Jun 272007

It probably does no good at this late stage, but let me cry foul one more time. I coined the term “Attention Economy” twenty years ago to refer to a completely new kind of economic system — one not based on material goods nor money but rather on the passing around of what is both unavoidably scarce and desirable in unlimited amounts, namely  ….TA DAA... the attention that can come only from other human beings. Not a version of the money economy, but something completely different, even though, in the transition, money and attention can be interwoven to some degree.

Then Thomas Davenport and John Beck pilfered my term for the title of their 2002 book. Ever since many people have been referring to the “Attention Economy” in a much more limited and less important sense. A major part of that is the notion that by learning where you pay attention, advertisers can do better at getting your attention so as to induce you to buy more schlock…er…stuff.

A related notion is that if you have some “awesome” software or Internet application that somehow garners attention, you can “monetize” this by selling focused ads. A large number of people developing new Internet applications or sites see this ad model as their means to obtain riches.

That indeed may be possible right now, as the success of Google certainly shows, but it does raise a question or two. How many goods or even services can be advertised successfully? How does money flow from the purchasers of goods and services to the people who allow their site to be used for ads? Are not the advertisers and the products they represent in large measure just conduits for money that could flow directly to the attention getters anyway?

Suppose it were to turn out that ninety percent of a company’s revenues go to pay for ads, that is go to the creators of the ads and the sites on which the ads show up, wouldn’t it begin to seem a little odd to think of what is happening as “advertising revenue”? Isn’t the reality what I have otherwise described as money tracking attention — i.e. , following in the same direction as the way attention flows?

The basketball star LeBron James entered into a ninety–million dollar advertising contract with Nike. In order for Nike to make money on this, James will need a lot of fans who pay him enough attention to want to wear the footwear that indicates this attentiveness. (Having someone’s attention, as I have written before, increases the likelihood that they will want what you want, in this case to buy the shoes in whose ads you appear and that are probably named after you.) If instead they just put James’s picture up on their own websites or MySpace pages and sent him ten dollars for the rights to do this, they would save a lot of money, and (or but) would have fewer pairs of shoes in their closets. How many shoes are too many?

At what point does the attention going to the shoes compete with attention that might go to Mr. James or some other basketball player, or some other would-be attention getter including even a would-be software designer or entrepreneur? Will not a time come, relatively soon when the advertising model breaks down for lack of sufficient desire to end up with ever more products? ‘Won’t this time be hastened by the fact products do require attention, attention that otherwise might go more directly to people? Does the fact that buying goods and services and making any use of them generally requires some attention take away from the attention that might otherwise go to you or whatever you are saying, have invented, or otherwise want to point to?


One possible response to the above is that people (or at least most Americans) love to shop. It is well known that Christmas shopping has a huge effect on the bottom line not only of retailers but of many of the companies that supply the goods that are bought. I have recently become aware that additional gift-buying is also way up: when someone is about to have a baby, for instance, she is now likely to be feted at multiple showers, at each of which the main activity is opening and ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the presents. The donors, through this, receive attention, perhaps, insincere, but maybe the best they can get. And of course, if you go to a store, rather than shopping over the Internet, you may well hope to get some attention from the sales people and other customers for your full basket or your taste.

A large share of presents are not really what the recipient wants. Even when there are gift registries, as for weddings, the wish lists may be put together more out of a sense of obligation than real desire. The result? Much that keeps the old economy humming are objects that acquire their value strictly as signs of attention received as well as reminders — not always positive ones — of the givers. Likewise, of course, many more objects are bought, like the Nike shoes that are endorsed by LeBron James, as much to get some reflected attention as for any utility in the object itself.

In all those cases, I suspect, shopping, and paying attention to ads too, is a substitute for more intensely personal forms of attention. As we get more and more networked, it is likely that less material ways to get attention will compete with greater success with both the shopping paradigm and the ad paradigm. The result will be companies will, out of desperation, spend more and more on ads, that will appear in every possible venue ….until the whole process finally gets short circuited.

