May 212007

You are reading this right now. I know you are.

That gives the impression that I am paying attention to you personally at the moment. But of course that is a mere illusion. Really I am not. I may know you, but I very well may not. I may know nothing about you other than that you are evidently reading this, or hearing it read, or perhaps you memorized it and are now reciting it to yourself. In any case, this is an example of illusory attention coming to you. It is the normal payoff for reading, for looking at a picture or watching a movie or TV show, listening to a record, reading a blog etc.

In the last case, you can make yourself known to the blogger, perhaps, by commenting. But suppose the blog is very popular. Then the writer may well be unable (or unwilling) to read every comment, especially if every reader comments. The attention to the reader in such a case remains illusory. The blogger might take illusion in that case to a further level by issuing some seemingly personal but actually automated reply. Any interactive website offers illusory attention in the same way.

Of course, on the web or off you may pay attention to the work of an author who died before you were born, Abraham Lincoln, say. Still you can hardly avoid some feeling that Honest Abe was speaking directly to you. Otherwise how could you align with him; how could you pay attention? Again what you actually get has to be illusory attention. There is just no way to make it real.

May 142007

An article in the NY Times magazine yesterday, “Sex, Drugs and Updating Your Blog” by Clive Thompson, demonstrates many of the realities I have predicted about the Attention Economy.

1. Fans feel a personal relationship with stars, even though they can only maintain such contact in reality when the number of fans is very small.
2. Fans are also eager to help stars, in and do their bidding quite generally.
3. The fans closest to a star , or those who successfully draw attention to her, bask in reflected glory, or , more accurately, obtain some additional attention from later or more distant fans.
4. All this works outside the money economy, but money tracks attention as much as any other kind of favor. Fans are eager to do what stars want, including, very usually, sending them money, even when it is not required, say, to download their songs.
5. With the Internet, stars and would-be stars are in a far better position than earlier to resist any large corporation’s conditions and more fully control their own destiny. The tradeoff is that they feel a certain obligation to maintain contact with the fans who e-mail them or ask to be added to their “friends’ list” on cites such as MySpace. But as the fan number grows, inevitably, for all but a favored few fans, this interaction turns out to be pretty rudimentary, maybe even automated. The fans who do obtain real interaction are often the ones who most deeply committed to helping the star, particularly, perhaps helping the star get attention.
6. Often, privacy becomes an issue. Old concepts of privacy have become reversed in the AE era. You want to reveal some fairly essential aspect of yourself, yet without necessarily paying attention to those aspects of the fans. Having been raised in an economy with rather opposite notions, this new kind of inverted privacy is hard to get used to. Stars are worried, for instance, that by revealing to much they will lose their “mystery,” and fans will not talk about them as much or try as hard to understand them. This seems to me wrong. Familiarity and understanding are never perfect, and the better you know someone or think you do, the more you tend to find what they have to offer of interest. People gossip about and discuss those they know much more than those who are too mysterious.
7. At the end of the Times article, the musician profiled talks about his “job,” meaning the time he spends online answering his fans. The old-economy notion of a job is used in an odd way, somewhat reflecting the fact that we do no yet have a full understanding of the new economy in its own, more perspicacious terms. I am, among other things, trying to change that.

May 112007

I just sent off the following letter to The New Yorker regarding the new economy:
Steven Shapin, reviewing David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old, (May 14, 2007)  cites the revenues of the largest corporations to argue there is no new economy. Sorry, that’s an old-economy measure, not unlike pointing to Queen Elizabeth II’s descent from ancient royal families to prove the old feudal system still dominates in England. People who measure economies don’t know how to notice the new one, so they falsely conclude it’s not here. As I have argued for some time, the real new economy revolves around seeking, paying and sometimes receiving what is truly scarce now — the attention of other people. Money, corporations and material goods are all quite secondary.

