Attention Economy redux

by Rob Horning

17 May 2006


Here is a more fleshed out version of Michael Goldhaber’s lecture on the attention economy, which I had linked to previously. It smacks of business-culture oversimplification, pitched with the hucksterish hype one must apparently use whentalking to management types, but it still offers an intersting case. If goods and information are no longer scarce in Western economies (a big if) then economics—the study of the allocation of scarce resources—should shift to attention, as its limits become more obvious the more we are oversaturated with media and data. (It seems as though one of the definitive contemporary struggles everyone goes through, one of the determining dialectics for an individual’s sense of self, is between accumulating and purging. Our personality is a by-product of how we have our cultural filters calibrated. For instance, I marvel at all the new things available to me and find the pull to acquire them irresistible; yet each new thing I get robs me of some of the value I used to find in the stuff I already had. Always the allure of quality, then undertow of quanity taking me out to sea.) Goldhaber suggests attention is even more fundamental than money, less a medium to measure value than a primary, transcendental good in itself, always valuable regardless of context, thus a suitable Archimedian point upon which to move the world and explain everything:

But, just as in a money economy practically everyone must have some money to survive, so attention in some quantities is pretty much a prerequisite for survival, and attention is actually far more basic. This has always been the case for tiny babies. About the only thing they can get for themselves, or can give, is attention, which they begin to do within a half hour of birth, by smiling at those who smile at them. Without attention an infant could never satisfy its material needs, for food, warmth, fresh diapers, being burped, and so on. At a slightly later stage infants and toddlers need attention if they are to develop any sense of themselves as persons, and neither of those needs ever completely goes away. So even if you do not especially make a point of reaching for attention, even if you are very shy and reclusive, you still probably cannot do without some minimum, which however reluctantly, you may have to fight for. And no matter how humble you now may be, at some time in your own childhood you certainly sought attention, or you wouldn’t be here.

As we move towards an attention economy in a fuller sense, the ethos of the old economy which makes it often bad taste or a poor strategy to consciously seek attention seems to be giving way to an attitude that makes having a lot of attention rather admirable and seeking it not at all to be frowned upon. Think of the sorts of things people are now willing to admit about themselves just to get on the likes of Oprah or the Sally Jesse Raphael show. Even the President of the United States is willing to discuss his underwear on nationwide television.

Goldhaber points out that a culture fixated on the distribution of attention will privilege individuals over communities: “It is no coincidence that some of the most popular uses of computers, fax machines, networks, phone systems, etc., have more to do with getting attention than with directly aiding what they are supposedly about, increasing productivity of an organization or society as a whole.  For an important truth is getting attention is of primary value to individuals rather than organizations, and attention also flows from individuals.” I wonder to what degree the entertainment industry abets the process of investing attention with value, no matter what kind of attention it is, elevating attention to the status of gold, a basis for all other value. Are the pleasures of attention really transcendent, or has the advent of a relentless 24-hour global entertainment industry devoted to exploiting fame made it seem so?

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