Susan, I think this notion of the economy of
attention is getting more and more (dare I say it?) … attention.
See, for example, this excellent
set of resources on the topic as well as Davenport & Beck’s book, The
Attention Economy. I agree with your ‘I want some commercial-free spaces
in my life’ perspective but your post also caused my mind to wander in a
completely different direction.
In the attention economy, everyone is competing for ears, eyeballs, and
brainwaves. Because there is way too much information for us to pay attention
to, advertisers and marketers are doing everything they can to
get us to pay attention to their messages. But as Malcolm Gladwell notes, “word
of mouth” from those we trust still carries the most weight when it comes to
So who do we listen to? To whom do we give permission to
“market” products and ideas to ourselves? Well, technology both expands and
limits our attention. On the expansive side, our ‘trust
circle’ now may be comprised not only of family, friends, and close
colleagues (those with whom we have ‘strong ties’) but also bloggers; trusted
web sites and media channels; political, charitable, and/or ideological
organizations with whom we affiliate; etc. (those with whom we have ‘weak
ties’). E-mail listservs, RSS feeds, and other subscription mechanisms allow
us to hear from and monitor more information channels than ever before.
Of course technology also allows us to be much more selective about who we
listen to. We no longer are dependent on a few print, radio, and/or television
broadcast channels for information. We now can choose from an
often-overwhelming choice of print and online newspapers; AM, FM, and
satellite radio stations; network, cable, and satellite television stations;
text-based and streaming media web sites; blogs; podcasts; text and instant
messaging; interactive videogames; and other information streams. Of necessity
we use Internet bookmarks, iPods, Tivo, RSS aggregators, and the like to filter
out what we want to see, hear, and read. Cocooned with our personal media
players (and sound-isolating headphones), e-book readers, PDAs, cell phones,
computers, and home theaters, we rarely have to come in contact with any persons
or ideas we wish to avoid.
Some call this personalization; others call it isolation. The challenge of
all of this wonderful individualization is trying to still forge a sense of
common culture, to create common bonds that tie us together as a society, as a
local community, as national citizens. When we voluntarily narrowcast ourselves by
only hearing or watching media that we like, by only reading certain ideological
or political perspectives, by only visiting web sites or blogs that resonate
with us, where do we hear the common messages that bring us together as a
I think the answer is public schools. It’s definitely not broadcast
television or radio: even the most-watched TV shows now garner only a fraction
of the viewers they used to. Workplaces and houses of worship are too disparate
and divergent. The Internet is too scattered and newspaper readership is way
down. What’s left besides our public elementary and secondary institutions?
Yet we are now seeing the same surfeit of choice in public schools as we see
in other societal arenas. Complementing the traditional choice of private
schools, we now have magnet schools, charter schools, alternative schools,
privatized schools, schools-within-a-school, virtual schools, and homeschooling.
In Utah, lawmakers just passed a law providing tuition
vouchers for every student in the state who wants to attend private
I’m not an advocate of hegemonic groupthink (particularly from the
government), nor do I tend to be an alarmist, but I do think there’s an
important place for public schools regarding socialization of our youth,
instillation of community and national norms, and creation of a people with
common bonds. But I’m afraid we’re losing this quickly, and we need to start
talking about what it means for us as a society.