May 252006

I didn’t know my paper was famous, so it is a great compliment for the attention-getting DeLong to say so. Here’s how he quotes me and comments:
DeLong: The Transformation from Feudalism to Capitalism to Attentionalism
The end of Goldhaber’s famous “attention economy” essay:
[what I wrote:]
The Attention Economy: The Natural Economy of the Net: At the end of the feudal period, the pomp and display of the nobility reached a level never before attained; the most gorgeous armor, the most magnificent tournaments of knights, the most elaborate ceremonies between rival nobles, the most brilliant marriages, the greatest interest in noble lineage. But by then it had lost all real function or importance. So today, when the stock market goes up and up, when money wealth itself seems a source of fame more than ever, when being number one on Forbes 400 list seems the height of perfection, when every basketball superstar wants a contract that is at least a million more than the last record one, we seem to be more dazzled by money than ever, just as we seem to be more intrigued by material goods than ever. But these interests are superficial and faddish. They are signs of decadence not of a glorious future for the money economy. Even in themselves they speak to the growing desire for attention, the need for it as well. Money is now little more numbers, one number among many, and as a source of lasting attention it can fade in an instant. The attention economy is already here, and more completely so every day…
[DeLong’s comment:]
Goldhaber misses, I think, one important thing. The feudal system was about command and control and fealty but also about money. Fealty to your lord was a two way street: you fought for him and he fed you and give you presents. It’s not the “money economy” that will be made obsolete by the “attention economy,” it’s a particular fraction of today’s money economy.
Posted by Brad DeLong on May 16, 2006 at 09:26 AM in Economic History, Economics, Economics: Growth, History, Internet, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)
It may be foolhardy to take issue with such a sure-footed and self-confident economist and economic historian as Brad DeLong. But I still think he is mistaken, if he is talking about pure feudalism.

The history is of course complex. Furthermore, feudalism remains controversial since it was carried on largely by illiterates, especially at its height. But the reason feudalism is called feudalism has to do with the awarding of feoffs (or feuds) rather than other sorts of wealth to knights in return for their loyalty and military and other services. Feoffs were estates that the knights had no right to alienate, say by selling — although a knight who had several feoffs could in turn assign some to other knights in return for their own fealty. On a feoff usually lived a number of peasant families who worked some of the land for their own and their families’ benefit and gave some of the proceeds to the knight in charge, while also performing some services for the knight, his family, and possibly for his knightly entourage, if any. At the height of pure feudalism, say in the eleventh century, this generally involved no exchange of money at all. Nor was it barter in the usual sense. Feudalism was an economy based on loyalty, fighting, and, a little later marriage and inheritance, with feoffs as the reward. Successful knights, over the years, managed to accumulate several or even many feoffs, and often to amalgamate them into larger holdings. Although money was in use before, during the height of the Roman Empire, for instance, and certainly after, for most purposes money was virtually non-existent in the part of Europe where feudalism existed most purely.

(As far as I can discern from the economic historical literature I have looked into, this has been obscured in part because most economic historians take it for granted that economic history is largely the history of prices and money. Where these cannot be found in the record, nothing, it seems can be said. Wherever these are found, they dominate the discourse undeservedly.)

This is all still oversimplification, of course, but I think it suggests several truths:

1. There are very different kinds of economies possible besides the one that now seems familiar, which is (or was?) based on money, markets and industrial production of standardized goods.

2. Thus, it is unwarranted to believe that the money economy or, indeed any economy based primarily on money is going to survive forever.

3. Feudalism eventually more or less succeeded in its implicit goal of providing security from Viking, “Saracen” and Magyar raiders, and later from the maraudings of different knights themselves. The more it succeeded, the more it left openings for different needs and a different kind of economy to emerge, in a largely internal evolution that eventually gave rise to the money, market, industrial system in which the economic profession grew up and has taken to be the norm.

4. Similarly, the money, market, industrial economy has met most material needs for a comfortable swath of the influential middle class in the advanced countries at least, and in this sense has certainly succeeded. That leaves openings for a new economy to evolve.

The attention economy in the sense I mean the term has a structure different from that of the money economy, as well as encouraging different and in some sense opposed systems of values. Therefore, it will be hard to participate in both economies for too long.

We are already in a period in which money mostly tracks attention, in that the more attention one gets, more or less, the more money one can get, and without attention one generally earns quite little money. If you just have money wealth, even a lot, but without having much attention, in whatever form the money is, you are in significant danger of losing it; without having enough attention, there is nothing you can do about that. On the other hand, if you have attention but no money, you can fairly easily get some of the latter.

Without going into further details, I will close with the thought that it is therefore plausible — if by no means certain — that the lure of money will fade quite substantially within a couple of generations. Traces of the money economy might indeed persist, but without generating the passions and the resultant responses that are commonplace today.

For more, see other articles on my website — now in the process of a large-scale update.

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