The Attention Economy will change Everything


An e-mail interview with Michael H. Goldhaber

Michael Goldhaber believes that our society is undergoing a radical change. What is merging cannot be defined as the structures of an information or knowledge society. These concepts are only part of the new attention economy. The interview tries to reveal the basic features and problems of this new economy. See also The Attention Economy and the Net by Michael Goldhaber and his columns in Telepolis.

You are saying, that our economy is shifting to an attention economy and that the concept of the information or knowledge society is misleading.

Michael H. Goldhaber: Yes, since they don't give us any real clue as to why information has become so important. From an economic standpoint, the fact that we are drowning in information would suggest an oversupply, which should lead to a slowdown in "production" of it. Of course, we experience nothing of the sort.

What are the main symptoms for a society which is economically based on attention?

Michael H. Goldhaber: Symptoms? Good question, yet it makes the attention economy sound like a disease. Let me be clear; there is no reason to view it as basically more (or less)unhealthy than anything that preceded it. It is simply a new form of life for human beings.

Also, let me add, though the shift towards this new system is under way, it is far from complete as yet.

That said, "symptoms," or features, include these:

  1. we are drowning in information, yet more and more gets chruned out, which defies
  2. increasingly intense competition for attention
  3. less and less free time, as a result
  4. a greater and greater importance of stars and celebrities of every sort
  5. a change in the meaning of privacy; for instance Princess Diana might not have liked being bothered by paparazzi, but of her own free will she told the world of her own adultery, of having bulimia, etc., matters that previous generation would have regarded as deeply private.
  6. a lust for technologies that promise increased chances at attention, from word processing, copying and faxing to e-mail and personal web sites
  7. a relative decline in the importance of material things, except insofar as they aid or could aid in attracting attention.

And which is the main cause for the growing importance of attention? The dominance of media?

Michael H. Goldhaber: I dont know that I can single out one main cause. A historical change of this kind always has a confluence of causes, not just one. Here are some:

Due to its own success, the old , industrial, standardized product-making economy has run out of steam, in the sense that it no longer can occupy our best eenrgies. In the advanced countries at least, most people have easy access to the material goods needed for a comfortable life. We are urged to consume more and more, and if we don't the old economy will break down even faster. Of course, that requires that advertisers,etc., get our attention somehow.

At the same time, once our material desires are basically satisfied, and we do not feel a great pressure of scarcity (fearing going hungry, for instance) we are increasingly driven by desires of a less strictly material kind. We have a rich stew of such desires, and which ones are most prominent is influenced in a complex way by our existing culture. But many of these desires don't particularly lead to economic activity, that is activity that somehow of necessity creates a long-lasting social dynamic. For instance, desire for physical exercise, for sex, or for peace and quiet can often be met quite privately.

Other desires, such as for eternal life, or ultimate enlightenment may not be satisfiable at all (in this world, anyway). (If eternal life is avilable in heaven, we can only guess at the requirements; in principle it could be that everyone would autmatically obtain it.) Other desires, such as the urge for travel, the industrial economy is able to satisfy to a sufficient extent.

For a desire to lead to an entirely new kind of economic activity, it must involve something that is scarce, yet potentially available to those who go after it. Several such desires all converge towards a desire for attention. We search for meaning in our lives, especially once pure material needs are already given to us with little effort on our part. Why are we here, and how do we know that we are somehow worthwhile? If a person feels utterly ignored by those around her, she is unlikely to feel that her life has much meaning to them, and since all meaning ultimately is conferred by society, one must have the attention of others if there is to be any chance that one's life is meaningful.

This existential angst adds to an even more basic, almost instinctual need for attention that virtually all mammals are born with, and which is particularly strong for human young. An active desire for attention in the first few years of life is necessary not only for sheer physical survival, but for becoming acculturated, becoming human. Beyond a few years of age, however, this desire can be suppressed, culturally. I would say that that was the case in the heyday of industrial society, when there was all sorts of pressure on the average person not to "make a spectacle of oneself."

