Attenticity vs. authenticity: The economic transition from truth to trust claims

CARLOS OSORIO / AP

In this short essay I suggest that we, as sense-making creatures, are oriented towards sense-making precisely by an attitude of care, which determines what things (i.e., objects, claims, perspectives) we will purchase with our attention and faith and what things we will reject or subvert. Guided by advancements in economics and rhetorical studies, I contend that care is activated through certain styles of communication that convey to us a recognition and affirmation of our principally held values. Rather than being guided by truth claims therefore, we are guided by trust claims—that is to say, styles of communicating that appeal to our deep-seated values, independent of their facticity.

The second point I hope to make is that authenticity—as it relates to things we claim and make purchase upon in the world—is a somewhat outdated concept that had peaked in value during the Enlightenment and through the post-WWII era of capitalist production and branding and is now on the decline in the current post-modern, information economy. As our economic systems have pivoted away from a strict emphasis on efficiency and productivity towards an emphasis on capturing and soliciting attention, so too have our criteria for what constitutes value in claims about the world. I argue that what matters here is not so much authenticity as ‘attenticity; that is, the ability to render goods and services to the consumer in such a way as to maximize the capture of their attention/desire. This is principally accomplished through the stylizing of product/service in such a way as to invite maximum care.

Care as a Mode of Sense Making

In his ode to the historical Grecian contributions to Western metaphysics, the philosopher Martin Heidegger suggested that we as beings (i.e., existents) are always—whether we are aware of it or not—concerned with making sense of our being (i.e., existence). Now much can be made about what is meant my ‘making sense’. In one sense, any living species is required to make sensory adjustments to their environment in order to fit in/compete/exist. Of course, Heidegger placed much more emphasis on a uniquely human concern with our particular place in the cosmos, and our relationship with all other things (i.e., to understand and disclose the unfolding of existence as it materializes in all aspects of life). This is rather heady stuff and open to the critiques of more linguistically precise philosophers. For our purposes however, we note that Heidegger resurrected the Greek notion of care or Sorge to denote a fundamental attitude we have towards things/ideas/others we encounter in the world. He claimed that we are always “having to do with something, producing something, attending to something and looking after it, making use of something, giving something up and letting it go, undertaking, accomplishing, evincing, interrogating, considering, discussing, determining…”; the converse is also true: “[l]eaving undone, neglecting, renouncing, taking a rest” are all also ways of withdrawing care from one project into another. Although this ‘insight’ seems so simple and obvious as to be irrefutable, it constitutes a fundamental contribution of the phenomenological school to our core tenets in Western philosophy. The basic idea is that we are never in a neutral relationship with things/ideas/others that exist around us—we are always and already in a mode of engagement—never just conscious but rather conscious of ____ in a certain way or style. This style may be determined by myriad factors such as the thing itself (e.g., lion, house cat), as well as one’s preconceptions, temperament, nature of the encounter etc.

While the Classical philosophers—and to a large extent Heidegger himself and other early phenomenologists—were principally concerned with establishing a truthful relationship to things in our existence; I contend that it is the particular styles of care we espouse that more powerfully determine what we consider to be a meaningful relationship with things. At the risk of appearing dilettante, this assertion can be made upon decades of research in neuroscience, psychology, and sociology. First, we must define care more precisely as a network of attitudes,  physiological responses and behaviors that can be implicitly activated by our encounter with something in the world. Whether this thing activates our care network depends on our assignation of it within a symbolic matrix of other meaningful things/ideas/others/experiences that we have internalized. This matrix of meanings is also in constant flux, depending on our interactions with the environment. Modern neuroscience has defined these networks of attitudes, responses and behaviors—which are activated by environmental inputs—as neurotags. Let’s take an example: consider a person who has just been randomly assaulted on the street by a large, young man may associate the next large man she sees with danger, an impulse to flee and feelings of helplessness. Another person, who may have been the recipient of an organ by a large, male donor may associate the next large man with gratitude, an impulse to smile and feelings of cordiality. The first person may easily navigate through their matrix of meanings from ‘large man’ to ‘danger’ to ‘flee’ and ‘helplessness’ (which all consequently gets associated into a neurotag) while the second person automatically moves from ‘large man’ to ‘gratitude’ to ‘smile’ and ‘friendly’. What is less important here the actual truth value of what is conveyed by the presence of the large man; far more salient is the position each individual takes in relation to him. How their care networks are activated in this interaction will determine what how they react to and perceive information as well as their own behavioral responses.

