Chapter 62: The Gift of the Way
“The way is the hearth and home
of the ten thousand things.
Good souls treasure it,
lost souls find shelter in it.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
“Psychic spies from China try to steal your mind’s elation…” —The Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Californication” (for further reference, see “Tok, Tik”)
What comes after the attention economy?
It has come to our collective attention that our attention is now a scarce resource over which the most powerful “companies” are competing. The scholar Shoshanna Zubanoff has gone so far as to brand ours the age of “surveillance capitalism”: the latest diabolical twist in the capitalist game of extraction and excarnation is to siphon off bodily energy, or our time, but our attention itself. Like the machines in The Matrix powering themselves from human bodies submerged in gelatinous cocoons and human minds immersed in a computer simulation, the algorithms of tech companies casino us in the filter bubble, the echo chamber, the infinite scroll. Consciousness—the precious poetic power of meaning-making—is commodified into data sold to advertisers that promises to predict where we will direct our attention next; but it also conditions our consciousness to be predictable, to be swept along by the broom of the system. In so doing, the attention economy erodes the value of that which it aims to capture. It conspires to drag consciousness out of its natural orbit into the infinite space of distraction.
Logos scatter. Logos gathers.
The word logos is often translated as “rational,” as in “man is the rational animal.” Sometimes it is glossed as “speech.” That’s better, but it doesn’t capture the intimate coupling of the organism and its environment, as well as the continuity of humanity and nature. There is a little known minority report in 20th century philosophy of biology called “biosemiotics,” the study of how organisms produce and consume signs in their environment. Every organism casts a net of value over its surroundings, picking out some things as significant and others not, and is offered as a node of value to those around it. The very concept of an organism, put another way, is meaningless minus meaning-making. Mind is life-like, and life is mind-like. Life, philosopher of biology Evan Thompson writes, just is “sense-making under precarious conditions.” And nature is, as Jason Wirth puts it, a “conspiracy of life,”—literally, a “breathing together”—and we are co-conspirators.
“Society everywhere,” Emerson wrote, “is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” One way to understand advertising is that it creates an imbalance in the natural ratio of signal and noise, an overproduction of signs that renders signs meaningless. With so many signs supersaturating the container of consciousness, meaning production becomes impossible. The natural instinct to pick out value from the environment is perverted—literally turned in the wrong direction—away from the real and into the virtual. The logo drags our attention away from the great—and greater—conspiracy. The logos draws us into its circle and circulation. The logo turns things away from themselves and toward us—rendering them into idols. The logos turns us away from ourselves and toward things—revealing them as icons.
American philosopher Albert Borgmann gifted us a great distinction to navigate the ocean of noise in which we find ourselves shipwrecked: “focal things” vs. “devices.” Borgmann’s main example of a focal thing is the hearth; indeed, he notes that the word “focus” itself is etymologically related to it. The hearth, as it were, makes a house a home; not just a space to live in, but a place for life to flourish. It is the place around which wood is chopped and stacked, fires stoked, meals prepared and eaten, conversations held, arguments had, rituals carried out, warmth maintained, drama played out. In contrast, the automated, centralized heating system is a “device” that performs a function; the end of providing heat is divorced from the means of producing it. Devices make our lives more comfortable and convenient, more easy and efficient, more frictionless and, purportedly, free. They render—or appear to render—reality more and more “on demand.” The problem, of course, is that “on demand” is another word for what Freud called the “primary narcissism” of the infant, who knows little distance between its wishes and their fulfillment.
But the proliferation of means makes it harder for us to reason about ends. It frees us from responsibility toward things—and, often, people—but blocks us from that fuller, hard won freedom that is wrested only from the patient, persistent submission to the what Matthew Crawford calls “the world beyond our heads.” When we let ourselves be led by the strange law of things, we are liberated from the secondary narcissism of the ego, delivered from the ordeal of consciousness and sutured—sutra’ed?—to the true world wide web.
Before the internet, there was Indra’s Net. A Buddhist metaphor for the cosmos, Indra’s Net is a web of jewels in which each node reflects the whole network. Each jewel—each being—is a part of the whole, is connected to the whole, and contains the whole. Focal things—and anything can be focal—help polish the mirror of our minds so that we see all things shining. To make beauty the rule, not the exception, of our perception.
What comes after the attention economy? What came before it, and what underlies all economies: The gift economy. Duh.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”