November 7, 2021
by Steve Stofka
“This will go on your permanent record, young man,” my fifth grade teacher told me. As children we struggle to envision next month. A permanent record sounds like more than a month, for sure. Throughout our lives, we will buy goods and services and interact with others who are strangers. That requires a lot of trust and trust depends on reputation, a permanent record that companies, institutions and politicians work hard to shape. In the thirty years since the dawn of the internet, we are flooded with information, most of which has no reputation. We can only trust the institutions or people that relay that information to us. How do they build their reputations?
In Carlsbad, New Mexico is a series of one hundred underground caves that forms the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. During a tour, the guide turns off the lights and visitors stand in total darkness. Our vision dominates our navigation through the world. Without it we gather in other data, the sound of a throat clearing, the scuffle of a sneaker on the path through the cavern. We become aware of the musty smell of water trickling down through the rock and the smell of bodies nearby. We may notice the sound of our own heartbeat or pay attention to our toes inside our shoes.
Then the guide turns on a flashlight and we turn our heads to notice whatever the beam of light falls on. We notice the ripple and folds of rock, the different textures and colors of that one spot which the flashlight beam illuminates. How quickly we brush aside all this other sense information that we were just experiencing. Several visitors remarked on this phenomenon. Most of us organize our world primarily through sight.
The screen on our computers or phones is our attention flashlight. Through a series of algorithms Facebook, search engines and social media have learned to tune that light to our interests, our values, what we treasure and what is a threat to us. What engages our emotions or enrages our sensibilities? What music, clothes, activities do we like? They learn our habits and preconceptions, then feed us information that fits those preconceptions because they want us to linger. Just don’t go away, they say. The algorithms don’t care whether capitalism is good or bad, Republicans or Democrats, whether hip-hop is better than soul. All that matters is that we watch the screen and shine our flashlight on the nearby ads. Our attention is the product.
The Industrial Revolution spurred the need for standardization, for the making of products and machines with interchangeable parts (Mass Production, 2021). Human labor is not easily standardized so the task itself must be standardized so that human labor can be harnessed to the task. Generalization leads to specialization and this makes people more productive (Heilbroner, 1997, 80). More productivity leads to higher wages and greater consumption.
Beginning in the 19th century, mass marketing grew into a powerful tool when TV gained wide popularity after World War 2. Media outlets had vague information on the tastes of their audience but ads were a scattershot approach to reach consumers. The advertiser’s message would often fall on deaf ears because the advertiser didn’t know much about me, my unique combination of tastes, my interests and desires. They promoted their products and services, their reputation.
The media giants now have a permanent record of my attention history and buying habits. My unique combination of preferences has been sliced and diced into standardized characteristics that are important to an advertiser. A giant corporation becomes like the proprietor of a general store in a small town. They know my opinions, the news I read, the sports I like and the shows I watch. This digital reputation has become my permanent record.
Heilbroner, R. L. (1997). Teachings from the worldly philosophy. New York, NY: Norton & Company.
Mass Production. (2021). Retrieved November 6, 2021, from Scholastic Grolier Online. https://go.scholastic.com/content/schgo/D/article/100/031/10003161.html