Here is where I think media come in. Over the last few decades, in the advanced countries, young people have found themselves either in school, or paying attention to media, particularly television and recordings. Both these experiences - school and media - involve not only paying attention, but the focussing of attention on a relative few: the stars in the case of media, and in schools the teachers and the students they have selected, or fought with.

Here in the US at least, there has been a long societal discussion about the "role models" offered to children by television. (What are women seen doing so that young girls will see what they might do as adults? How does televised violence affect behavior? Etc.) But everyone who is seen on television models one common role, as do all teachers in schools, and that role is to be the object of a good deal of attention. Thus, without planning or intention, there has been a kind of cultural revolution, telling us that getting attention is a fine thing. And for many of us, having the attention of others turns out to feel very good, something we often want more of.

Finally, that desire for attention has helped create a gigantic market for the technologies that allow us to get attention, or at least make that a possiblity. The Internet certainly does this. The industries that produce these technologies are the fastest growing sector of the old economy, already the largest in the US. That moves us still farther and faster towards a pure attention economy.

You speak about an attention economy. What are the structures or laws of this economy in difference to the previous money driven capitalistic market?

Michael H. Goldhaber: I can only hint at the full answer to this, both because there is so much to say, and because as the only person studying this new economy, I have only begun to scratch the surface.

One place to begin is to note that there are two basic "classes" in the new economy, stars, who each have a great deal of attention, and fans, who pay their attention to stars. Paying attention takes effort; it is not the passive kind of activity that is sometimes imagined. Also, whoever you are paying attention to has power over you, as long as you pay it. If I happen to mention the planet Jupiter right now, if you are paying attention to me, you can't avoid thinking about this large, red planet with so many moons, even though you didn't have any intention of doing so when we began. Once you do pay attention to someone, often what they say or do can stick in your memory and remind you of them, restoring some of their power on and off for the rest of your life. If you see their face or hear their name again, some of what they mean, and a certain desire or even a compulsion to pay them more attention will very likely return to you.

So being a fan takes effort; in fact fans supply most of the effort in the new economy. A typical fan, rather than having one employer, as a worker in the old economy usually does, has quite a number of stars.

In an attention economy, attention commonly flows both ways in any transaction between two people. Consider for instance a conversation. Very often, only a little that is said is really new or of interest to the other person. What is important for each is the attention that comes from the other.

Three-way attention transactions are very important. If you publish this interview, you will be offering the attention of your audience to me. That sort of thing goes on all the time. It has no exact analogy in the familiar money economy. One reason is that attention has no existence apart from those who pay it. You can't extract it from someone and put it in a box and ship it somewhere. The attention transaction like the force of gravity can operate at a distance, but not without the attention payer being involved at all times.

Attention turns the world go round. Now it is attention. But could you really accumulate attention like money?

Michael H. Goldhaber: If you have a lot of attention, in the terms of the new economy, you are wealthy. Where is your wealth, your property, so to speak? It is in the minds and memories of your beholders, wherever they happen to be. This is not wealth you can put in a safe. But it is pretty hard to rob you of it, either.

When you pay attention to a star, you usually don't get actual (or real) attention back. But you do get what I call illusory attention. For instance, if you read a book, you must have some semi or unconscious feeling that someone has written specifically for you, or you would get nothing out of it. (TV makes this even clearer. A news reporter seems to be talking to you, looking right at you. ) But the star you pay attention to has no knowledge of your existence, and generally knows nothing about you. That is why the attention that you feel from them is illusory.

And of course, a very key point about this new economy is that real attention is scarce. It can only come from someone or something which is capable of empathy. Right now, that mostly means other human beings. But anyone capable of empathy is also someone who might want attention. So the total amount per capita is limited compared with the amount that might be desired.

Compare this with the material goods that were the mainstay of the old economy. You might say such goods are scarce too, and it is true that, here on earth there is only a limited amount of matter. But in fact the industrial economy was quite capable of turning out more than enough goods to make everyone comfortable. Take food, for instance. Here in the US, a large number of us are perpetually on diets, trying to limit our intake of calories, because there is more food than is good for us. Some people are still hungry, but that is purely a problem of maldistribution. The majority have far more available than they can possibly eat, and if they did increase their consumption, production would quickly adjust.

