Is Civilization Furthered By Social Injustice?

Matthew McKeever
8 min readJan 23, 2019

No doubt [Locke] was impressed, as all the men of his time were, by the gains to civilization that were due to rich men, chiefly as patrons of art and letters. The same attitude exists in modern America, where science and art are largely dependent upon the benefactions of the very rich. To some extent, civilization is furthered by social injustice.

Bertrand Russell, A History Of Western Philosophy

This post is about a tension between the ethics and the economics of attention — between how we should direct our attention and the ways in which it is economically viable to do so. The basic thought is that attention should be distributed much more equally, but that this is impossible. Culture, depressingly and (to me at least) surprisingly, depends on attentional inequality.

Culture costs. I take it that that’s what underlies Russell’s quotation: arts and letters, back in the day, worked because some people had enough money not only to cover their living expenses and those of their family and land, but also to be able to give money away so that others less well off could spend their time on culture rather than earning money to buy food. That is, culture depends on there being some who possess a lot of money, but since typically people have a lot of money at the expensive of others who have little, culture depends on inequality.

It’s plausible to think that this goes deep. Maybe something like this bit of historical reasoning is so: at a certain point several thousand years ago, we finally learned how to produce a surplus of food, which is to say more food than is required by society to subsist. We then decided to give that surplus to some lucky few, who, instead of working to subsist (like most were forced to), were able to produce cultural products — plays, poems, history, philosophy.

If this is so, again we have inequality as a precondition of culture, although in this case it’s something like inequality of leisure time, or time to create, or working time.

Arguably today the central cultural inequality is attentional inequality, and the central in demand quantity is attention. Note that because we are so much richer, lives in culture are now possibilities for many more of us than at any time in the past; moreover, in most cases, cultural jobs don’t pay enough for a living. From these two facts it follows that, for the most part, if you’re active in many cultural industries today, it’s not primarily because you’re out to make money. Partly it’s because you have the skills — lots of education, some spare time, etc. But mainly, I think, it’s because you want attention.

Looking at the cultural world in this way, we can immediately see that attentional inequality is rife. The vast majority of attention goes to a small number of artists/journalists/academics. The vast majority of artists/journalists/academics get a very small quantity of information. Now here’s a question: is attentional inequality a good or a bad thing?

There’s a good case to be made that it’s a bad thing. Here are several reasons for thinking this: for one, attentional inequality makes for a lack of diversity. We hear the same voices again and again and others never (to see this just open a newspaper, browse a bookstore, open up twitter, etc.) Arguably a plurality of perspectives is inherently a good thing: we should seek to see the world, whether we are artists, journalists, or academics, from as many perspectives as possible. That is, attentional inequality might be inherently culturally bad.

But there’s more. When faced with inequality, we should ask ourselves of its source. Some inequality is tolerable: it’s fine that Eliud Kipchoge wins more races than me, because he’s a better athlete. But some inequality is bad, owing not to merit but to oppressive or unfair societal forces. Attentional inequality is plausibly mainly of the latter sort. While undoubtedly some of it it merit-based, a lot of it is based on where you studied, or who you know, who publishes you, and so on. These are not good grounds for inequality, and so attentional inequality seems like it’s bad not only as being productive of less diversity, but also because where there’s inequality, there’s oppression, and oppression is bad.

Finally, some inequality is unfair. In particular, it’s arguable that inequality that is based on historical facts rather than current performance is unfair. It’s for that reason that it rankles with us that the rich are rich in part because they, or their parents, were rich. Being born rich means you have to really screw up not to stay rich; being born poor means you really have to do very well to not stay poor. Similarly, your novel will get attention if previous novels of you or your publisher did; your academic articles will get attention based on where you went to grad school; even the number of people your social media post will be seen by is determined not by how good it is, but by how many followers you already had.

There’s probably more to be said, but these reasons suggest to me that attentional inequality is something we should seek, if at all possible, to fix. (Indeed, in various posts on this blog, I have argued we should try to fix it; this post is arguing against myself.)

This suggests its own question: can we fix attentional inequality? The main and negative aim of this post is to suggest that we can’t.

