Aug 302006

This blog focuses on the coming of the Attention Economy. Every so often, I shall remind new readers of what this term means.

The basic idea is that we are moving toward a new kind of economy, wildly different from any before.

An economy in this sense is system of actions and transactions of some kind involving scarce but desirable or necessary entities, with the multiplicity of such transactions intricately tying an entire society or several societies together.

Attention here means attention from other human beings. Because we each have limited capacity to pay attention, the amount available is inescapably scarce. The more some have, the less others must have. This is so even though attention is really quite difficult to quantify with any precision.

Attention is necessary for all humans. It is also desirable, with no limit to how much a person can actually want. As long as it seems possible to garner additional attention through the Internet and related technologies, more and more people will go after it, increasing the level of competition for it and thus the overall scarcity. This leads to a vicious circle in which attention becomes more and more sought after. Its pursuit more and more fully comes to occupy most people’s efforts.

So far, to a considerable extent we have moved toward this new economy without any real consciousness of it. We largely analyze our affairs in the increasingly misleading terms of the old economy, in which such measures as GDP, employment and wage rates, inflation rates and the like are the key indicators. But these terms came into use in an economy dominated by the industrial manufacture of standardized goods.

One of the first such standardized manufactured goods was money itself (in the form of coins). Now, increasingly, money tracks attention. Those with a great deal of attention can easily obtain money, should they want it. Those with little attention will have a much harder time obtaining money. But this relation between attention and money may itself be transitional. When and if we fully enter into the attention economy, money may lose any significant role.

The attention economy, like any economy historically different from the industrial, market-based economy in whose terms we are all used to thinking, will have its own different implicit rules, roles, cycles, values, etc.

For more see my older writings, especially The Attention Economy and the Net, as well as other entries under the category Attention Economy in the right-hand column of this blog.

I have been working on a book on the Attention Economy for ridiculously long time. Very shortly, on the blog, I am going to begin serializing a draft of chapter 3, on the nature of attention as an economic entity. Other draft chapters will follow. Stay tuned.

Aug 232006

I would like to find a suitable, general. short pair of words for (a) a person paying attention to (b) a person receiving attention. I have often used the words “fan” and “star” to mean something a bit similar, but not the same. By a fan I mean someone who over time receives less attention than she pays, while a star receives far more attention than she pays. The more general words I am now seeking would describe a more momentary state of affairs, where there may or may not be rough overall equality between the two participants.

The pair of words I am looking for ideally will suggest that paying attention is an active process. Also, attention can go to a person through his physical actions or expressions in any medium — whether dancing, drawing, writing, acting, playing music or a game, buliding or cooking. Thus I am not completely happy with some pairs I have come up with: viewer and doer; auder (a word I just coined) and actor; movee and mover; grokker and squawker; payer and player.

The contest is either to come up with a better pair, or to say which of the above pairs works best, or both. Entries will be judged on the basis of fitness to the criteria. Neatness, originality and aptness of thought won’t hurt. No boxtops necessary. Decision of the judge (me) will be final.

The prize will consist of being named winner in this space. If your pair of words is chosen and the study of attention economics takes off, you might achieve minor immortality at no extra cost.
The contest will end when there is a winner, or when the judge gives up.

Aug 042006

Earlier this week I spoke to Andreas Weigend’s statistics class at Stanford University. In such a setting, one of the points I wanted to make is that attention is not absolutely quantifiable and never will be.

Is my full attention numerically the same as yours? How could we find this out? Is my full attention at one time, equal to that at another, or if less, in what proportion? If I am aware that I am not paying full attention to you right now, can I possibly say the exact percentage of attention I am paying? I do not think there is any way to do any of this with any significant degree of precision at all.

What one can do, which is quite common, is to make an ordinal comparison of relative audience attention. That is the basis of bestseller lists, Nielssen ratings, comparisons of movie grosses, measuring the number of visits to sites on the Internet, etc. (They are ordinal, that is they tell us the relative size of audiences without in any way claiming to tell us the intensity of attention of the average audience member. The bestseller list one week simply tells us the order in which books are sold, not even the absolute number of books in the top spot. But even that knowledge, which might be available, would not tell us even relatively how attentively the books are read, or even if they are read at all.)

What about more direct physiological measures? It may be possible to measure skin potentials and the like which say something about mental arousal. Let’s suppose that many thousands of people are hooked up to such devices, with time-correlated output, as they are watching, say, the Academy Awards. Then spikes in arousal for the whole group might tell us about relative attention paid to different aspects of the program, but how that would even translate into proportionate intensity of attention would remain unclear. Is the arousal due to what happens that second, or is it possibly a delayed pondering of what just happened? Is it only due to attention per se, or might other variables, such as emotional content affect the results?