Not so with attention. The limits on real attention per capita are absolute. Yet, in principle at least, one might desire an unlimited amount. If you were offered the attention, lets say for one hour every day, of everyone on earth, would it be easy to refuse? If, out of all the billions of people on earth, just 16 took up this offer, that would use up everybody's waking hours fully. Of course, no one actually gets this much attention, but over a billion people sometimes pay attention for an hour to the same small group of stars, such as Hollywood stars on the night the Oscars are given out.

Or consider this. Suppose each person on earth did something to attract others' attention,something equivalent say to writing one book in a lifetime. No one is capable of reading more than a few tens of thousands of books, if they do nothing else. So if all the world were authors, maybe 30,000 or so could monopolize all the attention available over the course of everyone's life. The other ten billion would get none at all. The examples are not be completely realistic, but the point is, that once we have tools such as the Internet that connect us all, and make it possible in principle for any one of us to get the world's attention, attention becomes very scarce compared to what we each might want, and there is no real way to overcome that scarcity, or the inequality it can entail.

Let me return now to the issue of the difference between the "laws" of the two economies. One of the main laws of the old system is the famous one "of supply and demand." In one reading it implies that prices fall when demand is weak, and rise when its strong, compared to supply. In turn that implies that because much-demanded goods sell for high prices, the incentive to make them rises, and so eventually does the supply.

Clearly, nothing like that basic principle works with attention. There is only so much to be had. But what is its price anyway? To get real or illusory attention, you,must pay attention, and until you pay it, you have no way of knowing what you are getting. So the whole relationship between supply, demand and price has no meaning in the new economy.

Let me say something now about money. Money is useful whenever it is possible to compare the prices of two things that are in themselves very comparable. How much is this quart of milk, relative to that one? Or how much money do I need to eat three decent meals a day if I visit Munich? These sorts of questions can be answered, and prices compared, because the types of items for sale are made in large numbers, more or less standardized. If each quart of milk were felt to be unique, the price of a quart would be unknowable.

Again, attention works differently. If you know exactly what you are going to get, you hardly need to pay attention to it. No occasion of paying attention is exactly like any other, and no two people's attention is the same either. So even though attention is limited in supply, it cannot be exactly measured or counted the way money or quarts of milk or millions of other kinds of standardized material goods may. The post-material economy is post-numerical as well. It is a very different world.

I could go on and on, but I will now spare you.

There seems to be a difference between the individual attention and search for attention and the attention market with its attention industries, which are producing prominence of human beings, objects or goods. Probably you couls speak of media as some sort of collective attention systems competing for the attention of the masses or individuals? But of course this collective attention has been always present in local forms (families, groups, locations, the public sphere). Is there a substantial difference for between individual, biological based attention and social and/or technical based attention?

Michael H. Goldhaber: One thing I emphasize is that even with all sorts of media, the attention that flows through them goes almost entirely to particular people with particular points of view. This is obvious in the case of books. Only in the most exceptional circumstance does one read a novel which has no definite, single author. With magazines, there is usually one editor, or at times a small group of them, who set the tone for the publication, even if the audience doesn't know their names, although that is rarer and rarer these days. The same of course, goes for newspapers. (Reporters, writers, and columnists, cartoonists, etc all have their bylines, and their own followings.)

On radio or television, too, programs usually have definite hosts, announcers or star actors. Documentaries about nature depend on the fame of a particular director, cinematographer or narrator. Even the Academy Awards requires a well-known master of ceremonies to keep its audience. With sports too, of course, there are star players. Ditto for music. Advertisements seem to be an exception, but very often, at least in the US they feature some stars, and the "auteurs" of the most successful ads are sometimes better known than the products they advertise.

