Attention! Everyone and everything, especially the ones and the things with stuff to sell, wants our attention. (This essay wants your attention – and if it hasn’t grabbed it by now, the author is probably in big trouble. Lacking curvaceous breasts, a sparkling smile, or the imprimatur of a certifiably important celebrity to give it gravitas, the poor thing is a big underdog in the Attention Game. But on it goes, pathologically determined to say what it means, even if it’s already lost you.) Today is now is fast is hot is the trend is now is sexy is now is fabulous is easy is mine is My is now is catchy is right now!
Funny tweet. Provocative status update. Latest video. The Number One something in America. A scandal. A shame. A pity. An inspiration. A shock. An affirmation.
When our senses are stimulated constantly with imagery, text, sounds, and sometimes even market-researched smells, it’s easiest to retreat into a protective shell, where individually constructed filters shield us from the deluge of transactional input. “Preferences,” we call these filters, though most of us aren’t quite sure what we prefer until it’s offered in a seductive package. We’re resentful of being subliminally assaulted, sure, but we’re resigned, too. What are you going to do, live in the woods? Not have an iPhone? Miss “The Smurfs”? Besides, when we’re frustrated with how far off course everyone else has veered, we have symbolic stand-ins for our most deeply held beliefs, folks in whom our convictions (or suspicions) are given a public airing: John Stewart for those of who still think there’s a difference in political parties (and who accept that in a country of more than 300 million citizens two political parties is just about the right number to ensure freedom of choice); Kim Kardashian for those of us who resent the cultural elites that overvalue the antiquated concept of talent; Michelle Bachmann for those of us who mistrust gays. Now, if only we could get everyone else to pay attention to our favorite mouthpiece…
Bludgeoned into submission by the content-delivery apparatuses we’ve come to require as much as fresh water and clean air, we’re collectively docile, unquestioning, eager to adopt slogans and shorthand in lieu of thoughtful analysis, because that’s annoying and too much like school and takes mental effort better applied to our Fantasy Football team. It’s much simpler to absorb a talented television huckster repeating mnemonically attractive catch-phrases – “regulation kills the economy,” “keep hope alive,” “Jesus saves” — than to read, say, a book, because, you know, they’re long, and even if you get them delivered wirelessly to your Device it still takes way too much time to consume and digest compared to pabulum that’s pre-chewed and guaranteed in advance to come in your favorite flavor.
Those who believe indubitably in a consumerist society tend to be the stakeholders, those who have much and want much more. These top-of-the-hierarchy oligarchs have a vested interest in narrowing the communal focus, herding the mass consciousness into a demographically identifiable pen, where they can deliver a maximally effective kill shot. Everyone with something putatively “useful” to sell understands that it’s far easier to accomplish The Transaction with a narcotized group than with an engaged individual. Who wants to chase free-range chickens around a massive field when you can stuff them all into productivity-enhanced cage?
The marketplace, the government, the privileged, the entitled – our society seems to want us to pay attention. Not really. An engaged, critical, questing, concerned, motivated citizenry is dangerous. They gather in public squares and shoo away the bullies. They reject demagogues. They eat the rich.
Beatles fans, you say you want a revolution? Dylan fans, you suspect the times they are a changin’? Listen. Watch. Be mindful.
Pay attention. You have nothing to lose but your shackles.