Kyborg 6: Attentional Communities Part D

Attention on Demand

Today’s update is the last in the Attentional Community series - I am going to take the weekend off and will be back on Monday with a new theme. The current idea is five days on, two days off for five weeks and then two weeks off; repeat and rinse.


The biggest of big questions: what upholds the world?


  1. God

  2. Being

  3. History

  4. Self

  5. Dharma

and so on. In many religious traditions, God upholds the world (he’s the unmoved mover) and influenced by Aristotle, both Christianity and Islam combine the study of Being qua Being with a divine Being - God - who was uniquely positioned to uphold the world. Kant’s Copernican revolution in Metaphysics was to shift the locus of upholding from Divinity or Being to the Subject.

But that subject was an ahistorical, universal subject. Starting with Hegel and even more so with Marx, that constituting subject was historicized, so that in the Capitalist age, it’s labor that upholds the world - i.e., a historically situated social class.

With an attentional community, we are getting to an even more fine grained upholder.

Attention on Demand

As I said yesterday, it used to take enormous amounts of time and the expenditure of state power to get people to pay joint attention to the same thing. The infrastructure for attention just wasn’t there. In the absence of photographs or other widely available representations, almost no one would have recognized the Mughal Emperor Akbar if he crossed paths. Today it’s routine to Google someone you met at a party and get images of them doing things they will regret later.

A cult is a closed attentional community, i.e., a community which only pays attention to certain beliefs, facts etc and is sealed off from any other influences. Cults have always existed, but they typically took a lot of work or a particularly charismatic founder. It’s true that the bar was lower - a thousand years ago, if a spectacular meteor shower prompted a budding cultist to say “the world is about to end,” most people didn’t have a way of refuting the signs of the end of times. That’s not our condition.

What’s amazing is the profileration of cults in an era of information abundance rather than scarcity.

That’s because, adopting the UI metaphor I used yesterday, we have a ready made ‘hardware’ for an attentional community; and all it takes is the right interface for that community to gel around a common belief or a common purpose. It’s also easier than ever to fork an existing attentional community around a slightly modified belief. You may think that the world is being ruled by child molesters running Pizza parlors, but I can refute that heresy by revealing the real truth: the world is being ruled by child molesters running ice cream stands.

If I want to become a cult leader on the cheap (and didn’t care what the cult was about), I would market test the cult’s founding beliefs, launch a few Facebook ads and like a good startup, see which marketing copy is spreading faster. It helps to have your demographics segmented in advance by the platform owner - narrows your search for an attentional community and identifies potential suckers. Like this ad that settled in my Facebook newsfeed for months on end:

Notice the use of ‘attention’ 😀

  • Kant labored for a decade after Hume woke him from his dogmatic slumber

  • Marx hoped his devastating critique of capitalism would lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat

But Zuck has the last word: he will sell you a minor revolution in easy monthly installments.