The “knowledge-based society” or “knowledge-based economy”, like the “information society”, are not academic concepts but poorly-inspired political marketing slogans. This is both the preamble to our analysis and the polemical premise on which it is based. We should indeed be a little wary of the enthusiasm with which many have taken up the political term – a term which was used, for instance, to define the European Union’s Lisbon objectives, and which shrouds economics with a new aura by focusing attention on none other than academics, as the supposed owners of that knowledge. A more detailed analysis of the financial processes at work in the marketplace shows that supposedly decisive knowledge-based elements are in fact closely determined by reputation. Reputation is of course based on economic data or intelligence, but these have to be viewed through the prism of mutual evaluation and anticipation between economic agents. This leads to the creation of goodwill or “overvalue” that extends the principles of EVA (Economic Value Added). Never entirely justifiable and always “asset-light”, it strips markets of any kind of control over the “reality” of the declared value (Aglietta and Rebérioux, 2004; Rebiscoul, 2006). It is therefore tempting to adopt the position defended by Orléan, who sees opinion as the cornerstone of the “new economy”. Opinion is forged, precisely, through mutual representation and anticipation and underlies all the “bubbles” generated by the all-powerful financial rules that now dominate every aspect of the economy.
The so-called knowledge referred to above actually consists of data which become information that is compiled and then consolidated and processed in ERP or audience rating systems. This approach tends to favor reactivity, one of the tenets of modern business management, rather than any true reflexivity applied to knowledge. However, reducing knowledge to the constituent components of “opinion” allows us to give a more accurate account of the kind of major phenomena that are now visible far beyond the spheres of finance or media where they originated. Everyday life and individual behavior seem to be permeated by the kind of reactivity or fluidity which are so highly valued by the world of finance (Boltanski and Chiappello). Channel switching or “zapping”, a phrase first used with reference to television, has now spread to all areas of life, including interpersonal relationships and the labor market, where it is revered as “labor flexibility”.
But the flip side is that loyalty is increasingly rare, whether it be towards a partner, an employer, an employee or a political party, or towards newspapers or the media in general. Permanent uncertainty and a constant yearning for novelty, designed to attract attention, are now the norm. “Attracting attention” does not imply that attention is either retained or sustained, as teachers and journalists often complain. Attention has in fact become something of a rarity, as H. Simon suggested in 1971. And as Goldhaber stressed in 1989, when he undertook his studies of the economics of attention, any economic mechanism is based on rarity: while those who believe that information is to the present-day economy what oil was to the economies of the 1970s and 1980s, have to acknowledge that information is by no means in short supply – in fact quite the opposite –, they nevertheless argue that this very fact changes the usual economic equation because the consumption and exchange of information does not cause the disappearance of the good in question (Attali). For my part, I am tempted to call this “wishful thinking”, because no economy can be sustained by the strength of such unlimited abundance of a single good. In an economy where people are overwhelmed by a flood of unsolicited information that they are incapable of sorting, assessing and interpreting, attention itself becomes something of a rarity.
As Théodule Ribot observed back in 1889, attention has at least two dimensions: duration and intensity. I will use these basic categories of the psychology of attention to support my argument regarding the changes affecting the attention-generating industries, ranging from a duration-based model (i.e. customer loyalty), to an intensity-based model (i.e. opinion as described above). Remarkably, an increasingly dominant third attention mode is now emerging, based on a combination of the two previous models, and is creating a new framework for attachments (Latour). I argue that this underpins a new kind of attention industry, as exemplified by the video game industry. Video games are the only medium that simultaneously generates attention spans that were hitherto unknown in most media, along with an intensity of experience that is seldom achieved elsewhere. In my opinion, the semiotic format of video games, is not simply a passing fad, but a lasting framework of perception. The media, film and advertising industries are all reorganizing their products around this format, and we now need to characterize its properties, particularly immersion.
1 - The Loyalty Mode
This mode focuses on the duration dimension of attention. However as we shall see, its very nature sometimes seems to contradict what we usually define as “attention”. It is important to extend the notion of “attention span” to include a basic feature of all traditional societies: loyalty. With regard to information media, being attentive implies a certain duration, repetition, and a stable relationship with the medium, establishing clearly-defined conventions (Thévenot) relative to perception that can be taught and handed down from one generation to another (“traditions” for Manovich). This also applies to attention in the sense of “care”: social relationships are predicated on being attentive, caring, and careful, both with regard to what we now call “the natural environment” and to our fellow humans, be they friends and relatives or otherwise. Loyalty underpins both work relationships, defined by a variety of affiliations (Castel) and the production and trading of goods. Cochoy showed how packaging could create a relationship between customers and a given brand, bypassing the small local shopkeeper. Packaging, by replacing bulk goods with clearly identified packets, started the loyalty-building process that enabled brands to exert influence on consumers remotely, and then allowed for the rise of advertising per se.
