Control and Self-Presentation

It is not our intention to oppose a dystopic view of the digital revolution to an idealized era of authenticity and enhanced personal agency, characterized by the richness of face-to-face interaction and individuals' autonomous management of focus and attention. The social nature of attention, and its role in culture, language and collaboration, means that the control of attention is a cornerstone of social relations. The computational model of information organization is simply the most recent step in a long history of institutional management of this resource.

In many institutions, the mastery of attention has long been one of the axes of social dynamics, used to extract value, dominate, create allegiance, stratify and empower. It is this relational nature of attention management that Broadbent (2011) has called “attention to”, attempting to shift the discourse from a purely cognitive one to a social one, where attention is a process that creates value. Teaching children to control their attention has been a significant objective of the educational system for as long as public education has been in operation. In the workplace, the equation between productivity and attention is deeply engrained in managerial models. This hypothesis is confirmed by T. Davenport and J. Beck (2001) when they claim that the effective allocation of employees' attention is a key factor in business competitiveness. If we look at this issue in a somewhat Marxist, Foucaldian and partisan reading, it can be seen as a step in the long path of the history of capitalism, as the contemporary page of the disciplinary conditions of life. The first page concerned the body and the shaping of a working force; the second page focused on knowledge and the development of the scientific organization of work. And now we are on the third page, which has attention as its object. Channelling, monitoring and controlling attention is engrained in work processes, rules, artefacts and now digital tools[1].

The design of effective user interfaces, under the auspices of ergonomic and usability principles, ensures the elimination of potentially alternative perspectives or views, and focuses actions and reading on the prescribed elements of information, leaving very little to autonomous activity.

The ways in which different organizations regulate access to personal communication channels, such as mobile phones or Facebook, usually reveals deeper institutional ideologies. In broad terms, we find that greater freedom of access tends to be bestowed on those members of an organization who are expected to be “entrepreneurs of the self”. In fact, providing or withholding unlimited access to potentially distracting sources dovetails perfectly with the larger movement of making each individual an “entrepreneur of the self”.

In the eighties and nineties, N. Aubert and V. de Gaulejac (2007) argued, that the “ethics of excellence” in people management created the moral foundation of a system striving to control the totality of a person. In convincing employees that, by working for the firm, they were working for themselves, a complete blurring was made of professional and personal ambitions, and companies emerged as institutions capable of mediating individual destinies, supporting self-development, objects of true love, and in the end the only instrument able to fulfill the need for immortality of the self.

This work ethic creates particular interactions between people, interactions marked by the constant necessity to become visible. This quest for visibility takes the form of a new social game in which everyone is striving to capture the attention of others. In a sort of Goffmanian 'parade', self-branding and “newsing” oneself are ways to occupy the mental space of others and to stay on top of the competition. For businesses, being always present on personal communication channels, on webplatforms, etc., is a way to colonize the minds of their managers and to reduce their capacity to imagine another world.

  • [1] The political and economic challenges around attention management are made manifest by the way different organizations react and regulate access to personal communication channels, such as mobile phones or Facebook, and uncover some significant social dynamics surrounding the control of this process. Rules and procedures are devised in organizations to exclude personal devices or personal digital activities while on the job (by blocking external websites, or internet access, or mobile phones). The digital surveillance of all online activities, through dedicated surveillance software, can give rise to sanctions or the elimination of potentially distracting digital spaces. On the opposite end, obtaining “digital trust” or “digital independence” is a sign of status, of trustworthiness, of social promotion and acceptance. Having access to the whole range of the web, to personal communication devices and services, or in general being granted the “freedom” of self-determining when and where to put one's attention in the realisation of one's activities, is the ultimate sign of social recognition and of higher social status.
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