Law in the Internet Society

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Selling Your Soul (Part 2): The Attention Economy


In Part One of Selling Your Soul, I have shown why we should be allowed to sell our future autonomy in contract. Part Two below will approach the issue from the other side, and conclude that soon we will no longer even be able to control the commodification of our present autonomy.

A Paradox

A particularly troubling paradox is brought into play by the rise of the attention economy that challenges our traditional boundaries of property. A traditional property right typically is recognized by society when it is necessary to combat the tragedy of the commons. However, whereas the value of traditional property is held in its exclusivity, this concept is reversed for attention value since more attention is only generated by allowing access to as many eyeballs as we can attract. Any restrictions in distribution necessarily decreases the number of eyeballs paying attention to our thing, and thus its value. Even more importantly, when the medium of money is replaced with the medium of attention for the determination of wealth, the dangers of over-commodification become uncontrollable. While much of the focus of this paradox has been directed at the fate of intellectual property in the attention economy, there is no reason that the end game will not affect all property types. This paper will focus on the problem of commodification.

The Problem of Markets

Perhaps the biggest problem inherent in any type of market, and described by Marx, is that it knows no ethical boundaries; if left unregulated, it will eventually envelope all aspects of human wants. Particularly notorious are the issues of (wage) slavery and the sex trade. Inherent in the criticism is a sense that certain things should not be economic commodities, but rather remain purely aspects of our individual or shared autonomy. To allow it to be traded for value/wealth is to devalue both our personal and collective autonomy, and shapes a world ripe for abuse of the lower class. In response to these concerns with the dangers of commodification, society has developed an array of laws prohibiting or restricting our negative freedom in certain aspects of our autonomy deemed to be essentially (and prescriptively) non-economic. Slavery is prohibited altogether, although wage slavery is still allowed subject to heavy social regulations. Sex is prohibited to be directly sold for money (wealth), but may still be bartered for in gold-digging, and obviously can be gifted. All of these are resistances to an rampant and inevitable natural commodification of all things in a capitalistic society.

The Problem of Market Control

These controls our society exerts on the natural market are only possible because money is a tangible, direct, and easily observable transaction. While trading sex for fancy dinners and fine jewelery is not substantively different from trading sex for the wealth (money) used to buy those things, our ability to differentiate it from an approved relationship is much higher. After the transition into the attention economy when wealth shifts from tangible money to the amorphous attention standard, it will become impossible to enforce most of the controls against commodification we currently have. We cannot regulated sex for attention-wealth because the identity of sex necessitates attention. We can no longer enforce labor laws when the adequacy of the compensation becomes the amount/quality of attention the worker receives for the work. Thus, in the new attention economy, we will necessarily be able to buy, trade, and give up anything we physically can outside of reliance on positive government enforcement, at the complete mercy of the structural implications of the new world. This new economy leaves government with only one blunt tool to work with: Complete prohibition. Shade of gray will be but a thing in the past, an impossible distinction in the future.

An Identity Crisis

At its core, the problems illustrated here is an issue of identity. Money is an extrinsic factor in any transaction; it is always to trade money for X (two separate matters linked by the transaction), and never that to do/use/perform X money is necessary (one single matter which constitutes the entire transaction). Without severability, what we have is not a transaction between two things, but the performance of one. Regulating the attention received by a piano performance is nonsensical, because the purpose of the piano performance is the audience. On the other hand, regulating ticket sales in terms of number of dollars is a rather simple task for any government. Although the attention-economy transaction is still in a quid pro quo framework (performance for attention), the commodity attention given was physically necessary for the reception of the concert. Similarly, while we can currently regulate prostitution without prohibiting all sex, since the reception of sex necessitates attention, our tool for differentiating commodified sex with non-commodified sex will cease to exist. In an attention economy there will be no more difference between selling and giving. Thus, everything that is sold will have been given and everything given freely sold. In fact, it can be said that all things will necessarily be commodified, and all people (eyeballs) necessarily become commodities; for what else are we but our consciousness?


The most interesting part of all of this is that the entire analysis is not based on technology. The regulation problem is a problem of identity, meaning that so long as we are in an attention-based economy, the commodification problem will be real, regardless of what technologies we may try to develop. Perhaps our analysis of the attention economy's effects on autonomy comodification calls for an even greater conclusion, that our autonomy is not restricted by commodification but rather that it has always intrinsically been a commodity of attention, divorced from itself by the artifical and extrinsic practice of treating money as wealth.

-- JakeWang - 30 Dec 2009


Revision 1r1 - 30 Dec 2009 - 04:25:06 - JakeWang
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