This kind of mass, anonymous loyalty became the norm for common consumer goods throughout the industrial era. As regards services, loyalty implies subscription systems, which are the legal archetype for a loyalty-building process, but often belong to a different world, i.e. the world of public utilities. The rise of ICT has now made it possible to treat each customer as an individual, with their own specific needs, and to offer increasingly tailored goods and services. Suppliers try to be “attentive” to customers’ specific tastes so that the latter will “pay attention” to their commercial offers. The customer is thus cosseted, pampered and treated as unique. The systems used to establish this kind of relationship are called CRMs (Consumer Relationship Management systems), i.e. software packages using all kinds of sensors to identify data relating to the customer’s behavior, status and income, which then enables the supplier to “push” all kinds of relevant information, namely more commercial offers. This kind of process even applies to not-for-profit industries, with the spread of customized services and peer-to-peer profile-based exchanges, which then often end up in customer databases.
The customer database in fact becomes the cornerstone of the “loyalty-based” economy. Hence the madness of the internet “bubble”, when the market was led to believe that market value could be based purely on the number of names in customer databases, even when the customers themselves were not inclined to buy anything (unsurprisingly, given that some of the companies had nothing to sell!). Loyalty-building has become an essential pathway to gain access to each consumer’s private world and capture her or his attention. Consumers are supposed to pay more attention to commercial offers that are tailored to suit their particular tastes and habits, and everything is done to reinforce that feeling. The favorite approach nowadays is to push customized, profile-based information or “gifts”. This is particularly noticeable with telephone operators in Europe, for whom the actual telephone is simply a free gift designed to tie customers into a lasting commercial relationship through a “loyalty scheme”. Only by establishing lasting customer relationships can operators hope to regenerate their profits despite the price cuts they have had to make.
This cultural model, as described by Sloterdijk, is the “pampered” society. Abundance encourages people to indulge in the kind of excessive, unlimited consumption that can be seen in the present-day use of telephones. This is akin to the drug-dealer’s approach, “pushing” his wares to make sure buyers remain addicted. But in the case of mobile phones, the operators’ desperate efforts to secure “captive” customers can ultimately put people off and be used by competitors who, on the contrary, base their promotional campaigns on the idea that customers are free to leave whenever they choose. This demonstrates the extent to which the loyalty-based model is threatened by the trend towards increased “zapping” in personal relationships. The threat to loyalty is best illustrated by the remote control, which by definition encourages opportunist gratification rather than long-lasting attachment.
The type of attention required by the “loyalty-building” industry is quite the opposite of the constant quest for novelty or stimulation via the remote control: it requires the kind of habit exemplified by the “couch potato”, who watches the same TV programs at the same time every day, or who watches the same channel all the time. The paradox is that the attention required in this case has little to do with the viewer’s degree of attentiveness or alertness, for repetition of this kind induces oblivion of any signal other than the one that caused initial satisfaction, given that satisfaction is induced more by repetition than by selection. Automatically switching to “Channel One” (which is how many viewers referred to the first French TV channel for 40 years), eating the same cereals for breakfast since childhood, or staying with the “historic” telephone operator without ever having been tempted by the competition, are all part of loyalty by “naturalization”, by “self-evidence”, by “immunity” to other stimulations as Sloterdijk would say. This type of loyalty is built on a kind of blindness and lack of attention, generated by habitual response to the same stimuli. CRMs try to recreate this process, by flooding consumers with information designed to drown out any competing stimuli and to create a holistic offer including all the components of a coherent universe. This was for instance the rationale behind the original AOL service, where a kind of “Web selection” was available in an enclosed, secure universe. But as we know, AOL had to give in to the demand for a more open system where an infinite number of stimuli compete for attention.
This example illustrates the increasing difficulty of retaining control of tradition (the domestic principle, in the pragmatic grammar of Boltanski and Thevenot) made up of long-term attachments and commitments and a respect for convention, in a commercial world dominated by opportunity rather than long-term commitment. The balance is rapidly tipping in favor of the short term, and loyalty-building appears to be an ever-receding goal.
