Attention Economy and the Net - Part II

A new economy is coming and will radically change our lives

Today, when the stock market goes up and up, when money wealth itself seems a source of fame more than ever, when being number one on Forbes 400 list seems the height of perfection, when every basketball superstar wants a contract that is at least a million more than the last record one, we seem to be more dazzled by money than ever, just as we seem to be more intrigued by material goods than ever. But these interests are superficial and faddish. They are signs of decadence not of a glorious future for the money economy. Even in themselves they speak to the growing desire for attention, the need for it as well.

Attention Economy and the Net - Part I

The Infinite Desirability of Attention

For something to inspire economic activity it must be more than scarce; it must be desirable. Unlike material goods, attention is something we receive primarily with our minds, nor does receiving it require that we pay equal amounts of it out. This means there is no obstacle to having (consuming, if you like) the attention of everyone on earth, provided there is a way to get it. New technologies move us further towards that theoretical possibility every day.

But even if you could have everybody's attention, would anyone want that? The clear empirical answer to his latter question is yes. It is quite possible that many people would not want a great deal of attention, but that is irrelevant,since it is also abundantly evident that very many do. When the director Steven Spielberg received his Academy Award for Schindler's list, he happily and helpfully reminded the audience that they were a billion strong. The novelist Martin Amis expresses his regrets that people bother to read other novelist's work when they could be reading his.

Getting attention in large quantities is being a star, and the number of people who openly make evident that they crave stardom and put out endless effort to achieve it is quite substantial.

Furthermore, beyond craving attention there is exulting in it when one has it. If you are good enough at attracting attention, your audience can be said to be "enthralled," which literally means "enslaved. " This may be a temporary enslavement, and may feel very voluntary, but nonetheless, when you have someone's full attention, that means they have turned over a large part of their mind and even body to your control. If you are sufficiently adept, that power can be extraordinarily potent.

When you have superb control over your own body, so that you can perform great athletic feats, it feels great; likewise, it feels good when your mind feels focused and powerful; how much more wonderful then to be able to have the minds and bodies of others at your disposal! Those who have been in that position frequently have reported this exhilarating feeling. But in addition, as common usage makes plain, attending to someone shades over into listening to them, heeding what they say, doing what they ask, waiting on them, waiting for them, serving them, loving them, in short doing anything and everything for them, which is what having power over their minds and bodies suggests. Having attention means having recognition, identity, and meaning in the eyes of those around you. It provides sustenance to spirit, mind and body, in just about any form.

Attention as Omni-Versatile Resource

The versatility of attention would not be all that helpful if it were entirely momentary or transitory, but it isn't. If you are enthralled by someone to any degree, your mind is permanently altered in the process; you are very likely to remember the experience and the person. You will also feel a sense of obligation and gratitude that will make you want to pay further attention to that same person again, and very likely again and again, which of course is exactly what star power is about.

Andy Warhol famously said "in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," but if taken approximately literally that is doubly untrue. There is not nearly enough attention or fame available to permit anything like an average of fifteen minutes for all. Equally critical, those who do get that much fame have a considerably enhanced chance of holding onto attention for much, much longer. Warhol himself is as good an example as any, his fame enduring years beyond his death.

Once you become a star, you can subsequently bore your audience several times in a row, disappoint them, mystify them, or do something they consider utterly immoral without necessarily losing them permanently or even temporarily. You can disappear for years, say on a drug bender, or in hiding or jail or whatever, and then return and many of your audience will still be eager to pay you fresh attention. This was true even in the distant past. Writers,artists and composers have of course retained audiences for centuries, though what benefit is it was to them after death remains a moot point.

The web and the Internet enormously enhance stars' opportunities to obtain and make use of attention, converting it to whatever they may desire because they permit many stars direct and continuing lines to fans.

Stars and Fans

So obtaining attention becomes the key goal in the new economy. Of course, not everybody necessarily wants a great deal of attention, just as in a money economy not everybody wants a great deal of money or many of the material goods that money can buy. 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 sometime 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.

If some succeed in the hunt for a great deal of attention and become stars, most do not, ending up as "fans," putting out more attention than in fact comes back to them, which may well prove to be not only less than they would like, but even than they may need even to feel very human or conceivably to obtain whatever material necessities they require.

Illusory Attention

They (and this is the vast majority) are then largely reduced to making do with what I call illusory attention. Earlier I suggested that when information flows one way through the net, attention has to be flowing the other. Now I show that it would be even better to think in terms of attention of some kind flowing both ways.

Consider an ordinary conversation. You could describe it as the exchange of information, but except in highly technical sense that is rarely a very accurate description of what takes place. A conversation is primarily an exchange of attention. When you say "how are you?" for instance, you don't really want to know, as a rule, but if whomever you're talking with chooses to say how he or she is, it is more to get attention from you than to convey information. Even if this person genuinely thought you did want to know about her/his health, in answering, s/he would be attempting to pay attention to you. And even if you, in turn genuinely did want to know, the usual reason would be to pay attention to her/him.