It will help to make this point if we consider a simplistic model of how cultural production might have arisen millennia ago. Imagine there is a society which up to now had been subsistence-based: each person had to work most of their time in order to provide food to feed themselves. At a certain point, thanks to innovation or luck, they start to produce a surplus. They decide to invest that surplus in the creation of cultural goods — they will give the surplus to someone who can write poems, stories, models of government, etc. instead of working.

But there are several possible people who could play that role. Consider these two possibilities:

Equal. They divide the surplus between everyone who could play that role. Each person gets a half an hour off work each day to produce cultural things.

Unequal. They pick one person at random and give the surplus to them; that person spends the whole day on cultural products.

Now, Equal seems clearly better, in a sense — it will produce a greater number of perspectives, which is a good thing, and seems fairer. But — and here’s the main point — it’s an unworkable model.

The problem is basically that the extra 30 mins a day that it gives to a bunch of people, although egalitarian, is just not enough for sustained creative work. Arguably, that extra time would be wasted, and the group would get no cultural products.

On the other hand Unequal, although unfair, seems better: even if the work the one person choosen produces is not to everyone’s tastes, and even if they only got the gig because they’re friends with the king, nevertheless there’s a good chance at least some cultural stuff will be produced on this model. By concentrating the surplus on one person, we have a better chance of furthering culture. Culture, in this model, depends on inequality.

The Pie Of Attention

Again, we can translate this into a contemporary idiom easily enough. The inequality we would seek to minimize would be attentional inequality, such that the total of attention no longer gets overwhelmingly lavished on a select few, but is more evenly spread across many more works or people.

But there’s a problem with this. None of this attentional redistribution, plausibly, will make cultural work easier to do. It will still take months to write a novel, for example. The reason people do these things is because they want to get a decent chunk of attention — one proportional to the amount of attention they expended producing the cultural work in question.

What that suggests to me is that if we each got a piece, but, of necessity, a small piece, of the attentional pie, the incentives many people have for producing things would go. People would, contemplating spending six months writing a novel only for it to receive their small share of the total attention, probably be reticent and do something else.

And this would hold generally: no one would have reason to produce cultural things, and so plausibly cultural things would cease to be created. We wanted to more fairly distribute attention among cultural products, but we ended up causing such products to no longer exist!

Attentional equality, it seems, is not desirable, even though attentional inequality isn’t, either.

I want to end with two interesting consequences of seeing things in this way. Think again about the subsistence/surplus parallel with which I began. Here’s a way to translate that into a modern idiom: what we have today is a surplus of attention, rather than food, and our question as a society is how to distribute it.

But now here’s a thought: if the surplus of food, by being directed to a lucky few, produced civilization, what might the surplus of attention produce, were it similarly directed towards one well-defined goal? Could we develop a super civilization with the surplus attention modern life gives to each of us? If you think the answer to that question might be yes, then you might think that’s an argument not for attention equality, nor even for maintaining the unequal status quo, but for going for more injustice. Direct all our surplus attention towards a select few rightly chosen people and hope that they will repay that attention by creating new super cultural products. I’m not saying I buy this argument, but it’s intriguing.

Secondly, and finally, thinking about things in this way can make one — at least, did make me — think about the role of art in a different way. I like the idea that art is a profound and important part of our lives, and in particular that art is about the connection of two minds. Consider this quote from David Foster Wallace:

There’s a kind of Ah-ha! Somebody at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do. It doesn’t happen all the time. It’s these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel unalone — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I’m in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don’t with other art.

Faced with that, you might think that for each of us, there is a soul-artist, and the goal of art should be to put one in contact with one’s soul artist: with the person who sees the world as you see it but who can articulate what they see better. Art would be about finding special connections; like dating.

Another perspective though is that art is like lawnmowers. There are no soul lawnmowers. There are a range of mass-produced ones, and good lawnmower behaviour is finding the one that has the best range of qualities for your particular needs, even if it isn’t in any way tailored to you. The economic thought I have suggested here leads to the second thought: if it’s necessary that art, to get created, receive a large amount of attention, then it must appeal to a large number of people, and so not just you, and so looking in art for these special transcendent mind-to-mind connections is, perhaps, not what you should be doing. Rather, you should bear in mind you’re dealing with something mass produced as a condition of its existence. This is, I think, a very unromantic picture of art but one I think that this way of seeing things forces upon us.