Attention is Power

Justine Toh on Aboriginal deaths in custody, the "attention economy", and what we might learn from Old Testament prophets.

Today marks 30 years since the handing down of recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. Few recommendations have been meaningfully implemented, Aboriginal leaders say – and for proof, they can point to the 470 deaths since 1991, and five alone since March.

But this is not exactly a story people want to read. Paul Daley in The Guardian notes the wall-to-wall media coverage of the death of Prince Phillip that far outstripped the column inches devoted to this devastating anniversary.

Daley dubs this The Great Forgetting. It could also be called a crisis of attention.

In February, New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel interviewed 78-year-old Michael Goldhaber, who Warzel described as “the internet prophet you’ve never heard of”.

That’s because Goldhaber helped popularise the idea of the “attention economy”. Everyone knows (now) that Twitter, Facebook et al. compete furiously for our attention, but over 30 years ago Goldhaber foresaw how limited our attention was. Paying attention to one thing, he understood, meant ignoring something else.

(Like the way I just flicked to Twitter to check something and ended up watching Chris Uhlmann twerking).

Attention is power, Goldhaber told Warzel, and attention-seekers will not always use their power responsibly. Everyone in the commentariat – take note.

These days, journalists describe their task as ‘speaking truth to power’. That’s the mission of not only the Fourth Estate, but also the prophets of the Old Testament.

Like Isaiah, who called out injustice among God’s own people: “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”

Both Old Testament prophet and his internet counterpart share a theme worth dwelling on, no matter the era: pay attention to those who typically get overlooked – and don’t look away.