Information, in the sense of something not previously known to one of the parties or another is secondary, if present at all. If I want your attention for any reason, I might begin by asking you for information, such as who you are and what you do, not necessarily because that is of great interest to me, but because it is a good way to get your attention. Children ask countless questions with this motive often patently obvious, and adults are not necessarily any different. Even if I am desperately searching for some fact that you happen to know, to get it from you I first have to get your attention.

So what really matters in every conversation, formal or informal, conducted over the net or in person, is the exchange of attention, an exchange that normally must be kept more or less equal if one party or the other isn't likely to lose interest.

When one party is communicating to an entire audience, what goes to each audience member may be thought of as illusory attention. A crude but ubiquitous example is the attention that seemingly comes to you when you see someone talking and looking in your direction and you momentarily ignore the fact that they are appearing on television, and don't in fact know you from Adam. Perhaps only the tiniest child can be completely fooled by this, but without a partially successful illusion television would be of little interest, and neither would other media.

If rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech, then anyone who speaks or writes or seeks attention in any way has to become something of a success in the special rhetoric of persuading listeners, readers, and so on, that he or she is meeting their individual needs, when in fact some of these needs have been artfully set up in advance. You want to know what I am driving at, for instance, because I have already provided clues galore that I am driving at something that should matter to you. Success in this is a necessary component of creating illusory attention.

That helps create an apparent equality of attention, and it can in fact go beyond that to create a feeling of obligation on your part or the part of other readers, viewers or listeners. The audience members can each feel they have not paid as much attention to a performer of any sort as the performer has paid personally to them, even though, a very real sense the reverse is closer to the truth.

Most of us, much of the time, can do little better than get illusory attention, which does not really focus in on who we actually are very successfully. But getting that is enough to make us feel a gratitude to the stars who provide it, in part simply because it feels as if, with their large audience, they have singled us out. This gratitude can account for our further efforts to pay them attention in any of its various forms. By focussing on stars in this fashion, we further restrict the availability of real attention, which in turn intensifies the competition for it, and that, in its turn pushes still more of us towards the lure of illusory attention, and so on in a tightening spiral.

The Effect of an Audience

There is a further wrinkle to illusory attention, a wrinkle essential for stars. As I mentioned above, attention has a commutative property; it can be passed on from someone who has it to someone else, and on and on, which is of course a vital feature if there is to be anything resembling an economy.

If you are in a live audience, whoever is the center of attention could at any moment single you out, and hand the audience's attention over to you, quite genuinely. If you are receiving illusory attention from someone who you believe has an audience, since the illusory attention seems to be coming to you specifically, it is as if the entire audience's attention, personified by the performer were coming your way. In other words, in certain situations, you can feel as if a star is not only repaying your attention but doing so in spades. The larger the audience, and the more aware you are of its existence (or its apparent existence), the greater the effect, and the greater the resulting gratitude to the star.

We have all been in audiences and felt this incredible force, a mixture of awe and gratitude many times. Some people are so good at getting and holding attention that just to be near them or to see them again or to do something or other for them seems only to be desired. This is the phenomenon of celebrity.

Stars and Money: A Phenomenon if the Transition

In addition to obtaining attention,we are all quite aware that stars currently make money, in huge amounts. That fact is best understood, as a feature of the period of transition between old economy and new. A look at other historical examples of transitions between economies, suggests some general rules. One is this: while acting more and more according the new economy, people retain the concepts and forms that applied to the old, using the old forms whenever they can, even when it isn't very effective. A second rule is that old wealth flows to the holders of the new kinds of wealth.

Both were the case when the feudal economy, based on the hereditary control of land, began to give way to what evolved into the industrial economy . For a long time, centuries really, most failed to "get it". Even the rising industrialists thought that the real purpose of their activity was to ascend into the nobility. Nobles had little understanding of money, and as the market system gained in dominance, many of them found themselves in desperate circumstances. The possessors of the new money wealth were able to marry into noble families, have kings grant them titles or buy estates complete with titles, which according to the old feudal patterns was just not possible. And all that came at bargain prices. In other words, the old wealth flowed, in ever larger streams to the holders of the new, who didn't really need that old wealth at all, but only thought they did.

Essentially the same process explains the ever-increasing monetary value of stardom, and indeed the rising inequality in our society as a whole.

Attention is held unequally, and the old wealth, which is money in our case, flows to the holders of the new wealth, which is attention, and whom we call stars, celebrities, and so on.

In effect, paying money to the stars when they ask it of us is simply part of part of paying attention to them. This explains the rising income inequality between CEOs and ordinary workers as well. Roughly speaking, today's ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay is at least four times what it was 25 years ago; sometimes much more disproportionate. CEOs are also stars to a far greater extent than in the past.

Further Effects of the Transition

The rising emphasis on attention also explains other features of our times neatly. It was once thought that rising productivity would lead to increasingly short work days. In fact, in the 1960's the question of what to do with all the forthcoming leisure was considered a serious social problem. Since then however, whether at work or not everyone is busier and busier. The divide between work and home, work and play, that characterized the industrial economy is rapidly eroding. In the attention economy there is no down time.

Today what counts more and more is performing, not producing in the old routine sense of factory production. Since performance involves your whole personality, everything about you, you are always at least preparing, except perhaps when you are paying attention to others, which is always to some degree effortful,and certainly requires time.

