Automatic Endo-Attention, Creative Exo-Attention: the Egocidal and Ecocidal Logic of Neoliberal Capitalism

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DOI: 10.3898/NEWF:98.07.2019

The beginning of the twenty-first century could be characterised by the externalisation of attention, following the externalisation of our other faculties: the term ‘exo-attention’ can be used to refer to the increasing number of electrical devices performing attentional tasks for us outside of our bodies. At the same time, the logic of industrial production continues to demand human beings to develop automated gestures commanded by the planetary assembly line, intellectual gestures being now added to bodily gestures. This automation of our ‘endo-attention’ cannot be considered as a temporary step in the process leading to full automation. On the one hand, it coexists and goes along with the logic of ‘heteromation’, whereby supposedly automated procedures are actually performed by micro-taskers, click farms and Mechanical Turks. On the other hand, the precarisation of labour conditions analysed by Franco Berardi tends to segment our activity into pre-formatted time-cells which alienate us from the very tasks we accomplish. While our endo-attention threatens to be automated through and through, progress in deep learning programming allows exo-attention to become creative: what used to be the specificity of human attention (i.e., its capacity to extract a meaningful figure from a given background) can now be obtained by unsupervised machine learning. Does all this mean that the creativity of human attention has been merely displaced, from creatively paying attention to (a limited number of) things, to creatively devising algorithms that pay attention to (a higher number of) things? This perspective could be technologically attractive, if it weren’t trapped within the constraints of neoliberal capitalism. Social – not technological – logics should be the main cause of our concern (and anxiety) about automation. Neoliberal capitalism tends to globally align the infinite diversity of our individual attentions under one single hegemonic imperative to maximise financial profit. This is both egocidal, as it automatises our endo-attention subjected to segmented tasks that no longer make sense to us (pre-empting emancipatory forms of subjectification), and eco-cidal, as the race for short-term profit vandalises our social and natural environments. We therefore need to sharpen our analyses (and anxieties), in order to deflect our fear of automation towards a rejection of neoliberal capitalism.

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98: Automation Anxiety