Susan Funk, in her spiritedly assertive comment to my recent post on Kelly Christopherson, said, "Hey! I want some feedback on my recent blog post!" So here goes...

Susan, I think this notion of the economy of attention is getting more and more (dare I say it?) ... attention. See, for example, this excellent set of resources on the topic as well as Davenport & Beck's book, The Attention Economy. I agree with your 'I want some commercial-free spaces in my life'  perspective but your post also caused my mind to wander in a completely different direction.

In the attention economy, everyone is competing for ears, eyeballs, and brainwaves. Because there is way too much information for us to pay attention to, advertisers and marketers are doing everything they can to get us to pay attention to their messages. But as Malcolm Gladwell notes, "word of mouth" from those we trust still carries the most weight when it comes to our decision-making.

So who do we listen to? To whom do we give permission to "market" products and ideas to ourselves? Well, technology both expands and limits our attention. On the expansive side, our 'trust circle' now may be comprised not only of family, friends, and close colleagues (those with whom we have 'strong ties') but also bloggers; trusted web sites and media channels; political, charitable, and/or ideological organizations with whom we affiliate; etc. (those with whom we have 'weak ties'). E-mail listservs, RSS feeds, and other subscription mechanisms allow us to hear from and monitor more information channels than ever before.

Of course technology also allows us to be much more selective about who we listen to. We no longer are dependent on a few print, radio, and/or television broadcast channels for information. We now can choose from an often-overwhelming choice of print and online newspapers; AM, FM, and satellite radio stations; network, cable, and satellite television stations; text-based and streaming media web sites; blogs; podcasts; text and instant messaging; interactive videogames; and other information streams. Of necessity we use Internet bookmarks, iPods, Tivo, RSS aggregators, and the like to filter out what we want to see, hear, and read. Cocooned with our personal media players (and sound-isolating headphones), e-book readers, PDAs, cell phones, computers, and home theaters, we rarely have to come in contact with any persons or ideas we wish to avoid.

Some call this personalization; others call it isolation. The challenge of all of this wonderful individualization is trying to still forge a sense of common culture, to create common bonds that tie us together as a society, as a local community, as national citizens. When we voluntarily narrowcast ourselves by only hearing or watching media that we like, by only reading certain ideological or political perspectives, by only visiting web sites or blogs that resonate with us, where do we hear the common messages that bring us together as a people?

I think the answer is public schools. It's definitely not broadcast television or radio: even the most-watched TV shows now garner only a fraction of the viewers they used to. Workplaces and houses of worship are too disparate and divergent. The Internet is too scattered and newspaper readership is way down. What's left besides our public elementary and secondary institutions?

Yet we are now seeing the same surfeit of choice in public schools as we see in other societal arenas. Complementing the traditional choice of private schools, we now have magnet schools, charter schools, alternative schools, privatized schools, schools-within-a-school, virtual schools, and homeschooling. In Utah, lawmakers just passed a law providing tuition vouchers for every student in the state who wants to attend private school.

I'm not an advocate of hegemonic groupthink (particularly from the government), nor do I tend to be an alarmist, but I do think there's an important place for public schools regarding socialization of our youth, instillation of community and national norms, and creation of a people with common bonds. But I'm afraid we're losing this quickly, and we need to start talking about what it means for us as a society.