Economics of Attention

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Book: The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. By Richard A Lanham. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006


Pat Kane

By Pat Kane:

"The "attention economy" isn't a new idea - it's been flitting around the pages of techno-capitalist magazines like Wired for nearly ten years now. But Lanham's take is unusual. He is as deeply immersed in arts and letters as he is in bytes and chips. An emeritus professor of literature, he previously published The Electronic Word, which anticipated those surprising synergies between digital and literary culture more than a decade ago.

His agenda is familiar enough. Modern capitalism succeeds by the promotion of brands as much as by the delivery of products and services: we're buying narrative and symbolism with our mobiles or cars, as well as functionality. Or, as Lanham puts it a little too winsomely, we invest in "fluff" (the attention we pay to things) as much as in "stuff" (the things).

But he wants to argue that it was ever thus, using all the classicism and humanism at his disposal. When Plato expresses distrust of poets and the sophists, he begins a tradition which extends all the way to Naomi Klein and the anti-advertising instincts of the happiness gurus. The need to persuade, seduce and command attention - in short, the arts of rhetoric - have always been suspected by the powerful, claims Lanham. Those who want their authority to be based on a stable interpretation of reality will be suspicious of those who mess that up, who allow style and substance to intermingle." (

John Hagel

John Hagel at

"I hoped that we might finally see a systematic exploration of attention economics, made all the more refreshing because it came from someone outside the profession.

The book is a fascinating exploration of the dynamic that exists between stuff and fluff – physical goods and information about physical goods. Lanham’s basic thesis is that, in an attention economy, stuff recedes in importance and fluff increases in importance. Any book that can draw connections across the Dadaists, Gregory Bateson and Friedrich Hayek is well worth a read. In Lanham’s perspective, rhetoricians and artists like Andy Warhol and Christo are the new economists of attention. Yet, I left the book feeling dissatisfied – I did not yet see any systematic exposition of the economics of attention." (

Michael Goldhaber


"In one way, the pastiche–like quality of Lanham’s book does go along with his suggestion of history as cyclic. It has some of the qualities of the cobbled–together works found in monasteries in the mediaeval period. Then the book–form was dictated partly by the difficulty of obtaining fresh parchment and biding it together with heavier leather or wood. As printing became more commonplace, the currently customary idea of a book as a highly coherent and unified work arose. In the age of the blog, that seems like one of the chief justifications of adhering to the book form and especially to the published, printed, material book that can still hurt when it falls on your foot. One wonders why exactly to risk this minor calamity for such a disjoint work as Lanham’s."

More Information

Related book: "Tom Davenport wrote a book with John C. Beck in 2001 called The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. While providing very interesting perspectives, the book focused much more on management techniques rather than taking on the task of mapping out a more systematic view of attention economics." (

Check our entries on Attention and the Attention Economy