Unheard voices and the noisy farce

Ideas inspired by Seurat Circus Sideshow at the Met, on some fundamental problems on attention.

March 11, 2017 - 4 minute read -
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Our research lab has a line of work on attention. Attention is a scarce resource for the Web, and there is an acute interest in understanding it better for monetization. Some of my labmates’ work focuses on using new ways to study attention. For example, Nir’s work uses log data of individual’s activity on Facebook to study the attention shifts after you post something on Facebook; Max’s work uses data from 1.2 million news reading sessions and models how attention is allocated in viewports when people are reading articles online. These studies leverage the availability of behavior data at scale, and uncover patterns that are too subtle or noisy to spot with small scale observations.

But taking a step backwards, what are some of the fundamental problems regarding attention in modern society? After today’s visit to the Met to see Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, I began connecting some of the work and ideas at the exhibition with the work in our lab.

Seurat’s Circus Slideshow is a collection of work by Seurat, Daumier, and Picasso on the subject of traveling circuses – the earliest versions of Cirque Du Soleil if you will. Just to give you an idea what it looked like in the 1880s, here is a poster of a traveling circus group in Paris announcing their performances.

Affiches Américaines, Charles Lévy | Corvi: We’re Here! ca. 1882-88 | Color lithograph

With his signature technique, chromoluminarism, or the separation of colors into individual dots, Seurat painted the performers framed with the back of front-row audiences, under twinkling glow of nine gaslights.

Geroges Seurat | Circus Sideshow, 1887-88 | Oil on canvas

If you think about it, circus business is the attention business – with joyful music, highly skilled acrobats, trained animals, funny clowns – the ability to make a living out of this business is to keep people engaged.

Voices Unheard

There are of course, the less fortunate. The ones that fail to attract the attention of on-lookers and therefore struggle to make ends meet. In the same exhibition, works of Honoré Daumier gives us this perspective, the perspective of those who were forgotten.

Honoré Daumier| Saltimbanques, ca. 1866-67 | Charcoal, pen and ink, wash, etc.

In this picture, a family of street performers encountered an indifferent group. Despite the best efforts of the father to “drum up” the audience, they are pre-occupied by something else, perhaps something more bizarre or exotic.

So it seems that the long-tail problem existed long before the Internet. Long before clickbaits and bread face girl, we have freak show, popular clowns, and a bustling audience gathered for entertainment.

The Noisy Farce

So we talked about the long-tail problem of attention, even before the Internet. How about those who do receive a lot of attention? Are there no problems there? Are they worthy of the attention they received? Or does it just become a whole ridiculous farce?

Think about politics. Politics, in 2017. And then look at this picture:

Honoré Daumier| Bring Down the Curtain; the Farce is Over. 1834 | Lithograph

Notice that the statue on the left is blind-folded – “blind justice”, and the caption reads, “Bring down the curtain; the farce is over.”, while the curtain lowers on the French parliament. Then you begin to wonder, are some tweets really worth our attention at all?

Fluidity & Control

Another problem of attention is that the crowd shift their attention at a speed faster than ever. To quote Andy Warhol, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. One day the whole Internet seems to be debating over the color of the dress, the next day they are watching people, live, wrap rubber bands around a watermelon until the pressure causes the watermelon to explode.

On the other hand, it is easier than ever to control people’s attention on large scale. Platforms like YouTube have the power to suspend user’s account for suspicious activity, which in some cases, causes people who rely on uploading popular videos to lose their means of making ends meet. Having no one showing up is one thing, like the performer family in Daumier’s paintings; but having to worry that every moment, some one, some company can flip a switch and all the attentions you receive goes “puff”.


What can we do? Interestingly, despite its power, technology hasn’t really equipped us with more attention. But technology facilitated the production of so many things that we can pay attention to, e.g., four million songs on Spotify; 60 million new pictures uploaded to Instagram daily. Can technology help us get better at paying attention? Is it inevitable that systems like recommendation system creates filter bubbles and chamber echos? What is curation -– its goal, and meaning for individuals and groups? I’ll write about the idea of curation in my next post.