This has been long known within the field of communications and rhetorical studies. Whether in the industry of media, business, politics, law, education, or public affairs successful communication is not simply premised on conveying information in a neutral medium. Rather, the medium, the message and its delivery are carefully cultivated to capture the care of the audience and turn it towards the direction where one wishes to exert influence. Nowadays, it is uncontroversial to assert that nonverbal cues form an irrefutable context in which we interpret and communicate information. It can also be contended that when these cues—verbal and nonverbal—align the other within a network of meaning that incites our care (i.e., when the other appears to align with our deep-seated values, perspectives and understandings of the world), we become powerfully compelled to invite the other in and form meaningful connections with them. In our postmodern economy (in which industry has  reached a point of efficiency where not only products but also identities and belonging become comodified and valued in the market), this form of attention-giving becomes the highest endorsement of a message’s rhetorical value. Appeals to care matter are more impactful than appeals to truth.

Attenticity is the new Authenticity

Considering the market changes that have dominated much of our lives and consumer behaviors, it should not be surprising that pioneering research on information-gathering and decision-making is now being conducted by economists; people such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. However, dating back to Plato’s Phaedrus, it has been philosophers who have traced a conceptual ground for differentiating between at least two levels of mind—a split between so-called ‘rational’ thinking which pursues the ostensibly universal foundations for what is Good, True and Beautiful and another level of processing that is yoked to our earthly passions, desires, and ‘biases’ or deeply perspectival ways of perceiving the world. Sigmund Freud’s theories proved to be a revenant of this bimodal conception of mind. Distinguishing between the ego from the id and superego, Freud posited a rational, decision-making aspect of consciousness that negotiates behavioral compromises between innate impulses and social conventions. Although the rational/irrational dualism is echoed here in terms of Care vs. Truth, the main point is that societal thinkers from philosophers to psychologists and now economists have labored to explain how we receive and act on information; it is a process apparently rife with contradictions, inconsistencies, ellipses and ambiguity.

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein are another economist duo whose work popularized (although they did not invent) nudge theory, whichbears more direct relevance to the claims I am making here. Nudge theory is essentially concerned with what is called ‘choice architecture’, which can be simply defined as any intentional means of rendering information or choices to individuals/consumers. These means often include varying the number of choices presented, the manner in which choices are presented, and the environmental landscape in which an individual/consumer will encounter and navigate through the various choices in their everyday lives. A simple example may suffice: in his early pioneering work in nudge, Thaler found that many employees were not enrolled in a retirement savings policy despite it being in their best interest to do so. This is clearly an example (one of many) in which individuals are found not to behave according to the classic economic model of a rational-decision maker. However, Thaler found that he could markedly increase the rate of worker enrollment in retirement savings policies simply by having their employers switch the default position from an opt-in to an opt-out arrangement. That is, workers would be automatically enrolled unless they decided they did not want to be (vs. having to actively decide to enroll).

Following this example within our framework, we can say that regarding retirement savings, most people do not care about it enough to modify their behavior. That is, the idea of retirement savings may activate a network of attitudes,  physiological responses and behaviors that either make people pull away or deny their concern for it. Perhaps the concept ‘retirement savings’ is associated within a matrix of other meanings that signify ‘death’ ‘poverty’ ‘disability’ ‘unemployment’ and ‘uncertainty’, which are in turn linked to responses like anxiety and helplessness. One strategy deriving from nudge theory is to therefore position desired choices so they become frictionless against a person’s care network and do not incite either strong desire or aversion but rather passive acceptance. Although many options, rules, institutions are passively accepted (e.g., think about the laws which govern our political systems, health care, economics, transportation systems, etc.), there is an active economy of products and services that are competing for our attention and care.

In selling themselves to us—whether as a household good, employment/educational opportunity, a lifestyle choice or a political ideology—these commodities do not effectively solicit us by appealing to fundamental and irrefutable truths. In a sense, that mode of authenticity—a concept which shares etymological meaning with ‘authorship’ [meaning original creator]—has been replaced by a new standard of production. From the pre-Industrial age through to the early post-WWII decades, production has been moving towards efficiency. At first, organizations had to become larger to increase efficiency. Trust has always anchored to large institutions (i.e., state, religion) and as production companies became larger so did they advance in public trust. It is now a well-known fact that most children can name more brands than they can native flora and fauna. Trust, up till now, had been anchored to truth in the sense that originality and a central authority/producer/brand was most highly valued. In the Information age however, production has become so efficient that central brands no longer strictly hold sway over our consumption habits. In fact, with a glut of cheap, replaceable and on-demand goods and services to suit every need, niche and lifestyle, we are now in an economy where what is most valued are those things that best fit our desires; that which immediately captures our attention and activates our networks of care. Trust is no longer as firmly wedded to truth (as defined by authenticity) and finds increasing purchase in care. I refer to this new criterion as attenticity and contend that it is especially now even more valued than traditional, epistemological understandings of authenticity when employed towards communicative and rhetorical purposes.

