Michael Goldhaber on the Attention Economy

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Text of an interview with Michel Bauwens, conducted by email on March 30, 2006:

Interview with Michael Goldhaber on the Attention Economy

"1) My educational background is in theoretical particle physics. The threat of nuclear war and the Vietnam war both made me aware that scientists had a responsibility to understand the wider world in which their discoveries were being used and how, and to act for what they understand as the good of all. Aside from some direct political work, I began to be interested in how the history of science fitted into socio-cultural and economic history. By chance I decided to test my understanding with the relatively short history of microprocessors. This was around 1980, as the personal computer was just taking off, when there was much talk of the "paperless office" and so on.

If we were entering a "post-industrial" economy, I wondered what was motivating it. That led me to think in terms of an economy based on information rather than things. But that formulation continued to trouble me. Economies are supposedly organized around the allocation of what is scarce, but even then it was completely evident we were wallowing in information. It was far less scarce even than the super-abundant consumer goods of the old material economy. The need for more information just doesn't work as a motivating factor. I began to be aware that what is intrinsically scarce yet highly desired is attention. What is the point of putting forth information if it doesn't garner attention?

There were all sorts of things to learn to make sense of this, and that is why it has taken so long for me to develop the idea fully.

2) Since 1985, I have been talking and writing about what I first called the attention society, and then the attention economy. The difficulty in getting this idea across has to do with how people respond to the word "economy." Most people assume the word economy has to do with buying and selling, with exchanging money for things or labor, and exchanging things or labor for money, along with the profit motivation, and so on.

But I mean economy in a wider sense: the network of exchanges of scarce entities that bind an entire society or several societies tightly together. Around the year 1000, in Western Europe, for instance, that was the economy of knightly loyalty and feoffs. Markets as we know them were largely irrelevant; so was money. what mattered were security, and also loyalty, marriages, and success in battle, which ultimately depended on having enough loyal knights. Peasants grew crops, and made things, such as clothing and furniture for their families, but not enough to bind the larger society together. Only the economy involving knights did that, and, to repeat, even it wasn't market or money-based.

Entirely through forces within Western European culture (including areas to which it expanded, such as North America ) the knightly, feudal economy eventually gave way to what is known as industrial capitalism, or as I prefer to refer to it the market-money-industrial based economy, or MMI. It wasn't that feudalism failed, but rather that it succeeded in meeting its ultimate goal of bringing about security. The system created certain openings — certain possibilities that its own terms there was no way to fill. For instance, knights, who rode on horseback into battle, had to practice their maneuvers or similar skills constantly. So they pretty much had to live in the country, not the city. In fact, during the height of feudalism, very few large towns and cities could be found in Western Europe. With some security of travel, cities sprang into existence as relatively free spaces. Out of that the MMI was born, in a process that extended over centuries. (The natural pace of change was very slow in those days, but is obviously much faster now, so a new kind of economy can become dominant much faster.)

In the attention economy the major kind of transaction is the passing of attention from one person to another. Because attention is intrinsically scarce, and also highly desirable, the competition for attention tends to create a spiral of ever greater strength, that is more and more intense competition, in as many different forms as anyone can dream up. Whereas the industrial system is predicated on standardized, uniform goods — including standardized, uniform money —as well as repetitive and uniform industrial work — where someone can keep doing exactly the same tasks over and over day after day, year after year, for an entire working life — in the attention economy, what counts is difference, relative uniqueness, originality, self-expression, personality, etc.

There are basically two classes: those who receive considerably more attention than they give —or stars, in a very generalized sense; and those who pay out more attention than they get — or fans. Attention is remembered, so the new kind of wealth is not to be found in banks or material goods or stock ownership, but rather in the minds of one's fans. And so on.

As far as I am aware, this idea of an entirely new sort of economy remains solely my contribution —others who may use similar language mean only that corralling attention is a way to make money, which is very far from my basic point. If the attention economy in my sense comes to dominance, eventually money will have no meaning. One way to think about this: monetary wealth, — in essence a single number — is extremely narrow-band; attention as wealth — dependent on many aspects of person's characteristics and expressions — is extremely wideband; in a wideband world, the narrow band money is a tiny, irrelevant detail.

3) Reed's law, as I understand it is a purely mathematical assertion about groups in networks. It in no way removes the value of having lots of attention. The larger the group, the more the people in the group can focus lots of their attention on just a few stars. Then, being a large audience, they make those stars more visible to others outside the group. It simply provides a mechanism by which networking allows the attention economy to operate. True, there may be a very large —though not infinite — number of niches, so that there are now a very large number of websites and blogs, etc. But that doesn't mean they each get equal attention. Quite the contrary.

The problem is that people do not generally want to spread their individual attention equally; they much prefer to give it to those who have already gotten their own or others' prior attention. That leads to attention inequality, which in turn leads to heightened competition for attention. Being a star, hard though it is, comes to seem ever-more desirable. The only way to change this would be for people, individually, and on principle, to decide to give their attention equally to everyone they notice at all, no matter how relatively interesting, entertaining, glamorous or boring each person happens to be. That isn't going to be easy.

4) In principle, I am very much for human equality and valuing every person equally. That's why in principle I favor some kind of socialism, which entails an equal division of important kinds of wealth, very much including attention. But, like everyone else I know, I find it hard in practice to pay equal attention to everyone, for the reasons just stated. It takes an incredible degree of self-discipline. If we could devise means for each person to express themselves in ways equally interesting to all others, then we might have what might be called "attention socialism." I encourage everyone to work towards that ideal. In all probability, the efforts will be imperfect, but they might well help flatten the differences between stars and fans, or , in other words, they might eliminate some of the inequalities inherent in the attention economy.

As what I 've just said perhaps suggests, I believe that we can only build a better future by being as realistic as possible about developing trends. I don't particularly favor the attention economy as much as see it as what's coming — and hard to avoid. In some respects, though, I definitely do favor it over the continuation of an outworn and probably increasingly oppressive capitalism. But it is no utopia, by any means. We must be clear-eyed about that, as well.

As a socialist by inclination, I am very aware that Karl Marx still dominates much of the thinking of all parts of the political spectrum, in that he led people to believe that capitalism could only evolve one way — into socialism. Today that presumption is mostly interpreted to mean that since attempts at socialism haven't worked, capitalism is "the end of history." But Marx simply could not foresee the possiblity of the attention economy. It turns out capitalism, like feudalism before it, can give way to an entirely different kind of system — still a class system, with stars and fans replacing owners and workers. (By the way, to me capitalism and socialism are different versions of what I call the MMI economy.)" (email interview with Michel Bauwens, on March 30, 2006)

More Information

The value of openness in an attention economy by Michael Goldhaber http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_6/goldhaber/

Hear the podcast interview with After TV at http://goldhaber.org/blog/2006/06/19/new-interview-now-hearable/

See also the entry on the characteristics of Attention