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Going Further: The Attention Economy

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Many writers have weighed in on the ways attention shapes our world. Some are better than others—here’s an overview.

My first exposure to the idea of treating attention as a commodity came, aptly enough, from an online source—an essay by Michael Goldhaber in the Internet journal First Monday. His text is lucid—it was originally delivered as a live talk—and he covers a variety of angles. It’s a concise introduction that could be accused of overstating the case, but makes good reading anyhow. 

It turns out that, like most good ideas, this one has a history. It was first articulated by Herb Simon, who wrote in 1971 that:

" an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it"

The Economics of AttentionThe most widely-read recent book on the subject is called The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. Its author, Richard Lanham, is a professor of rhetoric. The chapters in the book are loosely joined essays, a bit too literary for my taste—Lanham is more interested in using the idea as a jumping off point for wordy reverie than in forecasting its concrete effects. Distraction is a similar treatment but, as its title portends, is much more concise than the Lanham book.

The larger question of how information technology shapes our lives is endlessly fascinating. My favorite place to start is with an essay, “As We May Think,” written by Vannevar Bush in 1945. If I hadn’t read it—and somebody told me that the president’s science advisor predicted the world wide web in the mid-forties—I might react with disbelief. But he did. Another excellent early source is the work of Lewis Mumford, an unclassifiable intellect who argued in two volumes that technology is often the prime mover of social life. More recently, Andrew Shapiro’s Control Revolution and Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital have emerged as excellent “big think” books on technology and culture.

On the general topic of fame, the place to start is Daniel Boorstin’s The Image. He foresaw many of today’s trends, and had the advantage of looking at them from several decades’ remove. Life: The Movie by Neal Gabler is an updated, if slightly diluted, remix of Boorstin’s argument. For a lighter, more fun treatment, consider Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction.

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