The Attention Economy and the Net

We are heading to a new economy which will radical change

The real promise of the Web and the net and the like, though also a promise it can never completely fulfill, is to help satisfy the ever more pressing desire attention. To get attention you must emit what is technically identifiable as information; likewise for information to be of any value, it must receive attention. Therefore an information technology is also an attention technology, or in other words, a transfer of information is only completed when there is also a transfer of attention proceeding in the opposite direction. Michael H. Goldhaber describes the nature of the new attention economy.

When confronted with a new phenomenon, the mind generally tends to be conservative, to explain and seek to master what is new in terms of what is already well-known. While that process is often successful, it can badly betray us when something quite unprecedented in our own experience occurs. In this chapter I will sketch out the position that a failure of just this sort is at work in many of the attempts, to comprehend such new developments as the Internet and the World Wide Web in terms of conventional economics.

In such a situation, one must take a fresh look, both by moving back to gain perspective, and by zeroing in on features that standard thinking does not notice. The result is a radically different sense of what is in progress, and therefore a radically different sense of what strategies and practices are worth pursuing, not in some far-off future, but today.

Arguments for the Shift towards the Attention Economy

* Familiar economic principles, and indeed the whole science of economics are good for (and were developed in and in response to) one particular era in economic history, namely the era of market-based, money-dominated industrialized mass-production and consumption (and its immediate forebears).

* As with prior economic eras, this industrial, market, money-based economy reached a limit around 1965.

* Since then, at an accelerating pace, social energies have actually been moving in a quite different direction, under the impetus of a hitherto secondary set of motivations. Chief is the desire to obtain attention, which is intrinsically, unavoidably scarce.

The attention economy that is emerging is radically different from any prior economy, and certainly from the industrial market economy. In its pure form, it doesn't involve any sort of money, nor a market or anything closely resembling one. It involves a quite different pattern of life than the routine-based, industrial one with its work/home, work/ play and production/consumption dichotomies. What matters is seeking, obtaining and paying attention.

* The new economy also has its own characteristic form of property, which is quite simply the attention that is readily available to its "owner" from other people, which depends on what attention this owner has gotten in the past. This kind of property, located, quite literally, in "the minds of the beholders" is best held onto through practices that are sharply at odds with what the concept of intellectual property would suggest. The new kind doesn't require elaborate policing or other mechanisms for its protection, as intellectual property does, which is one reason attention as property is more natural.

* Thus, the attention economy is fundamentally incompatible with the more familiar kind of economy, and can only keep growing at the latter's expense. We are thus living through a period of major transition to an entirely new, pretty much all-encompassing economic order.

* The transitional period is especially complex, as elements of the old order, and even more the concepts from it, still influence our actions and our interpretations of them. Meanwhile, many forms of conflict break out between those who have most to benefit from the new order and those with current power who have most to lose. This transition may be compared with the transition from the feudal economy in western Europe to the market industrial economy it first gave rise to.

* The growth of the net and the web - or the entire field of digital information, or cyberspace, if you will - is simply one aspect of this transition, though an extremely important one.

There is some value in taking the notion of cyberspace quite literally, as a new space that is coming to flourish precisely because it is so naturally attuned to the attention economy that those who would live under the auspices of the latter flock to it.

* An analogy with many important implications suggests itself: the move toward cyberspace today parallels the move of the civilization of western Europe during the birth period of the market economy, to the New World of the Americas. The rulers of that time, heirs of the feudal aristocracy, along with almost everyone else, presumed that a variant of the feudal economy should, could, and would be set up in the new space of the new continents. They took it completely for granted that the thing to do was fill the new lands with nobles and serfs or peasants, divided into baronies, earldoms, dukedoms and so on.

However, what happened in reality was that the energies that caused the colonists to settle and take over this new world (rudely wrenched from its indigenous inhabitants, to be sure) were increasingly fueled by the rising market economy. Unimpeded by the remains of feudalism which were still a considerable restraint in Europe, the market-industrial system in fact took most complete hold here in North America first. From here, much later, it swept back to complete its conquest of the western European motherland, along with the rest of the globe.

* A similar process is now underway. Cyberspace will be the "place" where the new economy moves ahead most dynamically, but the strength gained in the process will eventually sweep back to dominate the rest of life. And the move toward cyberspace can advance this fast only because the new economy has already gained considerable strength. By a reasonable measure, it is already at least as strong and important as the money economy.

* The pace of change now is obviously far swifter than when the market system was growing up, centuries ago. We can expect cyberspace to grow both in number of participants and in technical scope - that is, to encompass a widening range of media, such as multicasting , ubiquitous two-way video, and virtual reality- over the next couple of decades. By then it will already have become a major part of the life of just about everyone on the planet. While traces of the old economy will long survive, they will be - already are, in fact - of continually diminishing importance.