2 - The Alertness Mode
The alertness mode is based on the intensity of the emotions experienced by the viewer/user, which is the second dimension of Ribot’s theory of attention, and on the variety of stimuli generated by all kinds of alerts. In this case, intensity is one of the parameters of attention, but of particular interest is the way in which it is sustained by specific technology, and creates a collective framework (or what Deleuze calls “agencement”). The first technical device to arouse such passions and heighten the intensity of attention emerged with the modern industrial and commercial era, in the financial world. This was the “stock ticker”, the device invented by Callahan in the 1860s to display changing prices on the New York Stock Exchange (like Caselli’s pantelegraph at the Paris Bourse) (A Preda, 2003). Inventions like these put the financial markets in a state of constant alert and tension, sustained by the ongoing collection and dissemination of information. From then on, the financial markets set the pace for the rest of the world. Since 1971 – the collapse of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreements that until then had regulated stable exchange rates – they have gradually increased their influence over every sector of the economy, both commercial and industrial, to the extent that their rationale now dominates all spheres of life. The main strength of the stock market and the financial markets is their ability to consolidate and format multiple offers so as to produce a single price aggregated in a stock index at any given moment, and to turn that price or index itself into a powerful news-making reference that automatically draws attention as it is published. The service is valued for the very fact that it is able to coordinate and concentrate so many different offers, irrespective of clients and content, and for its reality-building effect, making the whole world suddenly seem constantly within reach.
Today’s information systems have all adopted the “ticker principle”, so to speak. Audience ratings best exemplify this and, by analogy, are a universal kind of opinion poll. By synthesizing and aggregating as a computing center (Latour) a vast array of data collected from a complex and painstakingly assembled network. Significantly, the pricing of TV advertising slots is directly determined by audience ratings, irrespective of program content. All other types of media, following the same imperatives, have adopted the stock market model, constantly monitoring the state of the world. TV commercials have long been reduced to short “clips” designed to attract viewers’ attention for an intense, fleeting moment. News too has now become a succession of clips, like “state of the world” indexes, devoid of comment or interpretation, the latter now confined to the specialist media that attract a dwindling number of readers and viewers, and therefore less advertising. The TV mini-series now being produced for mobile phones, where “24 hours” are reduced to 24 one-minute episodes, also illustrate this trend. Public opinion is constantly challenged by current events, by the need to be up to date with what is going on at any given point in time, without necessarily grasping the deeper implications of events.
Attention is reduced to a state of permanent excitement and maximum focus, devoid of reflexivity. Our current “knowledge-based society” is predicated on that model, which is certainly a far cry from any kind of academic model. But even academic circles are now climbing on board, with the spread of publication ratings. Alertness generates reputation, which is now becoming the norm in every field. Economists are still modeling the concept, but management consultants have been monitoring it for many years on behalf of their corporate clients, because of its importance in terms of financial ratings. A consultancy such as Hill and Knowlton has become a market leader in the area of corporate reputation. All those involved in monitoring reputation, which is essentially an unstable value, share a common enemy, namely rumor, hoaxes, false alarms based on alleged intentions, etc. The financial markets thrive in this kind of atmosphere, but it is now shared by the media and all those who care for their image and reputation.
It is a perfect illustration of what Sloterdijk calls “stress”, when he shows how shared atmospheres are largely based on the generation and management of stress. He takes as examples the role of the media and the lynch-mob atmosphere generated by some of his own work, and extends his analysis to any kind of unilateral focalization. Stock market trends and trading floors (High Frequency Trading) or newsrooms are a perfect illustration of how this climate is constantly regenerated by breaking news (whether financial or about world events). Similarly, mobile phone users are now hooked to the latest incoming text message, notification or news flash so that they can vibrate with their “imagined communities” (B. Anderson). Experts call this kind of attention mode “priming”, because it primes our consciousness. The alertness mode generally works as a kind of intense but fortunately brief attention stimulation process. This theory has also been expounded with regard to the media and in early studies of propaganda to show the media’s “agenda-setting” role. What matters is not the actual opinion formed, but the fact of having one’s attention drawn to certain events and not to others. This forces people to focus their attention and to voice an opinion on something which they may know little or nothing about, simply to avoid the social stigma of ignorance (hence the familiar phenomenon of opinion poll answers glibly provided to questions which may be meaningless to the respondents).
This kind of alertness mode is clearly informed by the growing prevalence of opinion as a reference framework, described by Boltanski and Thévenot, which has even spread to the civic world, previously regulated only by elections. It is important, however, to realize that its impact is directly related to its links with the world of finance and not simply to the role of the media.
