Tim McCormick points me to a Guardian article by Frank Speiser on “The science of social attention.” (As as aside, let confess that I love the Guardian. I wish there was a paper in the United States that matched it.) Speiser argues that the old-fashioned tools of marketing are being replaced by

a new “plastics” paradigm for the 24/7 generation, driven by mathematics and science, and it is changing all the rules.

That is where the latest buzz phrase, big data, comes into play. It is enabling a new game in town, something geeky and just below the radar called real-time data intelligence. It is a sea change that has the visionaries in social looking to the future. What if you could use an algorithm to measure when people are listening through their social media networks? How could you capitalise on that opportunity? What would you do if you knew at precisely which moment your company’s words and message had the most measurable value?

Today, engineers are utilising applied mathematics and language analysis to crunch the interactions on social media. Social audiences are replacing that old dinosaur, the Nielsen audience, and they are becoming an increasingly valuable asset for business. Knowing the right time and the right content to communicate is critical to any publisher that wants to convert audience attention into customer action. Return on investment is fast becoming a direct result of scientific application….

In the battle for meaningful attention, banking on human intuition over data intelligence is a risky business. The audience is poised to listen 24 hours a day.

It’s a dramatic vision, the kind that makes advertising people worry and brand managers and corporate marcomm departments– the ones who write checks to advertisers– vibrate softly with joy and visions of exceeding their quarterly numbers.

However, writing a book that’s largely about regaining control of your attention in a digital world has made a bit sensitive about these kinds of arguments. I know that terms like “attention” and “grabbing” are terms of art that aren’t meant to refer back to, say, William James’ work on the psychology of attention, but I’ve thought a lot about how language like this affects the way we interact with technology, or the way it comes to warrant certain kinds of uses of technology, and I think there are serious consequences to thinking about attention this way.

I’ll put it simply. Grabbing for my attention is like grabbing for my privates. I’m pretty defensive about each. Reaching for them is pretty presumptuous if you’re a stranger. And doing so in the context of a commercial transaction is pretty unseemly for us both.

If as William James said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to,” then attention is rather more important than we usually think: what we pay attention to defines who we are. This makes attention a rather intimate thing. And efforts to capture your attention effectively say: You don’t deserve to control your own attention. You shouldn’t have sovereignty over the contents of your consciousness any longer. We should (subject to our decision to parse or resell that attention to other companies).

Thanks, but no thanks.