The attention economy

[9 March 2006]

By Rob Horning

Apparently the service economy and the information economy are coming to an end, and what we can expect to see, if tech entrepreneurs like Seth Goldstein of Root Markets can be believed, is the attention economy, which holds that one of the most underutililized personal resources we have is our attention, which is ever-renewing and which we tend to give away without getting fair market value for it. The idea behind Root Markets is that rather than letting some spyware company get paid for monitoring where your attention is going, you yourself should seize the reins and sell that information yourself—you should be able to hoard your own clickstream data and sell it to the highest bidder. If you can prove your demographic worth—your income level and age and so forth—your attention will yield more on the market. If not, then you’ll be spared the intrusion of spyware and clicktrackers, who don’t care what you do anyway. Companies benefit, of course, because they get more meaningful data that will help them discriminate among customers—they won’t have to waste time paying precious attention to deadbeats, free riders, and people without means.

This is another wedge on that front, along with RFIDs and other personal tracking devices, that ultimately seeks to separate consumers into piles on the basis of who can afford to spend the most on the highest-margin goods. Retailers want more efficient tools to allow them to target the most profitable customers and ignore the smart shoppers, who may ultimately find it harder and harder to get any service at all. Ideally, this will allow those smart shoppers to opt out of marketing culture altogether; advertisers will realize that it’s time wasted to hit them with ads. These people would essentially be taking their valuable attention and hoarding it, removing it from the attention economy. But would this also deprive these people of the social recognition and sense of legitimacy we need to feel integrated with our community, to feel we have a purpose and a place? Much o the social recognition our culture has to distibute is doled out through the flattery of advertisers.

Goldstein imagines a world where attention bonds—promises to be an audience for something—are traded on an exchange like commodities futures. It seems a bit sinister but rings true. Our culture is increasingly divided into spectators and performers, or rather these are increasingly the only significant roles we play in regard to social legitimacy and validation. We all want to be celebrities, we don’t want to be in the audience. The idea of demanding to be paid for attention, of having it bonded, shows how discreditable it is to be relegated to the audience, how ignoble it is to listen. The attention economy will helpfully show us just what it costs to be sympathetic, to listen, to acknowledge something other than ourselves, and let us choose whether we’re will to pay that price, or if we should hold out until it’s paid to us in kind.

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