Jun 252007

Recently, I happened on an obituary in the NY Times for Rudolph Arnheim, who died at 102. It turned out he had done interesting work on the psychology of visual thinking and visual attention. Since, I have been reading some of his essays. One point he makes [New Essays in the Psychology of Art, p. 78] is that when we are fully absorbed in something, we do not notice time passing. If you are particularly engrossed by some text, it may take you less time to read, not more. Only when we are bored do we normally notice time.

This is very relevant to many attempts to equate time and attention. As I have argued before, there is no clear relationship. But boredom, in my view, is usually the attempted theft of attention: We are bored because someone else tries to determine what we can pay attention to, with no easy escape, except into our own minds or imagination, or looking at a clock impatiently.

If you want someone to pay attention to you, and they don’t, or they keep you waiting, you can also feel bored. To get the attention you want, you have no obvious choice but to pay attention to the other person, even if only in the form of waiting. That is a common predicament for small children, who have limited ability to move or choose ways to pay attention on their own. It is also the experience in waiting rooms.

Boredom by attention theft is also whenever you are keenly interested in some TV or radio program but are forced to listen to ads or announcements that interrupt. Spam is similar. Even something you want to pay attention to, like a novelist’s creation, can have boring passages that you might be afraid to skip over lest they contain something that you will want to pay attention to.

When someone asks for a certain amount of your time, and you agree, you may feel forced at least to pretend to pay attention. If the person has specific power over you, you may be obliged even more strongly to do this. They are forcibly stealing your attention, unless you find what they say or do makes you want to keep attending.

Of course, “attending to someone” often means doing their bidding, waiting on them. Who wants to be an attendant? It’s great only when you feel enthralled by the person you are attending, perhaps by love, perhaps because she is a star you want to be connected with; in paying her attention, you have come to want to see that her desires are satisfied. If you feel you can achieve that, then might eliminate any boredom. Or maybe, at times, you are bored then too, but accept it on the grounds that you will get some attention from her audience and fans just because of your closeness to her.

In world in which the competition for attention is ever-more intense, attention thievery, that is, forced boredom, can only rise. It is only when you don’t stay attentive that time duration matters.

A final note: there are other instances when we are concerned with the passage of time when attention is at stake. When you want to pay attention to something that starts at, say, two o’clock, you may have to pay keen attention to clock time. This takes you away from attention to whatever else might occupy you at the moment. If you have to rush, and that takes focus, then much of your attention is already on what will occur at two. You are already in the future, in effect.

Techniques to escape this time constraint are often highly valued. With the Internet and recorded sounds, videos and movies, we have removed much of the necessity. Still , live events have a special value, often. We want to see the star in person, we want to hear and see a live performance, we want to experience an event as it actually takes place. That gives us either a special chance to be directly noticed by a star or an opportunity to get attention later ourselves, for being there in the moment it happened. Even watching sports on TV is more momentous when it is live as we watch. So we cannot sever time beyond our control entirely from when we pay attention.

Jun 092007

In the past three or four years, the Internet has become vastly important for politics. Bloggers like “Daily Kos” help determine how “the grass-roots” will respond to  actions by Congress or the President. Move-On members send petitions on this and that, quite frequently. Listservs pass around messages to “Call your Congressperson;” specific candidates’ campaigns build support and receive contributions and obtain volunteers through vast numbers of e-mails they send out. And so on. Similar things happen at more local levels.

However, once elected, politicians rarely respond to all this online activity except by occasionally changing their votes. The public takes for granted that actual policies and actual compromises will be worked out, whether in public or behind the scenes, in Washington, DC, state capitals, county seats, or city halls. Politicians, usually elected on the basis of very local records, find themselves swamped with policy decisions involving myriad details about countless areas in which they do not know much. They turn to the “experts,” who are sometimes government workers, sometimes Congressional staffers, or, very often, paid lobbyists. Occasionally groups from think tanks or academia help formulate bills. But not the general public.

Opinions are spread on the Internet, but policy, so far, is not formulated. It does not have to be that way. In fact, if we are to have democracy, it can no longer remain that way.