However, this world, which has seriously undermined the principles of loyalty, now has to face the perverse effects of the processes it set in motion. The “tendency of the rate of attention to fall” to a series of brief flashes of attention can prove counter-productive. It results in “Cognitive Overflow Syndrome” (COS) (Lahlou and al. 1997) where attention is constantly diverted by telephone calls, e-mails, text messaging, notifications or items flashing up on news channel screens. Hierarchy structuring and orientation, and therefore memorization, become impossible in such a context. Permanent stress produces what Sloterdijk calls “a loss of pressure in the inner chamber”. Depression has thus become the dominant symptom of our times, taking over from the neurosis caused by forced loyalty that Freud described in his time. Extensive “zapping” becomes untenable even in the eyes of advertisers, when people begin to “zap” TV commercials and can never remember the name of a brand.
The new kind of attention mode now emerging seeks to reconcile the two often conflicting demands of duration and intensity, in order to reduce the perverse effects described.
3 - Video Games: The Emergence of an Integrated Attention Mode Based on Immersion
The new mode now emerging has no clearly identifiable precedent. The technical devices on which it is based, in particular the flight simulator, are also fairly recent. Yet one could argue that the aim of the cinema was precisely to create that same combination of duration and intensity to capture its spectators’ attention. The technical set-up itself, with the spectator sitting in the dark between the light source and the screen, is effective in a way that has been well documented and studied (Barthes, 1980) and is very different from that of the television for example. But simulators took the spectator’s involvement in a fictional world one step further, by turning him or her into an actor, more and more closely and intensely immersed in the world created by the technical system itself, through the fine-tuned coupling of human interaction with the device. Here, value is no longer created by the client database or by the aggregation of bids, but by the formatting of content according to multi-sensory techniques. Content and its semantic properties are in this case less important than the product designer’s ability to captivate the player and include him or her in the events portrayed. This is strongly reminiscent of the paradigms of enaction described by Varela (1991), where the player recreates a world by coalescing with material devices to the point of actually incorporating them, of making them invisible, like a pair of spectacles.
The general public can now experience this kind of sensory-motor loop, through the video game. Far from being a mere spin-off of the leisure industry or an extension of the media or IT, the video game is the very archetype of the new attention industries. This is something the major cinema studios and advertisers have clearly understood, when they associate their products with certain games, produce films based on video games or vice-versa, or invent new advertisements that look like video games, or video games to promote certain products. We are now witnessing a new convergence of multimedia content formats, where the video game is becoming the reference on the mere strength of its ability to captivate attention. Players are now spending far more time in front of their computer or playstation console than in front of the TV or any other digital medium, especially when they take part in network-based massively multiplayer games (MMPORG). Persistent universes allow players to become immersed in a world that they themselves create through interaction.
Immersion can be extremely effective even without virtual reality systems and special headgear: what is needed is a consistent, attractive and incredibly realistic “universe”. During the tests I conducted in order to design an artificial quality controller for new video games (for which I used Intellitech’s Xtractis fuzzy logic technology systems, Zalila and al. 2005). I found that the quality and attraction of the game’s “universe” were major factors in developing the player’s lasting commitment to the game. This is not in itself particularly surprising, yet the “universe” relates not only to the graphics but also to the storyline and to the gameplay mechanics, which involve complex sets of knowledge even though they are displayed as ordinary types of situated knowledge. More significantly and surprisingly, my results showed that the quality of the sound and the overall sound environment were among the main reasons why people gave a positive appraisal to certain games. Sound is precisely what enables players to feel completely immersed in a game universe. This “phonotopos”, as described by Sloterdijk, probably reminds the player of some primitive immersion experience.
The attention model this refers to is unique: it implies experience sharing, not in the passive sense, but with reference to the experience that helps to build both the self and the universe through this original “reaching out” of the self that Husserl describes in his “Experience and Judgement” (see the etymology of “attention”, “ad-tendere”). It is through our activity that we structure our world and shape its perception. Attention may therefore be both intense and prolonged. In the course of a given action, we know that attention is necessarily intermittent, but it remains part of the same universe even though the focus will shift within that universe. The narratives suggested by the games aim to reinvent certain myths in order to generate “immersive mythologies”, akin to those found in initiation ceremonies, which can lead to a state of prolonged trance. When gamers use the term “no lifers” to refer to those who are so addicted that they spend all their time online, they mean that they have no social life outside the game world; but the player him- or herself, on the contrary, sees this as a total life experience.