In my Stanford presentation, I mentioned mirror neurons and their role in attention as briefly discussed in my June First Monday article. A student asked whether, if neurons are involved in attention, somehow counting their activity might lead to the quantifiability of attention. I was unsure in principle, but upon reflection, I don’t think this would ever work.

If you put someone in a magnetic resonance scanner, you can see how much different parts of her brain are active at different moments. But can you even say with any certainty where the attention is going? Some of it — most, perhaps — is actually going to the experimenters who got her to agree to get into the contraption. Some of it may be focused on her own desires to get out. It is always possible that whatever she is supposed to be paying attention to evokes memories that focus most of her attention somewhere else. Unless you could map her brain so completely as to correlate every synapes’s firing with some definite thought, conscious or unconscious, you could never answer such questions. At a minimum, to do that, you would have to have her in the scanner her entire life, and everything she took in would have to be carefully attended to by several researchers acting independently, for any reliability. Even with a highly miniaturized and much more convenient form of scanner than anyone now anticipates, this cannot become a general procedure, quite apart from its ethical dubiousness.

Human brains possess something like twenty billion neo-cortical neurons, and perhaps one hundred billion cortical neurons, though more than the cortex may be involved in attention. Each neuron can have thousands of synapses connecting it with others. On this basis too, the idea that being able to know numerically what is going on in someone else’s brain seems highly improbable.

And that would be the sort of thing one would want to know if the attention economy were to attain the apparent quantitative aspects of the money economy. Presumably, it would be theoretically possible to take a “snapshot” of someone’s monetary worth at a particular time, by noting the value on the market at the moment of stocks, money, real estate, and other possessions. But no such estimate with similar precision would be available for ascertaining just how many people would pay you how much attention now were you to seek it.

This does not mean that you have no attention wealth, or more broadly that the attention economy cannot function, but just that it must function differently. It has no banks, no loan guarantees, no futures markets, etc.

Aug 042006

“Gestalt” as I am using it simply means the whole complex to which you pay attention or have in mind when you pay attention to a person. For now, let us call this potential recipient of your attention the “target.”

(There is always a person or person behind everything except purely “natural” objects, and even natural objects we understand only because of interactions with persons, so that such interactions tend to be integrated even into our attention that is seemingly paid to natural objects. We can to some degree also count as a person anyone or anything we imbue with personhood, such as a pet or other animal, a natural force seen as some sort of god, saint, spirit, etc., a more abstract God, a doll to which ascribe the capacity to pay and get attention, a possibly non-existent ideal reader whom we assume is paying attention and to whom, as an author we may direct our attention, a diary we address as if had a mind, a character in a novel, play or movie, etc. )

When we pay attention to a person, it is always through one or more aspects. Any of these aspects if it occurs to us through recall, through some external prompt, such as mention by someone else, seeing a picture, or direct perception, can bring to mind all the others. That is any aspect or combination can prompt us again to align our minds to the target. In other words, that prompt causes us to be ready to pay further attention to her or him.

So what are some of these aspects? They begin with outward appearance: face, body, characteristic motions, and style of movement voice, smells, style and color of customary clothing, hairstyles and hair color. Another key outward appearance is the target’s name.

They extend to the emotional ambience characteristic of the target, specific emotional looks feelings and gestures, and characteristic desires and ambitions, including what might be called willpower and focus.

They go on to include style of talking or writing, and by extension of thinking, the thoughts themselves, the language used, specific words and phrases or more extensive quotes, thoughts. One special aspect is signature or characteristic mark. When relevant, they include the person’s visual or aural expressions, possibly through visual, decoration, or musical expression.

The gestalt also very much includes narrative, in terms of the target’s own story, her vicissitudes, conquests, and achievements, the paths through which her life has moved, including the simple geographic story, often in detail. The sources of this narrative include self-confessions, stray bits of one’s own personal experience of the target, along with gossip or news or biography one has somehow picked up.

Personal experience one has can be a whole complex history, and even bits of it can evoke the target. For instance, suppose the target is someone you know directly, and that previously she introduced you to someone else. Then some prompt of that third person can remind you of this attention target.

Another aspect of the personal narrative that deserves special mention is your sense of the target’s own audience. The larger this is, the larger the target is likely to loom for you, other things being equal, and thus the easier to align your mind to hers again. Contact with the audience can also remind you of this (target) person.

Once you are attuned again to the target, the Penumbra of Attention introduced in the prior post kicks in. Any way you are paying attention can slide into any of the others, whenever conditions and situation and your own limits and attitudes permit.

Aug 022006


This is a partial look at the ways Person A can pay attention to Person B. Attention can slide among all these possiblities, even in one particular instance of attention paying. Often, we want pretty much all of this (and perhaps even more) from attention, and if we are skilled and lucky enough in our attention seeking we can sometimes get it all.

In future I will explore other aspects of this fludity, and how it can be the basis of a full-fledged attention economy.