Just as there is open-source software, we need, even more vitally, open-source policy. How would this work? Well, the details may have to await the development of special software, but the broad outlines are evident. Take an issue like getting out of Iraq. Should we? Should we not? The very question is being fought basically in sound bites. Even deeply concerned and interested members of the public have no forum to thrash out alternatives, much less to go into details as to how withdrawal might occur, what the possible outcomes might be, how to deal in advance with difficulties, how to move foreign policy on a new path. Too many of us are too willing to leave these questions to the “experts,” who for the most part have particular axes to grind, or are part of militarist mindset that gets no real challenge within the standard confines of the punditocracy.

Imagine a thousand — or twenty thousand — grand-jury like setups, except operating not in confinement but thorough Internet groups, gathering evidence, examining witnesses, looking at historic examples, trying to reason out what is new, dividing up the issues into sizes not too large for twenty or thirty people to master, trying to work out compromises between different viewpoints, trying to develop a consensus, that, like good software,  is quite resilient to criticism since it will have taken into account many perspectives already.

Would this attempt just lead to the kind of gridlock we are so used to  around important issues in Washington and elsewhere? I think not. Too much of that gridlock is caused by politicians always having to please not only their constituents but those who offer camping funds. That would not be a problem if, say, a million people got involved in devising a strategy to extricate us from Iraq, or if another million were where to come up with a sane policy on global warming, or another million on immigration, yet another million on health care, and so on. None of these people would have to worry about getting re-elected or (in the case of term limits) moving on to some other positioning the public eye.   Once their solutions come before the wide public, and have any remaining rough edges smoothed, they should prove very strong and durable. Much better than a process of a few hundred representatives deciding so many issues for a  nation of a third of a billion, more or less. It would be very hard for Congress or the President to evade the compelling policies so proposed, and so well backed.

Remember, the public took less time to change its mind on Iraq than the politicians did. That says something not about the individuals in Washington, but about the rottenness of the current political process itself. It does not work very well because politicians are always watching their backs, always to some degree for sale, always more interested in looking good than being good. That is what the current system practically assures.

Some new stars might arise in the process I propose, but they would be stars, first of all, to the well-informed  (though all that work) groups who might become their fans. Thye would be good spokespeople for a worthy position.

As I said, I don’t know in detail yet how to put together a system that would make this feasible, but I think we need to move towards it, starting now. Will we get there? There are no guarantees, but what do we have to lose?

Jun 072007

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times , “A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?” novelist Mark Helprin proposed stretching the already incredibly long period of copyright (the life of the author plus seventy years) to…well….always. Now Google is again facing opposition from publishers for scanning in books in university libraries. In the unlikely event that anyone would honor copyright in another few decades, authors would be still be most foolish to insist on ever-longer times. The current restrictions will work against most living authors’ getting attention for their works, while also not enriching the descendents of more than a tiny handful.

Helprin’s argument is nonsense: that anyone who makes anything should own it forever. In theory, at least, books, recordings, movies and pictures, if digitized could last forever or at least a long time, in fact far longer than actual material things might. If you build a house and leave it to your children, etc., they must keep paying property taxes on it, worry about upkeep, and so on. If you build a business, it will need considerable care and investment to survive, and even then it is very iffy, especially as we move to a new kind of economy.

Of course, there are few books even a century old that very many people would want to read. The best hope for any author to continue to be read is almost certainly that the obstacles to reproducing the work get lower and lower. Helprin’s books have a bit of sex in them; what happens if the inheriting great-grandniece, or whoever, turns out to be very prudish, bored by literature, reclusive or just has no interest in worrying about this obscure great uncle? It would be poetic justice, I suppose, in his case, if his work disappeared from all memory as a result, but except for that, the best hope any author or artist to stay alive is that her work be discovered by someone, not usually a relative, who happens to be falls in love with it enough so that she wants others to read it.

Further of course, if copyright were forever, current publishers would insist on obtaining rights in perpetuity. Suppose a book is slightly anti-war, and that a weapons conglomerate decides to diversify by buying up its publisher. With perpetual copyright, the book is then dead. (Of course, maybe Google will simply buy the rights to all books; it could probably afford to buy up most publishers right now.)

