How did I first hit on the concept of the Attention Economy?
That question arose last evening, in the discussion after my talk at BayCHI. * The talk was an expansion on the one on emerging Attention Economy as a new level in the Massively Multiplayer Interactive Game known as Western Culture that I gave at E-tech. A short answer to the question seems useful.**
In the early eighties, the idea of an “information revolution” become somewhat commonplace. People were excited about things like the “paperless office.” I wanted to know why so many people were working in offices “processing “ information at what even then was clearly an accelerating rate. It just didn’t make sense to me to see all this activity as merely ancillary to what the usual ideas of “the Economy” were – and still are- about. That idea was that all this office work simply permitted the production of goods to flourish more smoothly.
But the information processsed had already increased by many factors of ten. Since then it has gone up many millions of times more. But life, at least for the average American was better, if at all, only by by a small percentage increase over what it had been three decades earlier in the post-WWII era. Produycts were more and better, but by nothing like enough to justify this radically increased amount of effort on info. Even now, while various aspects of life might be somewhat better, any realistic assessment of “standards of living” wouldn’t indicate that it is even ten times better than then.
So it was – and is – obvious to me that this huge outpouring of information represented some kind of turn into a new dimension that standard economics wasn’t seeing or picking up. Like others, I toyed with the idea that we were entering an “Information Economy.” But that idea never would really jell. WHY was all this info being spewed out? Who was benefiting so much from it? That’s when I began to notice that wherever I went in official or unofficial Washington, DC, where I was living at the time, there were endless meetings, and at all of them, getting “the floor,” that is having a chance to speak, was not easy. I began to think of “the scarcity of the floor.” ***
That led me to realize that the true scarcity was of attention, and that all the outpouring of information could be understood as a part of the effort of various people to get attention.
Some have pointed out to me, including Karen Weinstein, last night, that many people might not want any more attention than what they get from family and close friends. Maybe so. I don’t know how to test what people “really want.” Still I can speculate.
And, as far as I can see, the desire for attention is the only thing that coherently explains how our real economy now works. And I can offer tons of evidence that fits with that thought. Also, if there is an inherent desire for attention, the extent to which it is activated depends on changing cultural norms. Now it is perfectly ok, at least for many people to get tons of attention.
*The (S.F.) Bay Area chapter of the ACM’s [Association of Computing Machinery] largest “SIG” [Special Interest Group] – on Computer-Human Interaction, or “CHI.”
**In a later post, I’ll offer a connection with a podcast of that talk, as well as a synopsis. The talk was perhaps a bit confusing, because I was doing my very first presentation using Apple Keynote, and without my realizing it some of the “slides” had been set to whisk ahead after a few seconds,. This added a note of hilarity that was probably helpful to those there, but perhaps not to those trying to listen to it and follow the visuals. These will also sooon be available, probably as a pdf.
***I remember spending a day walking around with the eccentric (ex-Bulgarian Jewish) Catholic priest, Ivan Illich, (one of my idols at the time) one day when he was visiting Washington from Mexico. He had just spoken about the role of religion in poverty and development at an informal meeting at the World Bank, and we were walking back to the Institute for Policy Studies, when I suggested to him that the floor was intrinsically hard to get. Many people who had questions or comments after his talk hadn’t been able to speak. He said something like, ”At a certain point, one should shut up and go home.” That evidently did not refer to himself, since he had been perfectly content to monopolize the floor.