Attention-Centered Economy

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Michael Goldhaber:

"What follows then is a rough and incomplete primer on how I see what I shall refer to as “the attention (centered) economy,” — a new, post-capitalist class system, differing in its essence from capitalism. I have emphasized features that I think demonstrate why some views expressed on this list, or in correspondence off list with me, are mistaken. The views I challenge include the notion that attention flows through the Internet chiefly to corporations, that attention only has significance if somehow monetized, that it is ultimately capitalists who exploit attention, and that money remains far more basic than attention. Obviously in such a brief introduction I can hardly hope to convince anyone, but I do hope that this will at least open some to reconsider the issues more fully. So to begin:

1. Attention (from other humans) is needed by every human being. In fact, no infant can possibly survive without it. Many children, at a very young age, clearly evince a desire for as much attention as they can get. Whether that desire remains as they grow older is a psycho-social issue. But many adults clearly want attention, and because of its immaterial nature there is no limit as to how much. [I have explored the meaning of attention much more fully here: ]

2. However each of us has only limited capacity to pay attention. Everyone's attention combined is thus also finite. As attention-seeking technologies increase, and as social prohibitions against seeking an audience weaken by example, the competition for it grows. [I have discussed the Internet in this light here: .]

3. If you and I were in the same room, having a conversation, and I were saying these same words (and you were interested) you would of course be paying attention to me. Even if we happened to be sitting in Starbuck’s your attention would still go chiefly to me and not to Starbuck’s, Inc. In reading this, likewise, you are paying attention to me, the writer of it, and very little directly to your computer screen, to your computer’s manufacturer, to your Internet Service Provider, to the phone or cable company, to, or even to just to the words. (You read Shakespeare, Doris Lessing, or Marx, rather than just books they happen to have written. In reading, the publisher is of very little importance to you, though the publisher —and others in the distribution channel — possibly made a profit when you or someone bought the book.) Thus, it is irrelevant that attention via the Internet passes through corporate sites or to say, articles or blog posts on corporate-owned media. Attention still goes primarily to the authors of the individual articles, etc. In general, our attention can be thought of as primarily going to other humans or, at times, to ourselves.

4. It is actually quite difficult to pay attention to a corporation as such, rather than to, say, a particular spokesperson or at times the person who motivates the particular actions of the corporation (e.g. Steve Jobs). Even TV fanatics are unlikely to watch just a network, as opposed to a specific program with a relatively small number of important creators behind it. Likewise, who attends or watches a tennis match to see a particular brand of ball, racket or tennis clothes?

When a corporation’s executives want to attempt to increase sales through getting consumer attention, they normally have to go through a complex rigamarole, involving for instance the creative people at ad agencies, and much more in the same vein. For instance, advertisers try to place commercials as close as possible to programs that draw attention; even then, they must also try to have the ads themselves be interesting, which often has little to do with what is being sold. If the corporation could just get attention on its own, why does it not just put its name on the TV screen?

5. If you have enough attention you can get pretty much whatever you want, including but not limited to money, should you want that. An anonymous capitalist who loses all her money is out of luck, but a star (read: substantial attention getter) if without money, can still usually get more attention and through that a very generous helping hand from her fans (who are usually net attention payers). Stars exist in practically all fields, from entertainment to more serious arts to academics to sports to politics to journalism and on and on — including even business.

6. Without getting at least some attention, a person is likely to fare very poorly. Even people without jobs or money, on the other hand, can still very often get enough attention to be kept alive. Thus it is a complete mistake to think of money as more primary than attention. The money system and the attention system are different, but both rely on what is immaterial to allow material wants to be satisfied. (You can’t live by eating gold or dollar bills or credit cards, after all.) In fact attention is much more intrinsic to human existence than money, and thus, once it is possible to seek it and obtain it over wide networks, it can easily come to dominate.

7. Now we come to the question of classes. For reasons I will not address here, I think Marx was right to suggest each class system is essentially dyadic, with the two classes of each in clear relationship with each other, one being dominant and the other dependent. A new class formation generally originates in a situation in which an older class dyad dominates. The new classes, partaking as they do at first of the old milieu, at first do recognize their own distinctness and explain themselves even to themselves according to the older formation, though not necessarily in simple ways. Thus a member of the nascent star class may see herself more as a worker or more as a capitalist (that is assuming she gives any thought to such questions) and a fan can also identify either way. Further, these identifications are not constant. Whether recognized or not, the new class system is in conflict with the old, for it relies on building up fundamentally different kinds of relations. The combination of different identifications and the underlying conflict lead to complex and changing alliances and/or oppositions among all the four classes involved.

8.If valid, of what value is the foregoing analysis, beyond intrinsic interest?

A. It facilitates a level of both clarity and nuance in examining various key trends and situations that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to comprehend.

B. Recognizing the possibility of a post-capitalist class society open up thinking that has in some ways been frozen ever since Marx.

C. The existence of the attention (centered) economy changes both the concept and the understanding of possibility of a basically egalitarian society, of the kind that critics of capitalism are presumably after.

D. It is possible that in the very complexity of the underlying struggle for dominance between the capitalism and the attention (centered) economy there might be room for a new humane socialism to emerge. [See also .].[I have argued here that the attention economy is in fact increasingly dominant already; the argument is necessarily impressionistic, but I think has some heuristic value.]"

(IDC mailing list, October 2009)

More Information

  1. Attention Economy