But the real rights people should want to hold onto is the right to be credited with the work, rather than having one’s efforts plagiarized. Attention is the thing, much more durable than money.

Jun 022007

“There is no such thing as bad publicity.” Does this hold? What does it have to do with attention. How does it relate to being an object rather than a subject?

Starting out in life, as an infant, everyone absolutely requires attention, and almost all infants show signs of wanting it. If, later in life, some people prefer to be absolutely ignored, that can usually be taken as a sign of severe mental illness, possibly resulting from trauma such as repeated humiliation, beatings, or other abuse, and so on. Indeed, very few want to be laughed at, insulted, spat upon, bullied, manhandled, imprisoned, enslaved, raped, tortured, murdered, eaten (whether by cannibals or wild animals) or otherwise injured either in self-image or body.

Given a choice, people clearly would want their wants to be fulfilled, which is one main reason to want attention. One wants attention as a thinking, autonomous subject, and not as simply some kind of physical object, to be used or abused by others.

Yet being ignored can often seem worse than being laughed at or derided, or mildly punished. A schoolteacher might be the first punisher, who, by these very acts becomes an oppressor against whom resistance can perhaps be construed by some onlookers or fellow sufferers as heroic. From there, it is only a matter of degree to accepting or even reveling in even worse treatment (say, by the “authorities”) . Being locked up in jail can seem a form of proof of worth that should garner attention and respect. So can many other ways of turning oneself into what some would deride or disdain, whether by joining something like the “Goth” subculture, appearing as a slut or a drug dealer, or even going down in a gun battle with police “in a blaze  of (hoped for) glory. Or maybe just pretending to some of that.

Of course, as in more positive forms of attention seeking, one has to stand out to get any substantial notice. Mass murderers, serial killers and the like, daring daylight bank robbers, daredevils of all sorts have to perform more strikingly than the previous case to get much press   or appear on the nightly news.

An exception is for someone who is already a star. The movie star Lindsay Lohan, just 20, recently was cited for drunk driving, having crashed her Mercedes. Excess drinking  is of course not a very unusual event among her age group, despite the fact that age 20 she is too young to do this legally. As is by now the time-honored custom in Hollywood, she quickly enrolled in some live-in rehabilitation program.

Meanwhile People and similar magazines, websites, and blogs clucked away. Were Lohan unknown, such clucking would get little attention, but given that she does get attention, simply by acting superior to her, the gossips themselves can win attention from anyone who is capable of schadenfreude — the enjoyment of a fall from grace by someone else. Even Lindsay’s fans will want to know all the details, whether they feel protective or like disappointed parents. Most of her fans, I suspect, will think little of it however, and might even enjoy her ability to act like a normal, vulnerable young woman. When she comes out of rehabilitation, she can add, as it were, a small additional starring role —overcoming adversity — just like numerous stars before her. She has revealed her humanity and yet been able to rise again, turned into a momentary object and then once again risen to the status of self-acting subject, once akin in control and thus admirable.

One act of public drunkenness and then redemption, of course, does little, even for a star, though it probably helps more than it hurts. It would also work, perhaps better still, to go through more self-abasement, more drunkenness, multiple degradations and then, some kind of rise. She could the come put with a memoir or confession of that horrible time, so that anyone who feels less than wonderful about themselves will be able to align with this. If one has indeed fallen deep enough and then finds some way to tell the world, that alone might propel one to stardom.

Let me add that in discussing these various instances of bad behavior I am merely trying to understand how they work. I certainly do not endorse them, nor do I think that anyone is better off for such sliding into the depths. But given that attention is intrinsically limited, we must face the fact that inevitably some who feel left out, or who blunder into these things, such as Lohan, presumably, will take what advantage of them they can. Had we a press, along with reporters and bloggers, that did not attempt to gain attention through other people’s bad acts (even terrorism) this would not be a path to attention for the perpetrators either.