May 082007

My last post emphasized the three economies: the feudal economy, the MMI (or the standard Market-Money-Industrial economy that most economists discuss as if it were the only one)  and the Attention Economy. Since these economies are very different, a direct comparison is not that easy, but taken as a whole, each one has certain characteristics that can be compared, and these comparisons can be combined in a single number for each. I call this Number, which I introduced last year, TPI (explained below). It is very rough, but still a useful way of comparing, I think.

Since there is a certain flexibility in determining the basic unit of TPI (aka The Number) for the feudal economy it can simply can be set to be 1. In those units, for the MMI economy (the one economists tell us we are living in) The Number is about 20,000.  But for the Attention Economy, The Number is something like 30 billion (30,000,000,000)! This says that the new economy will combine and integrate human life to a previously unimaginable extent.

So what are the components of TPI?
T stands for Transactions per Lifetime (of each individual);
P stands for the Pool of People Interacted With (in the total of transactions) that is the number of people who are operating in a pretty unified economy;
I stands for the Intensity of Interaction, the strength of its effect on the life of the typical person affected.

TRANSACTIONS differ in each economy:

In  the feudal economy, the key type of transaction occurs only a few times per lifetime for the affercted parties, the knights (who can be lords or vassals, or both).

In the MMI economy there can be a few transactions per day, so maybe 1000,000 or so per lifetime.

In the Attention Economy, though, there might be a thousand or more transactions, individual paying of attention, per person per day, leading to millions per lifetime.

The POOL of people transacted with depends on how big the actual interactive economic unit is. In the feudal economy, because of the small distances people could travel and the small population, this number was smallest. In the industrial economy, for the most part factories and farms serve somewhat limited populations, even though the whole economy may be nearly worldwide. In the Attention Economy, audiences can be a billion or more, and vast numbers of the world can be in audiences for the same relatively few stars. So the pool is typically huge.

The final issue is the INTENSITY of the typical INTERACTION. In feudalism, each interaction was life-changing, either lifelong vows of loyalty and suzerainty for a lord and a vassal, or, alternatively, a serious fight, often to the death.  In the MMI system, you occasionally buy a car or hire on for a new job, but mostly you buy things like a chair, a dozen eggs or a bag of potato chips, which have minimal effect on you. In the Attention Economy, paying attention changes who you are, in ways more profound than that, even if not as profound as in the feudal case.

Admittedly, all this is hard to quantify exactly, so the detailed Numbers should probably be taken with several grains of salt. But the trend seems pretty clear to me. The Number shows that the Attention Economy is something very new, very different and tremendously important.

May 022007

I have been discussing the Attention Economy as new economy, but it seems that many readers still do not quite get what I mean by a new economy. If we think back to prehistory, it is obvious that the economy which is generally studied in school or university economics courses (which I reefer to as the MMI economy — see below) did not exist. There were no markets, no money, and little or nothing that could be called industrial factories. So the economy having all these features came into existence only at some later time. In turn that implies, in contrast to how economists (and, indeed, most of us) frequently act, think and write, there is no need to view it as inevitable or permanent. It came into existence at a specific time in human history, and just as we grew into it, we may “outgrow” it. It can quite possibly and logically reach the end of its line. This would not necessarily be through failure, but in fact even more likely through success. Afterwards, human energies will head increasingly in a different direction.

I do not view the new economy as necessarily morally superior in any way, but rather as distinctly different in goals, rules, practices and internal mores. It’s primary item of desirability and scarcity is of course neither material goods nor money, but attention, as I have repeatedly emphasized.

Let me clarify in one other way, as well. For many, the only conceivable alternative possibility to present-day capitalism would be socialism or communism, but to my mind all three are variants of the same industrial system, not distinctly different systems at all. The Attention Economy is distinctly different.

So what has led to the rise of the Attention Economy now? To examine that it is useful to have an idea about how economies in general come into existence, begin to meet their implicit goals, and through their prior development to offer openings for a new system’s taking up of human energies and desires they have little means of fulfilling.

