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The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information

Richard Lanham

(University of Chicago Press)

More Than a Little Bit of Fluff

There’s something amusing about Richard Lanham’s latest book being reviewed here on PopMatters—if not true irony, then at least the little chuckle of recognition when something is unintentionally appropriate.


After all, one of the premises put forth by The Economics of Attention is that as we fully embrace the Information Age and move into the world of digital communication, the traditional subjects of economics flip places, and what we think about a product winds up mattering more than the product itself, because true value lies in being able to bring eyes (attention) to the now subordinate product. In other words, gentle reader, it is your attention that is the ultimate commodity, and in Lanham’s view, it is discussions of products (such as those found on PopMatters) that determine the real value of products like this book.


Lanham frames this as the ages old tension between “stuff” and “fluff”, or the material goods themselves, the physical products of culture, versus the abstract analysis of material goods, the discourse about what those products mean. The thesis is that in the Information Age, we no longer have the limited supply and demand equation to constrain economies. Instead, we suffer from a surfeit of both stuff and fluff, and we live in an era so ripe with both products and ideas about products that the consumer is overwhelmed by choice. This is both facilitated and rectified by digital communication media, such as the Internet. Because, in any economic situation, the consumer’s investment is necessary for the industry to succeed, then real power is the ability to draw consumer attention to the product, and it is the discourse of attention that gives the product value, causing it to fail or succeed.


Therefore, in this circumstance, this review (“the fluff”) has a pervasive influence on the success of the book (“the stuff”), because your attention is the real commodity in limited supply. In other words, in one sense, taking Lanham’s assertions to their logical ends, this review is more important than the book itself.


This places me, the reviewer, in a rather awkward position, especially since I’ve not only had my self-worth validated, but validated by the object I’m supposed to be evaluating. If I support and praise Lanham’s assertions, it’s dangerously self-serving. But if I refute them, I undermine the purpose and value of the review itself. Objectivity is right out, folks.


So it behooves me to make a choice between analyzing Lanham’s work academically, or analyzing it as a book, and I choose the latter. For one, like Lanham, I am not a trained economist, and am therefore not qualified to discuss the ways in which the communications and classical rhetoric professor has appropriated the language of another field for his purposes. Lanham freely admits to having incorporated the terms of economics as an outsider, albeit a well-read one, finding it an ideal framework with which to discuss the principles of value in an era where aspects of production and consumption are at the heart of cultural communication. Insomuch as I understand them myself, Lanham’s use of economic models seem sound, and are a compelling way of making his points, but the economic analysis is better left to those well-versed in the field.


Moreover, despite its title, the subject of The Economics of Attention is less to do with economics itself, and more about the need for reconfiguring the way audiences and their activities are evaluated. The core of Lanham’s argument rests in what he describes as the Style/Substance Matrix. This deceptively simple model presents four spectra—signal, perceiver, motive, and life—as a complex and interactive range of ways we interact with the cultural world. The full argument is rather more complex than is readily conveyed here, but it boils down to an assertion that the Age of Information has driven us to a point where we have some freedom to play with the way we perceive an object, our own relation to it, the way our perception changes with our intent, and the way this affects our perception of self. As we shift on the different spectra of the matrix, we change our relationship to the world, and, as Lanham argues, increasingly this means that the material interaction becomes less important than what we think about the material and our selves. Lanham posits that our continual oscillation along these spectra leads to increased self-consciousness, a hyper-awareness, and that this in turn makes our attention the most valuable commodity of all in an economy of abundance.


To reach this point, Lanham necessarily sets the stage by exploring some of the cognitive shifts that have occurred over time, beginning in earnest with the world of avant garde art in the form of the Dadaists, Warhol, and Christo. Lanham fluidly dissects how these artists’ most profound contribution to culture was in teaching us to see differently (an exhortation that goes back to King Lear, but which dramatically accelerated in the 20th century). From there, he considers how this has contributed to the triumph of design, and how our perceptual relationship to language and text has shifted from orality to print, and now, in the new frontier of digital communication, how we’ve arrived at a constant oscillation between the two. Combining these arguments leads to the aforementioned Style/Substance Matrix as a means for explaining how such oscillation and perceptual foregrounding works and what it means. Ultimately, the consequences are that style and substance have flipped places in order of importance—it now matters just as much how we say as what we say, what we think about a thing as what we do with a thing, if not more so. Style is no longer the ornament; it is the driving force. In this way, Lanham offers a model of communication that furthers the groundwork laid by the arts and the social sciences while avoiding some of the abstract fancies that plague postmodernist theory.


Perhaps unsurprisingly for an academic of rhetoric, Lanham’s prose is at times aloof, and at others florid, but throughout he manages to balance this with a very direct and informative approach to his subject matter. The source material is, in fact, so well-researched and from such a broad range of disciplines that Lanham includes “Background Conversations” at the end of each chapter, in which he explores and discusses the source material and concepts in more direct, less integrated passages. A wonderful alternative to footnotes, these Background Conversations nevertheless slowed down the work if read straight through, and were better approached by saving them until completing the main body of work and then revisiting the detail afterwards.


What is disappointing about The Economics of Attention is that the one passage where Lanham both offers a case study example and loosens up the analysis to have a little fun—a tangentially-related, elsewhere-published article involving academic rights, copyright law, and Barbie dolls—winds up losing the thread. The “Barbie and the Teacher of Righteousness” chapter, published prior in the Houston Law Review, uses a cheeky screenplay format to place various stereotype characters in a talk show discussion of intellectual property. While it’s lighthearted and at times humorous, it relies so heavily on piecing together the context that gave way to the article that it totally derails the main conversation of the book. By the time he gets back to discussing digital media and the university in the attention economy, much of the foundation of the book has been confused, and the topics seem disjointed. In fact, despite the heady material of the main text, it took longer to piece together and march through that Barbie chapter than anything else.


Despite this, The Economics of Attention should be considered “important” for its ability to continue the discourse of what social and cultural conditions have changed as the world of communication changes. Lanham may spend slightly too long on tangents, defending classical rhetoric from the slander of perverted meaning, or distinguishing the specific characteristics of text, but he generally manages to show their association to the deeper ideas, and for the most part it all comes together in a versatile and practical model.


Like many books that proclaim social change writ large, there are times when Lanham treads dangerously close to the iconoclasm of postmodern prognostication, but overall this is a balanced look at actual communicative development. Instead of trying to force the idea of total paradigm shift, Lanham instead embraces the possibilities of paradigm oscillation. If social and communicative theory is of any interest to you, then you should pay close attention to The Economics of Attention.


And, of course, if Lanham’s analysis is accurate, the importance of this review is a foregone conclusion.

Patrick Schabe is an editor, writer, graphic designer, freelance copyeditor, and digital content manager, depending on the time of day. He has also worked in a gas station, at a smoothie bar, as a low-level accountant, taught college courses online, and cleaned offices, so he considers his current employment a success. Under his unassumed identity, Patrick holds a BA in English -- Creative Writing from Metropolitan State College of Denver and a Master of Social Science with an emphasis in Popular Culture Studies from the University of Colorado. He's currently at work on a first novel and a non-fiction piece on cultural theory. Patrick lives in Littleton, Colorado, with his wife, Jessica, who makes everything worthwhile.


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