On the Web, of course, there are already many known personalities. You, Florian, yourself seem to be one. But the Web is just at its early beginnings. I think the means of identifying personalities on it will only grow. We will know who created unusual web sites, even if they are officially set up in the name of some product.

Obviously, people have always paid attention, and there probably have always been some who were particularly good at obtaining it. (Maybe they just had loud voices.) The difference today is that media, and especially the web make the whole world potentially an audience for just about everyone. Potentially....But of course not actually. Stars today can obtain an audience numbering in the millions or billions. That was much rarer before, at least in anything approximating real time, or even within the star's own lifetime. Hundreds of thousands might have read Aristotle or Confucius even before printing existed, but the vast majority of that readership came well after the death of the authors.

Also, of course, technologies of attention make it easier to fool us into believing we are getting attention from someone who has no knowledge of us. Though even without any real technology, with say, an ancient Greek amphitheater, a skilled orator could probably make people unconsciously feel they were getting his attention when on an individual basis they were not. Being able to pay attention to lots of stars who don't know you exist but who you know are alive and active and therefore could know you is a new experience, clearly.

Technology then doesn't alter what human attention is or how it works in any very basic way, but by changing the conditions under which we can give it, and to whom, it alters how it gets distributed and how important it can be for us. And of course it is we who ultimately are behind the technology. If millions of people weren't excited by the possibilities of the Internet and the Web, these inventions would not have assumed the importance they have. Most of that excitement comes because we can use these things to obtain real or illusory attention.

You are explaing the attention economy with the growing importance of prominent people. Would you say, the same mechanisms are also valid for prominent topics, scientific work, goods or other things?

Michael H. Goldhaber: Only people (and perhaps some other animals) are capable of specifically seeking attention, or even of desiring it. Few topics would enter our consciousness if some definite person or persons didn't call them to our attention.(Natural disasters, such as earthquakes we feel directly, can of course get our attention. But for any given disaster, far more people become conscious of it by having others call their attention to it, which they do at least partly because these are often good mechanisms to get attention for themselves. This is presumably why free-lance reporters rush around the world to wars, famines, etc.)

With scientific work, or most goods, the situation is similar. Generally someone has to call our attention to such items. Skill at getting attention can be very important for a scientist, or for a producer of goods. If we always had, say, Coca Cola on our minds, there would be no need for the company to spend so much money and effort to keep reminding us of it.

At the same time, goods, like texts, may be considered to be media which draw attention to their creators. Just as you can hardly read this sentence without realizing that it comes from someone's mind, namely mine, when you wonder what a certain lever in your car does, you are interested in the intentions of one of the engineers or designers responsible for putting it there. Even if you don't know and can't easily find out who that person is, you are still in contact with her mind, still paying her a degree of attention.

One consequence of the growth of the Internet will be that it will become far easier to learn who devised various features of the objects around us. So topics, goods, etc., rather than simply drawing off attention (though they sometimes do just that) fit into the new economy because they are means of drawing attention to specific people. ( Attention that goes, say to a sunset, is the new economy equivalent of money buried and never recovered in the old economy; the attention going to the sunset usually simply leaves the new economy, having no future role in it.)

Within the attention economy there are also winners and loosers. What will be or is the fate of the loosers?

Michael H. Goldhaber: To be ignored, first of all, and that means to have less of a clear identity or place in the larger community. As more and more comes to us in proportion to the attention we get and as a result of it, those who don't get any attention will be deprived of almost everything. The extreme case is that of someone such as the homeless person in Los Angeles, who died in plain sight of hundreds of passers-by, and yet was completely ignored for days. Being a loser in the new economy will be the fate of many and will be no fun.

Are there typical loosers?

Michael H. Goldhaber: What is most typical is that they don't stand out in any way that makes others want to pay them lots of attention; this could be also because they have trouble rewarding attention paid to them, and often because they demand a great deal of it. Many small children would fit these criteria, and I think they will increasingly be among the losers, which will make their entire lives often difficult.

Will there come up some sort of revolt like the workers during the industrial age?