This is what Sloterdijk calls a “symbolic acclimatization” which, combined with the production of an all-encompassing “aura-producing universe”, represents yet another transformation of the “bubble” previously created by tradition. But as Sloterdijk expounded in his “foams” theory, which reframes the “social worlds” theories (Simmel, Strauss) in a more materialistic and metaphoric way, this is no longer the “bubble” of tradition, but a series of delicate worlds generated by mutual friction, held together by their own co-fragility, thus defining “aphrology”, the science of foams. These virtual and fragile worlds can regenerate the very tension that underlay the breakdown of the components of attention: namely the stress generated by a combination of gaming spirit, competition, and adventure within a micro-climate, as well as the pampering generated by a seemingly never-ending sensation of power and discovery, afforded by the fact that multiplayer online games have no ending, which was one of the limitations of other types of games. Significantly, my tests revealed a third source of allegiance to a new game: the fact that the player is regularly rewarded for his or her progress.
The attention industry now lies in the hands of the video game industry, which is gradually extending its influence beyond its original sphere. New economic players linked to the major studios may be emerging and future terminals will be centered on video game consoles, such as Nintendo’s Wii or Microsoft’s Kinect, which not only increase the sense of immersion, for instance with the use of gesture recognition (the player handles a nunchaku and the movements are interpreted by the system), but can also be used as a PVR (Personal Video Recorder), an Internet terminal, etc. However, the value of these terminals is contingent on the value of the games themselves. Game producers call on artists to recreate persistent universes, thus giving precedence to inspiration over industry. The gamersthemselves also become creators of the various universes and are invited to take part in a holistic experience, worthy of any initiation ceremony, where they can be reborn with a new ego, an avatar that acquires a real life of its own within the context of the persistent universes, complete with its own reputation. In this case, attention amounts to total absorption in another life.
One thing, however, is sorely lacking in this compromise with the world of industry, namely a means of assessing the degree of attention or immersion achieved or its properties. When setting and coordinating advertising space rates, the media use the same audience rating models for Internet as they use for other media. As regards video games, until specific metrics are developed to measure the kind of intense and lasting attention that they generate, all kinds of interpretations will be expounded about their effects and it might be difficult to include video games fully in the advertising system. But work is already underway in this area, and methods such as eye-tracking can produce a much more detailed analysis of what attracts gamers’ attention.
The following table sums up the three modalities of attention:
Attention modes Loyalty Alertness Immersion Attention parameters Duration Intensity Duration + intensity Modern ancestor device Packaging Stock exchange index Flight simulator/cinema New generators Consumer Relationship Management Audience ratings and clips Video games Value for new intermediaries Client database Instant aggregation of offers in one index Attractiveness of content features Key operators Telco operators News and brokers agencies Video game industry Key relationship with the user Gifts, personalized info push Alerts, awareness, reputation Immersion Sloterdijk models Pampering The bubble Stress The globe Symbolic acclimatization through immersive mythologies Foams Attention cognitive principles Routine Priming Shared experience Enemies Remote control Hoax Cognitive Overflow Syndrom Risks and limits Unconscious repetition Zapping Enclosure Economies of worth principles (Boltanski and Thevenot) Tradition and market Opinion and public sphere Inspiration and industry
Our logical conclusion is therefore that the knowledge-based society is best exemplified by the video game industry. It is indeed an industry, with its own working economic models, which are predicated not simply on the sale of “cultural goods” but also on the promotion of “loyalty schemes”, spin-off products sold on auction sites (e.g. on E-Bay, players buy characters from games, along with their acquired levels), derivative products such as movies or objects from the invented universe, etc. All this generates innovative and unexpected services (as a result of the number of pirate copies, particularly from China, it has become more profitable for Korean game producers to give the game away for free and to sell specific resources for certain games).
Attention is key to the whole industry, because video games simultaneously rely on both dimensions, i.e. alertnessand loyalty, with stress and reward being linked to attention through intensity and duration. These dimensions had become contradictory and had been perverted by the expansion of “zapping” as a system or simply as a thoughtless habit, but they are now reconciled by the generation of myth activation and immersion initiated by the gamer. Game developers’ expertise is now applied at the finest possible level of individual attention processes. Industrial game development is highly attuned to these precisely defined processes and no longer simply focuses on technical capacity or Hollywood-style special effects. “Semiotic engineering”, which can combine all the dimensions of multimedia production by putting the gamer at the centre of the action, is now part and parcel of the industrial process, which is entirely inspiration-driven – as Boltanski and Thevenot frame it in their justification theory.