Jun 022014

Annika Janssen, a reporter for the German (print) Economics journal PVM (Portfolio Verlag) recently sent me some questions. Here they are with my answers:

-          The theory of attention economy was first mentioned in the late 1990s. To what extent is it still valid today?
-          And in which areas of life, society, politics, economy (…) can we still observe actions or phenomenons that can be related to the theory? Especially looking at the social networks and the WWW in general where people have to stand out of the masses to get attention.

Actually, I came up with the basic idea about 1983.

The Attention Economy idea is more valid now than ever, though of course my detailed predictions of its development were not exactly right.  Today people seek attention and stardom largely through the web or smartphone apps, ranging from self-published books, through YouTube videos, Instagram photos, Facebook postings, Twitter tweets, blogs, and many other similar forms. Many of these indicate audience size. Thus one can easily compare number of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, YouTube viewers, rank order of Amazon “bestsellers’ — up to the ten-millionth best or so. Since attention is magnified by the size of the existing audience, this is an important  (and much noticed) feature.
At the same time, older paths of attention-seeking still certainly exist: regular publication, becoming a star chef, a sports star, writing  for or acting in TV (broadcast or cable) series or theatrical movies,  poetry slams  and on and on. The audience is becoming ever-more global.
A larger-than-ever fraction of many or most people’s time is spent in paying or seeking attention though all these means and more. Altogether, the competition for attention is more intense than ever. Attention to the competition itself is also growing, as witnessed by various kinds of “reality Television” for instance competitions for top chef, fashion designer, model, and many others.
-          Why has the attention economy never really found a place in the “mainstream science” (or is this just an impression?)? Has it become obsolete or does it have to be revised or perceived in a different way today?

I think you are right that the basic view of a new kind of economic system has never gone mainstream.

In part, I think that is due to my own failures as an advocate for the idea.
In part it also has to do with a set of attempts to expropriate the notion without really understanding it by certain authors, who took it to be a much simpler thing. Basically, ignoring my own writings, they misleadingly claimed the central idea came from the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon. He wrote at one point in the 1970′s that the spread of information comes up against people’s limited ability to pay attention. While certainly true, Simon’s observation entirely missed the crucial point that receiving attention is both necessary for everyone and, for many, highly desirable. Need and desirability turn the attention economy into an entire system, rather than just having attention economics being only a minor aspect of standard market economics. Attention Economics is interpreted to mean a focus on advertising and publicity, not something fundamental.  (It is now widely understood that many persons try to establish their own “brand” as if it makes sense to incorporate personal aspirations into a form of market-based effort, rather than seeing the effort to gain attention for oneself as the underlying driving force it is.)
(Incidentally, especially in the US, business leaders and others see many such endeavors as vehicles for personal stardom. Being the richest billionaire, or on the Forbes 400 list, or the top earner in a hedge fund or on Wall Street, or in some ranking analogous to that drives many business decisions. Even within corporations, the outlook and voice of the top leader gains in importance, as ordinary employees take on the role of fans, as do consumers of products, and investors as well. Thus the old economy effectively submerges itself in the new.)
Further, unfortunately, most people, including the vast majority of economists and the huge business press, understand the terms “economics ” and “economy’ much too narrowly. For instance, they project standard money-and-market-based  economic ideas backwards to the feudal system, whose nature they thus systematically misinterpret. One reason is that they view economics as a science, virtually a natural science, forgetting or not realizing that economies are human constructs based on  cultural conventions that can change. Economists even within the profession seem to be very divided along ideological lines between Keynesians and reductive Friedmanites or Hayekians, so to extend their outlook beyond those relatively small differences apparently would take unusual flexibility of thought. in this they are like most scientists in any field, who are normally reluctant to consider challenges to basic assumptions, often for good reason.
More broadly, despite the fact that we are so much immersed already in the attention economy, most of us still continue taking money and material goods as primary and often try to act accordingly. The attention economy isn’t very egalitarian, so those without money, say to pay rent, aren’t easily in position to get enough attention to have others pay it for them. Some do try this, of course, and some  use means such as Change.org (in the US (I don’t know a European or German equivalent) to build up support for themselves.
This last point suggests why even the left has not particularly adopted the Attention Economy analysis. They still hope that raw capitalism can be replaced by a more humane socialism. Emotionally, I agree, but I don’t think it is likely to happen, and I don’t see how it would function. I think we are moving towards an Attention Economy, and we better understand this if we are to ameliorate its negative aspects.