An economy is a system of human activities that ties one or more societies together around the allocation of what is most scarce and desirable. That changes because a given economy can do sufficiently well at achieving its implicit goals, leaving what was once most desirable now to be taken for granted. Every economy gets its start at some point in time and space, and has to expand from then and there, if it is ever to have any significance. Thus every economy must have some mode of growth, but successful growth eventually leads it to some point when it has so altered the conditions that gave rise to it, that new directions are more compelling.

As an economy succeeds, it does pretty well in satisfying the needs that originally set it in motion. Some kind of consolidation takes place, in the areas in which it is strongest. That allows various kinds of new activities to be tried, and openings to be seized by those with different interests and motives from those who set the now dominant economy in motion, and who are still most tied to its ways.

The Money and Market-based Industrial (MMI) Economy

I have earlier discussed how the MMI economy emerged from the feudal economy that preceded it in Western Europe. Whereas feudalism’s implicit goal was security against outside and, later, internal armed raiders, MMI’s own implicit goal (in condensed form) was something like the following: to provide a diverse array of goods to support a growing population in some degree of comfort; that required organizing and routinizing the work of producing material goods and distributing these through market mechanisms. Over the course of centuries the MMI economy expanded in the area it covered and how intensely it affected people’s lives, and it kept becoming more efficient at achieving its goal. Eventually, the goal was more or less met, for a large swath of people. New products would lead people to feel new needs, but not unlimited new needs. You can change your active desires only so fast.

So about 1930, when you take into account farming, etc., net material production employment began to decline, worldwide. That was one way a space opened up that an attention economy could begin to fill, and that filling began, along with a number of other effects (such as the Great Depression, World War II, the arms race, etc.)

In the aftermath of WWII, in the US anyway, these further developments occurred:

1 More-or-less universal high-school education took place in larger and larger high schools; tertiary education, including large junior or community college campuses and enormous state university enrollments also burgeoned.

2 The popularity of phonograph records, network radio and TV, as well as paperback books, meant the whole society began to have a web of stars in common, which had not been possible to the same degree before.

3. New, so-called information technologies, added ever newer modes of attention paying and then attention seeking behavior. Proliferating office work, again more and more interconnected by a whole series of new technologies became a major site of attention seeking, paying and receiving.

Taken together these three developments meant that young people grew up in a world in which they had plenty of role models for attention getting: the stars of various media. They also had a built in situation (large high schools) in which they could be part of large audiences, or could seek to become stars in those very milieux, in all the different types of audience-related activities, from sports to school politics, to simple in-group popularity to extra-curricular activities like forming rock or rap groups, etc. As child labor had been outlawed, but child attention –getting activities had not been, there was an even greater impetus to move in those directions. Since then, the ever-new technologies for attention getting have greatly increased seeming opportunities for competing for attention, and as this heated up, the scarcity of attention only added more pressure. In a very preliminary guess I would also put forth that the Implicit Goal of Attention Economy is: to tightly intertwine everyone at the level of mind. But that involves individuals seeking, obtaining and/or paying attention. which is now what is most scarce and desirable. Because it takes some attention even to wish for new material goods, much less acquire, possess and use them, the growing scarcity of attention increases the pressure on the old economy. A growing percentage of the goods that are either bought or lusted after are sought strictly because of their presumed value in attention-getting.

While people who have attention can now draw money to themselves in a variety of ways, that is only because if you pay someone attention, you will automatically be interested in meeting their wants. At present it may be more convenient to express those wants, at times, in monetary terms, but as it gets easier to satisfy wants just through attention, it seems quite likely to me that money will not be seen as a necessity. (In fact, already, the vast majority of people who use the Internet mostly seek only attention and not money; thus the proliferation of blogs, MySpace, Flikr, YouTube videos, comments, statements to listservs, etc. ) Thus, the Attention Economy is a completely different kind of economy, post-industrial, post-market and post-money.

Will this new kind of economy come to dominate more completely, until the old one is pretty completely swallowed up and transformed by it? And if so, how soon? I think the answer is most probably yes, and within no more than a couple of generations, though unexpected developments of many sorts could obviously throw this prediction off. I will argue in future that it would be unwise not to take this prediction seriously, however.