Also explained is how the US can have a negative international balance of payments for years, and still be thriving. The ordinary figures simply fail to count the huge excesses of attention paid to this country's stars. The openness of American culture makes our stars better as a group at projecting illusory attention than those of any other nation of comparable size. As a result the whole world eagerly watches them, and feels gratitude towards them, some of which rubs off on most of the rest of us. This helps make the U.S as a market so alluring that negative ordinary trade balances are more than canceled out.

Attention as Property and Its Incompatibility with Intellectual Property

Property is the ownership of wealth. If attention is the important kind of wealth, whenever you attract and hold it, you gain property. You do that by making yourself and whatever you want attention for as visible as possible. ou would only gain if there were gossip about you and what you are doing. ou would benefit from revealing as much as possible about yourself, including your weaknesses, your sex life, and just about anything else. By humanizing yourself in that fashion, you not only stir up interest, but you make it easier for others to imagine themselves in your shoes, which means turning their minds to see from your position, a key part of any paying of attention. If you close the door and window, hiding yourself away from their sight, fans will more likely turn elsewhere and you risk losing at least some of the attention you already have. Thus you hold onto the new form of property the best by being most open. This property literally is in the minds of your beholders, and you want that to be as many minds as possible.

This is totally the opposite of what it took to hold onto material property, whether land, goods, or money in previous economies. For that you needed walls, locks, gates, and safes, police patrols, etc.

The very concept of intellectual property as it is now understood is an attempt to try to extend that old form to what is basically the new situation.

That is why intellectual property, even though its roots in law extend back to the twelfth century, has become vastly more important in recent decades. Intellectual property requires that no one pay attention unless they pay money. Even if they have the money, that complication, especially on the Internet, will often be too much for them, and they will focus their attention instead on what is uncomplicated and easy. They would also want to get attention by quoting, citing, criticizing, parodying, gossiping about, or referring to you if you are a star, and the more difficult you make that by imposing the law and its arduous enforcement between you and them, the more you limit the attention you can get, thus lessening rather than adding to your store of attention as property.

In the long term intellectual property is thus a foolish and losing proposition. This helps why the old and new economies won't continue to coexist forever; they are diametrically opposed around this central question, as well as some others, and one can only grow at the ultimate expense of the other.

An approach to Intellectual Property for the Transition

Today, in our transitional period, it is still possible and practical to charge for material mass-produced embodiments of what I refer to broadly as illusory attention. I mean such things as books, magazines, CD's CD roms , video tapes, seats at concerts, etc. But elaborate efforts to enforce intellectual property restrictions in other countries can be self-defeating. Nothing will aid the buildup of a Chinese film industry faster than too great an insistence on the part of American film makers that only authorized videotapes may be shown at a sufficiently high price. The losers would be American stars, and the country as a whole. Much the same goes for software.

Meanwhile,whatever is done about the material embodiments, as the Web and the net continue to grow, essentially free transmission of everything will grow too. Stars who insist on monetary payment for that will lose out to those who get a wider audience by simply letting go. Even if entire books, for instance, are passed freely along the web today, that will only increase the attention for the handier printed text,and so at present the best strategy is a combined one:free on the web, charging money off. As new technology and new habits eventually make reading a portable computer screen even more convenient than reading a book, the sales of actual books will start to drop; the same for CDs, and all the rest. There will be no money in books, but it still can be lucrative, in new-economy terms to write.

An Endgame Scenario

Compared with monetary transactions, attention transactions on the Web will be far more numerous. Money will not necessarily fade in value, in other words inflation will not set in, in the old sense; neither will recession nor deflation. Instead, money will just lose importance, just as noble titles have over the past few centuries. The stock market might not even fall; stockholders may simply lose interest, ceasing to sell and buy in equal ratio.

Am I speaking about the far future? I think not. Already, if you are reading this, you are probably involved in far more organized person-to-person or audience-type situations where what is being exchanged is attention, real and illusory,than you are in direct monetary transactions or the direct production of material goods. The fraction of time spent in pursuits more closely tied to the new economy is, even now, well above fifty per cent and rising. The new practices are already almost fully functioning for some, and more and more in place for others.

At the end of the feudal period, the pomp and display of the nobility reached a level never before attained; the most gorgeous armor, the most magnificent knight tournaments, the most elaborate ceremonies between rival nobles, the most brilliant marriages, the greatest interest in noble lineage. But by then it had lost all real function or importance. So today, when the stock market goes up and up, when money wealth itself seems a source of fame more than ever, when being number one on Forbes 400 list seems the height of perfection, when every basketball superstar wants a contract that is at least a million more than the last record one, we seem to be more dazzled by money than ever, just as we seem to be more intrigued by material goods than ever. But these interests are superficial and faddish. They are signs of decadence not of a glorious future for the money economy. Even in themselves they speak to the growing desire for attention, the need for it as well.

Money is now little more numbers, one number among many, and as a source of lasting attention it can fade in an instant. The attention economy is already here, and more completely so every day. (Michael H. Goldhaber)