destructive behaviors  – smoking, drug abuse, car surfing, juggling sharp objects, etc. That said,  if a part of my body threatens my health, such as an appendicitis, or a cancerous growth – I’ll remove it – regardless if it’s a part of me.  If the whole is threatened, the part has to go.  Corporations and countries certainly act the same way when it comes to people for the purposes of self-preservation.  Despite being a citizen, if one of those citizens endangers the greater health of a nation; that individual (or group of individuals) are removed.   The US didn’t hesitate to kill Anwar al-Awlaki and another America-born militant with a drone – he was a threat.  The point here is that we are not only in relationship with each other, we are in relationship with a larger being that we don’t fully understand and can not communicate with.   

Taken together, the Giant may, and often does, have it’s own priorities.  Moreover,  just as history has shown, the evolution of the nervous systems leads to more complex and sophisticated means for the transit and processing of information.  Just as our neurons became more numerous and myelinated with more complex connections, the Giant’s integration of information has been exponentially increasing with the printing press, telephones, and the internet (see Blog: Why is the World Changing So Fast?).  Thus, the Giant is also getting smarter and more nimble.  So in returning to the early Star Trek reference of the Borg, will we ever become part of a collective consciousness that can think and acts on its own? Well, in truth, I think we have already been assimilated.