Perhaps this is most clearly illustrated in current political discourse. Many individuals, American and not, continue to be utterly horrified, repulsed and stupefied by the pervasive inauthenticity of the incumbent president. There are even sites dedicated to metricizing his inauthenticity. However, this is in the vein of old economic thinking. Although facts still matter, we need to better understand what compels his voters and even his detractors. When confronted with easily verifiable facts testifying to his inauthenticity, many supporters will simply claim “Fake news” or “I really don’t care do u?” Although some may posit a mass delusion or collective denial of reality, I suggest that these voters are making a trust claim rather than a truth claim. For them, like many others in our new economic realities, the converse of ‘fake’ is not ‘true’ but ‘trustworthy.’ What is more important than authenticity is attenticity; that is, how does this claim solicit my attention and activate my networks of care? As long as they perceive the president’s messaging to relate to their field of cares and concerns they will continue to purchase it (through sustained attention, attitudes, and shared identification).  

Of course there is great consternation about the rank demise of truth. The thinkers and pundits have even considered a new epistemological register, which is not concerned with Truth at all. They call bullshit. Rather than a lie (which is concerned with the perception of truth), bullshit is in fact a “lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are…” If bullshit is not concerned with truth/falsity then what is its aims? My contention is that bullshit is a post-fact register that aims—irrespective of its proximity to truth—to access and activate our networks of care, which will in turn increase our faith and consensus in the speaker’s messages, desires and intentions. For example, when president Trump tweeted that Joe Biden will raise taxes by $3B if elected, and that this will cause the market and retirements savings to crash (and the disappearance of jobs), he was not lying. He was simply not concerned with truth at all. Instead, he was bullshitting—and this bullshit performs a collective tap on the shoulders of his base voters to assure them that it is he—not Biden—who cares about the market and hence jobs and hence retirement savings and hence the disappearing middle class and hence a suburban quality of life. It is not just in politics that we see this. Even in the fantasy world of entertainment and ‘reality’ TV, we see a desire to appeal to networks of care rather than the establishment of truth and authenticity. One of my favorite examples comes from a Black Mirror episode titled Fifteen Million Merits. In this dystopian, post-modern landscape of entertainment, the protagonist, Bing, achieves ultimate fame and recognition on the Hot Shot reality show by his unscripted, raw tirade against the inauthentic establishment in which everyone’s lives are hopelessly treadmilled through. He was breaking kayfabe. Of course, what ended up appealing to the judges—and the millions of voting fans—was not his authenticity per se but his ability to appeal to a care network (that touched on desperation, resentment, envy, anger, hopelessness) and appease it by allowing it recognition and space in the entertainment sphere. It was a nod to all us middle class and mediocre.

Although many of claim to want truth (it’s signification is still central in most of our matrices of symbolic understanding), we may find ourselves increasingly alienated from its conception. Just as economic modes of production have become increasingly global, opaque and ideologically challenging, so too has our access to truth, particularly as it relates to decision-making for public governance and welfare. As it becomes an increasingly complex undertaking to understand and analyze the determinants and solutions to problems such as health inequities, mass incarceration, voter alienation, climate change, educational shortcomings etc., conspiracy theories find currency in their simplistic appeals to the issues that are salient in our networks of care. With this a transitioning economy comes new opportunities for self-recognition and new epistemological registers. Based on these premises, we can recommend the following as theoretically effective ways of establishing claims and enhancing the power of speech acts:

  1. Recognize the networks of care in your audience, and establish ports of entry. The political scientist Eitan Hersh argues that the majority of individuals participate in the political system on a very casual level and tend to approach it (though it has real-world implications and all) through a desire for entertainment and self-expression. To meaningfully capture these voters, it is important to communicate to them in ways that actually connect to their cares (i.e., whether it be for entertainment, self-expression or other meaningful, concrete lifestyle concerns). Dr. Hersh provides the example of the Ku Klux Klan campaigning in North Carolina by distributing treatment resources targeting opioid addicts in the area. These individuals may not be ‘activated’ by White supremacy per se (which is not disclosed up front) but they may be appealed to nevertheless by targeting their desire to curb addiction. This is an example of attenticity trumping authenticity. By soliciting the attention of their target audience, the KKK can mobilize the care of these individuals towards membership or political endorsements.
  2. Expand these networks to include your messages, values and intentions. Of course, this is where things can really take a Black Mirror turn. When we divorce communication from notions of truthfulness and authenticity, then concerns related to informed consent, freedom and empowerment—deeply humanist values, universally valued since the post-war boom—become increasingly nebulous. But we are at a time when political ideologies are in upheaval and consumer behaviors may hold sway over vast amounts of corporate and public policy. It critically matters that environmentalists, feminists, policy makers, urban planners, health care workers, insurance agents are all able to engage with the public in ways that help them move their agendas from purely academic and idealistic visions to on-the-ground strategies. If we choose to get bogged down in quagmires and critiques over truthfulness and authenticity, we may miss the more fundamental turn. It is appeals to care—that which captures the attention and concerns of the other—which invites us in.  

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