Media Futures 2007: 4/5, Alchemy: Brecht 2.0

My encounter last month with Valleywag over avant garde playright and director Brecht resonated enough in the blogosphere so as to make this site the top result now for the query "seth brecht" or "brecht seth." And so thanks to some kind Attention alchemy, I have become an authority on the subject of Brecht (at least among Seths) in the eyes of the great Pagerank algorithm.

While this doesn’t belong up there with Soros’ "Real Time Experiment" in the Alchemy of Finance as an example of market manipulation, it  show how one can etch oneself into the way that Google resolves your queries- by using a popular blog to link to you in a certain context, and by routing many of its readers along for the collective experience of you.  Soros explains the reflexivity of markets: the way one perceives a market can in fact impact the behavior of the market.  He made billions off of this insight.  The reflexivity of Attention markets is similarly based on the premise that one’s perception of Attention influences its supply.

soros alchemy

Before dismissing the sethbrecht as a random blog divet, maybe theater is a useful metaphor for understanding the evolution from API to Alchemy.  As you know, I have been trying to negotiate the transition for a number of months.  I was focused on tracing the pure conversion of our automatic data algorithms into Attention streams, but I was having a difficult time describing how our unique streams collide- other than simply calling it Alchemy.

A few months ago I asked Goldhaber how his book on Attention was coming along.  He perked up and said that he had a new title for it, All the world’s a stage: the emerging attention economy and how it distinctly differs from the economies of industry, markets and money that we are used to. Maybe this meant that understanding electronic Attention had something more fundamental to do with theater.  Since I studied dramatic literature in college, this was not so foreign to me.  The hallmark of modern theatre’s avant garde (Meyerhold, Pirandello, Brecht, et al) was the participation of the viewer in the mode of theatrical production. Take, for example, Brecht’s Lehrstucke (learning plays) from the 1920’s. According to Wikipedia,

Brecht described them (Lehrstucke) as "a collective political meeting" in which the audience is to participate actively. One sees in this model a rejection of the concept of the bureaucratic elite party where the politicians are to issue directives and control the behaviour of the masses…

We can look at this audience as active participant model as an early prototype for contemporary social media. In the theater of the avant garde, the writer, director and actors all attempted to directly engage the behavior of the audience.  Brecht’s infamous alienation effect was simply a feature set and interface that reminded the audience (aka user) that he was not to get lost in the experience of the media but instead needed to participate in changing it:

For this purpose, Brecht employed the use of techniques that remind the spectator that the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself, which he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as distancing effect, estrangement effect, or alienation effect). Such techniques included the direct address by actors to the audience, transposition of text to third person or past tense, speaking the stage direction out loud, exaggerated, unnatural stage lighting, the use of song, and explanatory placards. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate that the audience’s reality was, in fact a construction and, as such, was changeable.  from Wikipedia Entry on Brecht

This experience of being on stage, and using the stage as a means of changing user behavior, is something that is personal to me.  I remember when I was 14 years old performing on the stage at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.


It was a bitter February evening during the week and I was standing on the stage dressed like an Italian kid fresh off of Ellis Island, with stiff-heeled shoes, an annoying beret and lots of make-up.  The play was Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, adapted by Robert Brustein. I was standing on stage behind my mother, played by sitcom Alice’s Linda Lavin, looking out at the audience, watching them watch me. On the stage behind me was most of the actual ART resident acting group, behaving as if they were in the midst of rehearsals for Gozzi’s King Stag, which was in fact being directed then by Andrei Serban. They started the performance all smiles and inside jokes until the door at the back of the theatre opened up and so appeared a family of actors, including me as the youngest son, searching for our author ("any author will do…") who might finish our play.


One of the best descriptions of pure theater that I have come across is by the famous Polish experimental director Jerzy Grotowski. More than anybody, Grotowski was the prototypical green, organic metaphysician of the stage.  He fled communist Poland after WWII, invigorated the downtown NY avant garde scene in the late 60’s, taught theory at UC Irvine in the 80’s, and ended up practicing what he preached on a remote Italian island before he died a few years ago.  In his classic text, Towards a Poor Theatre, from 1968, Grotowski writes:

By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that theatre can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and scenography, without a separate performance area (stage), without lighting and sound effects, etc. It cannot exist without the spectator relationship of perceptual, direct, communion….

This "relationship of perceptual, direct, communion" is very close to what I am trying to express with the notion of the readerverse- a place or moment where the reader and writer are both fully engaged in the cooperative process of creating something original (ie Alchemy) by virtue of the  unique, real-time data streams that they surface to eachother.  For a while I struggled to come up with a real-world object that best emblematized the readerverse: a mirror? a shadow? a trail we leave behind? But now I am fairly sure that the readerverse is best expressed as a stage, where we create social media with a sequence of clicks and tags and queries.

And so here we are, beginning to realize that by virtue of paying Attention in the same electronic theatre, that we are creating some strange performance for eachother, by eachother, with eachother.  This is the primal social media expression, one that despite its rough amateur mechanics nevertheless promises a profound shift in the way media is created.  I defer to Steve Gillmor, whose silence about the imminent integration of the Gesture Bank and the AttentionTrust Extension, belies a remarkably prescient insight he had almost two years ago:

What does matter is a pool of attention metadata owned by the users. This open cloud of reputational presence and authority can be mined by each group of constituents. Users can barter their attention in return for access to full content, membership priviliges, and incentives for strategic content… And the media, which now includes publishers, analysts, researches, rating services, advertisers, sponsors, and underwriters, can use the data as a giant inference engine… With so much going for it, how and where is attention vulnerable? It’s vulnerable to being pigeonholed as an automated artificially intelligent approach to personalization. In my view… attention metadata is useful in service of the reputational filter of the people and ideas I and the people I track are interested in. This is not about merely reorganizing my feed data based on my patterns of acquisition, but the cumulative weighting of the minds and interests represented by those feeds and items.  Steve Gillmor, Waiting for Attention, March 2005

4 thoughts on “Media Futures 2007: 4/5, Alchemy: Brecht 2.0

  1. I think the comparison between you and Brecht (one of my top 5 playwrights) is apt. As I’ve mentioned, you’ve built a gorgeous aesthetic around Attention — my problem is that your framework is all Art and no Science.

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