Michael H. Goldhaber: Well, there may be, but it is quite difficult to see how one could possibly succeed. First, those who don't get any real attention will feel all the more dependent on the stars who appear to be paying them attention without really doing so. Also, usually revolts have leaders, but such a leader would automatically be a star, not a loser anymore, while her troops would still mostly be among the losers, most probably. A complete and successful revolt would require us all to pay attention to everyone equally. I don't think that is too likely, for obvious reasons.

Will there for example also be wars to secure the ressource of attention?

Michael H. Goldhaber: There will certainly be violence, such as terrorism. Already that is clearly an instrument of attention getting, for what otherwise is often a lost cause. But a war seems somewhat unlikely, for the simple reason that a foot soldier in a war would have a hard time being a winner of attention in such a struggle. Wars seem to be best as means of claiming political control over land, but that isn't a particularly useful if the object is getting attention. But maybe I am being too literal; a "war" of some kind for control of cyberspace, with software "weapons" rather than bombs or guns, diverting attention from certain sites to others might happen; still it's not clear how such maneuvers, unless brilliant in their own right, would end up yielding a clear victory in attention terms. A simple bully is not a very compelling figure.

What will undergo changes in society if the competition for attention is growing?

Michael H. Goldhaber: Everything: the social structure, the ways we understand and organize our efforts and daily lives; the nature of family, community, nation; the nature of government and its usefulness; who wins and who loses; consciousness; values, ethics and morality; and so on. For instance, you have spoken of cybersapce as a metropolis, I believe. But it will be metropolis in which locations are defined by personal relations, rather than by physical proximity, and these will be mostly attention relations. Stars, more than buildings, will be the landmarks in this space, the subway stations attention must pass through to get where it ultimately goes.

The other side of attention is monitoring or surveillance. With digital and networked media monitoring is increasing and privacy shrinking. Being in the focus of attention means also being observed. Will there also increase a wish to get out of attention?

Michael H. Goldhaber: It depends how you define attention. As I use the term, to pay attention to someone has to mean to pay attention to what they want, and in that sense there is no limit to the amount of attention that can be desirable. What most of us don't want is to be constrained by would-be attention payers, or to have to pay to much attention to them.

This suggests a changing notion of privacy. To be private doesn't mean not to be seen, it means not to have to look at or see anyone else. I think there are abundant signs that this notion of privacy, even though not much articulated, is taking root. Think of the many individual web sites where (usually) young people reveal the details of their sex lives, fantasies, and other banalities of their personal lives.

An example I like to use is that of Princess Diana, who supposedly objected to paparazzi, but nonetheless openly revealed her adulteries and her bulimia , etc., to a fascinated world. The attention she got from that was obviously something she valued. Nothing similar took place in past centuries.

Advertising is a strategy to manipulate attention, to build up attention traps. Which strategies will be successfull to obtain attention for persons, goods or topics within a field where everybody seeks attention?

Michael H. Goldhaber: I don't think one can summarize strategies that will definitely work. Even if they work now, as soon as they become well enough known they will not confer much advantage. Only for the very broadest strategies might that not be true. Such as this: To get attention, you have to create some kind of illusion that you are paying attention to each member of your audience. To accomplish that you might pretend to flatter them, create questions in their minds which you then "obligingly" answer, claim you will help them with some real problem they have, etc. Each particular method of doing any of these lose some of their worth as they become too familiar to provide much in the way of the necessary illusion. Another basic strategy is to have attention passed on to you from someone who has plenty of it, which is why advertising by using stars or in the midst of well-watched TV programs usually at least gets attention, even if not always leading to many sales.

Democracy is some sort of market, where topics, strategies and persons compete for voters and their attention. Will the attention economy also change politics - and if, to which result?

Michael H. Goldhaber: Politics has already changed considerably and will change further, Not only do politicians now tend to be elected because of the attention they get rather than the stands they take (Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are good examples). If politics concerns the doings of sovereign governments who control the material resources and money in some definite territory, as attention becomes a more valued resource, government will probably play a lesser role, since it is so difficult to legislate where attention goes, or to tax it.

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