Some Key Questions

At this point, a number of obvious questions emerge. Among them:

  1. What evidence is there that the new economy revolves around attention?
  2. What reason is there to believe the old economy has begun to fade?
  3. How can an economy work if it doesn't depend on a market mechanism or money?
  4. How, specifically, does the attention economy work?
  5. What are the practical consequences?

I cannot come close to fully answering each of these questions in the space allotted here, but I can offer some reflections that bear on each of them.

A Non-Material Economy

Whatever else it represents, the emerging cyberspace implies a vast departure from the old economy centered on the manufacture and distribution of material objects, for the simple reason that material objects are excluded from cyberspace. They cannot travel through the web or the net. What can? The "obvious"answer is in the title of this book, namely "digital information." In a technical sense that is clearly correct, but what is the economic import of digital information? That is to say, what is its actual value to human beings?

Two different kinds of answer are frequently suggested. The first, conventionally accepted without much question is that the majority of such information, or other computer-generated information is in aid of business of the standard type. In other words, far from in any way undermining the old economy, the function of digital information is supposedly to smooth its operations and to increase producitivity.

However, the huge volume of information already passing over the net or the equally huge volume handled by personal and other computers in office settings - millions of times what was available just a few decades ago - have quite definitely not contributed to any noticaeble productivity whatsoever, and still less to any rise proportionate to the huge increase in information-processing capacities. They should certainly have had a huge effect if that was their function, since a growing proportion of the old economy, in its own terms is devoted to this information sector. Instead, productivity rises after the the introduction of this flood of digital infromation are, if anything, smaller on the azverage than before. This is not a conclusion that could be changed by some small upward re-estimate of productivity. The explanation as it stands is just totally false.

A second kind of answer related to the utility of the Net, etc., is that it provides a new kind of value, namely that it satisfies our individual need or desire for information. Before examining this notion more fully, I want to set it in a different context.

The Limits of Material Consumption

This context is the fate of the industrial economy proper. Every economy exists in history; every economy of note therefore has to have started out small and then grown. Each one, therefore, has to have some inherent feature that makes it grow. But just as certainly, eventually, the value of that sort of growth ends. The economy has succeeded, as well as anyone really can hope, and there is less and less point in continuing on the same course. The only possibility is a change of direction, a freeing of social energies towards dealing with some kind of desire, some kind of scarcity that was held in check in the background until that moment.

In broad outline, that is what happened about 1950 or 60 or 70 or 80 with the old economy of mass production at least in the advanced countries. (The year I prefer is 1965, but who really cares?)

Take cars. Somewhere in that period, we came pretty close to one car per driver. Factories could easily have been enlarged and made more efficient so as eventually to turn out lots of cars per driver, even lots of affordable cars per driver, but whatever the price, having more than one automobile is of diminishing value. As long as you have only one body, you are constrained to ride in only one car at a time; yet if you choose to have several, you take on added responsibilities of keeping track of them, maintaining them, and so forth.

Similarly with quality, or what some economists like to call value added. In terms of material functionality, getting from place to place in reasonable comfort and safety and as fast as the law and traffic allows, only very subtle improvements in quality are possible. This is why engineers add and advertisements emphasize such features as headlight wipers or side airbags, each one of which offer only tiny improvements in functionality, comfort or safety. Can you imagine a car that is ten times better in any respect, and therefore should be worth ten times more than today's average car? I can't; I don't think anyone can. Growth in quality, too, is a matter of diminishing, sometimes purely imaginary returns.

Or take food. On average, we are overweight in this country, but that is despite incredible efforts to resist consuming. If you were to eat all the food you could afford, you would burst very soon. Except in war zones, there is no place on earth today with more than distributional problems in keeping everyone fed. At least for the time being, the long era - most of recorded history - of cycles of famine is over. Enough food is grown for everyone. Ditto with clothes. It used to be that photos of the poor conspicuously revealed rags, garments in tatters. Now such photos, even from the poorest countries, are hard to come by. For the middle classes, closets bulge as much as profiles. We accommodate ourselves to more and more kinds of clothes for different occasions; we follow increasingly short term fashion trends, but we still do not come close to consuming what the capacity exists to produce. If clothes could be produced fast enough for you to be able to change to a new outfit every five minutes, would that be a blessing? Can more work make endlessly better clothing?

Such considerations can be applied to virtually every category of material good. Having only one body constrains each of us all in the amount of such goods we can make any direct use of, thus limiting our capacity and inclination to consume. New kinds of good can be invented, but it takes time for them to attain much acceptance, often at the expense of some older category. In that time, generally, productive capacity can be made ready to meet any demand.

The result has been that as productivity increased, average net employment in factory production had to fall, since per capita consumption, though continually rising just could not rise fast enough to keep up. If agricultural employment is included in overall figures for employment in material production,as it should be,then there has been a worldwide drop in the total of such employment per capita, even as consumption per capita world wide continues to grow.

A Return to the Question of the Value of Information

In that context, with material superabundance having an ever more pressing effect, could it be that by turning productive skills and efforts to the creation and its distribution of new information new potentials for consumption could be tapped, and thus further increasing the quality of life, while continuing the old economy, only slightly transformed?

The problem with that hypothesis stares us in the face. If material goods are abundantly available, then information is vastly more available. Consider the web in this regard.

Every new piece of information put on the web is potentially available,with hardly any technical barriers to millions, instantaneously. Thus information "productivity" can be gigantic, virtually infinite, if defined by the number of "consumers" each piece of information can be "used" by, that is, if defined in parallel to a common-sense definition of productivity for material goods. Consequently, the oversupply of information is far greater than that of material goods. Indeed, each of us tends to be drowning in it, experiencing more and more difficulty in keeping up with the torrent that comes our way, and yet the torrent keeps increasing.

Huge numbers of postings on the Web or the net, along with many kinds of information distributed by more primitive means, never receive the slightest attention, that is, in the old terms they are not consumed; there is no demand for them. No matter how curious or inquisitive we may be, or much desirous of being entertained, there is already far too much information coming at us for us to make good use of it, or indeed to take it in at all. If the growth of material production was limited by the ability to consume, then the growth of information should have been limited even more, if the economic motives for that growth had been the same. In other words, the tremendous growth of the information sector is entirely irrational from the viewpoint of standard economics, carefully analyzed. A different explanation is required.

The Attention Hypothesis

If the desire for information of any kind is hardly so strong as to justify the vast growth of what is known as information technology,then why did it grow, and why does that growth continue at an accelerating pace? Material goods don't flow through things like the net. Information does, but what else? There is only one basic answer, and that is what has to be present somewhere along the line if information is to have any value at all. It something that is scarce, as well as desirable, so that there is a clear motivation for putting out effort to obtain it. Namely attention.

The real promise of the Web and the net and the like, though also a promise it can never completely fulfill, is to help satisfy the ever more pressing desire attention. To get attention you must emit what is technically identifiable as information; likewise for information to be of any value, it must receive attention. Therefore an information technology is also an attention technology, or in other words, a transfer of information is only completed when there is also a transfer of attention proceeding in the opposite direction.

While we do not customarily speak of attention flows, or think of attention as something that even can flow through wires, etc., there is no reason not to. As you read this, a significant portion of your attention is obviously going to this text, but equally, in a certain sense, to me,the emitter of these words. That would be completely obvious if you happened to be listening to me say the words rather than reading them. Whenever you pay attention to anyone speaking, you are also necessarily paying attention to the words being spoken. And vice versa: you can't only pay attention to words being spoken without paying attention to whoever is speaking them.

How you hear the words - over the radio, through a phone system, by way of the internet or in an auditorium or simply in direct face-to-face conversation- makes no difference in that regard. In a very real, if little considered sense, your attention flows to the person speaking. The flow need not end there. Attention has a sort of commutative property; if you have my attention and X has your attention, you can easily pass min eon to X. Whether I keep paying attention to X will remain in question, but at least for a moment you can direct the flow that way. This is commonly done by introducing a third person in a conversation, by handing over the mike (or the "floor") when speaking before a live audience, by mentioning, quoting or citing someone lese in written materials, and so on.

The World Wide Web's key feature, the hyperlink, more or less automates this redirection of the flow of attention making it easy to pass attention further up the chain, helping to unify the world wide flow of attention into one complex free-standing system.

The Unavoidable Fact of Attention Scarcity

If scarcity is a main motivator of the type of organized activity that could possibly be labeled an economy, then the scarcity of attention is an especially good one.

Paying attention implies some degree of understanding and taking in what ever is being done or expressed. Hence, only a sentient being can be a source of attention, and only a sentient being very similar to ourselves is likely to be capable of any real understanding, and of an acceptable level of attention paying. Few people would say that their personal computer, their telephone or any other gadget is capable of understanding them, though they might say their dog or cat is. But understanding to some degree comes from empathy; you cannot understand me if you cannot somehow put yourself in my position or my shoes,and to do that you must be somewhat like me, enough so that if I can want attention, so can you. If we feel that our pets are capable of understanding us, we probably also feel that our pets have some desire for our attention in turn. They may in fact demand more than they give us.

Whatever is capable of paying attention also is capable of wanting at least as much. For this reason, the amount of attention available per capita will always be limited, no matter what we do, technologically, to try to ease the scarcity. Even a computer that could really pay attention would be just as capable of demanding it.

Furthermore, each of us, no matter how able or well-trained or equipped with technical aids or dosed with stimulants, has only a limited capacity to pay attention. We can each only give our full attention, as rule, to one other person at a time. On occasion one can fake it, and seemingly being fully attentive simultaneously to two, three, or maybe even a few more individuals, each of whom is not too demanding. Even so, there are very real limits on the total amount of attention we can personally put forth.

(2nd)Draft version of a talk to be presented at the conference on "Economics of Digital Information," Cambridge, MA, Jan. 23-26, 1997

Part II of Michael H. Goldhaber's essay is coming soon.

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