Jan 232013

Bitsy Knox’s interviewIn conversation with Michael Goldhaber: Everything you need to know about the Attention Economy is an edited version of what follows: 

-How would you define now the Attention Economy now as opposed to when you first spoke about it in 1997, given its current multiple interpretations and recent mainstream popularization?

Let me put this in context. I actually came up with the Attention Economy idea in 1983 or 84 —nearly thirty years ago. At that point personal computers were very new, as were fax machines and (non-broadcast) cable TV channels. Music CDs were just coming in. E-mail was in its infancy. Yet the talk of an “information revolution” was widespread and the concept of “information overload” was easily understood. I asked myself what motivated the  rapid increase in information, given that there already seemed to be too much of it.  After all, most goods are not produced in increasing amounts except when there is a clamor for more of them, not a feeling of surfeit.  My key insight was that the real goal had to be what one might hope to get by spewing out new information, and that is attention — attention from other people. The world supply of such attention is limited, since each human can only pay so much attention in the course of a lifetime. Yet attention is obviously desirable; everyone needs at least some, and unlike material goods, no amount of attention is clearly too much to get. So existing as well as future “information technologies” are better understood as  “attention technologies” that each promising  a particular way to go after attention.

It took me awhile to figure out some of  the consequences of the idea and even longer to be able to explain it, as I did in ’97.  By then personal computers had become nearly ubiquitous among those who could afford them. They were also much more powerful and flexible than the ones of the early ’80’s, and sported graphical user interfaces and mice, rather than the plain keyboard driven, typewriter text-based screens of the earlier era. The World Wide Web was a reality, as were browsers, pdfs , etc. Blogs, photo sites and even uploaded videos were part of the new reality. Widespread cell-phone usage was beginning. And so on. I wasn’t surprised by any of this, having expected the general trends, though of course not the technical details.

Another fifteen or so years later, in 2013, smartphones, mobile computing, YouTube, Facebook, twitter, texting, sexting, Skyping, easy e-book publishing and so on are possible avenues for attention seeking and paying, and they have spread to more of the world. We live more in the Attention Economy than ever.

Let me introduce another concept I came up with in the 80’s. It has to do withe difference between ordinary actions, which can be termed ‘bounded actions,” and what can be termed “unbounded actions.” Everything from taking a breath, to cooking a meal to building a house or producing a car on an assembly line is a bounded action. Its effects are limited.  You get one lungful of air, enough food to satisfy a few people’s hunger for part of a day, one single car that will eventually wear out, a house that a few people can live in.  Bounded actions generally have to be repeated over and over. Through most of human prehistory that’s  basically all there was. And then came alphabetic writing. What is written is in a kind of code that even someone who doesn’t understand what’s being said can copy and pass on. Thus Aristotle, say,  only had to write his ideas down once for many of them to survive more than two millennia up to the present day and to be available to people all over the world.

Recently the field of these unbounded actions that need only be done once to be available everywhere and for all time has exploded. Now we have the ability to produce pictures, videos, and sounds as well as written words digital form so that they can be copied without change and spread everywhere virtually instantaneously. This is ideal for seeking attention. It is less than ideal  for the old economy where most people made their living through bounded actions. One such action has particular relevance: the actual production of money itself whether in the form of an IOU, a coin, a check, or a ten-dollar bill. Bills and coins of each denomination do tend to look alike of course, but the individuality of each, whether through a unique serial number or simply by the space it took up was essential for  a monetary system to work. But now money is very close to becoming unbounded, just digital electronic blips. It can be argued that many in the higher reaches of all Street have taken advantage of that to make apparent fortunes, but unbounded money would have no meaning, a further sign that we are headed for quite a new kind of economy,

A few years ago I developed an admittedly impressionistic index , which I call TPI, by which to gauge the relative intensity and strength of different types of economy,. Compared with the value of the index for the old economy based on money and industrially produced material goods, the Attention Economy’s TPI is far, far larger. You can observe the effects almost everywhere. People supposedly having meals together are glued to their smartphones rather than paying attention to each other. Multitasking is a means by which people try , usually not so successfully, to multiply the amount of attention they can pay in the hope of getting back still more. People retweet or share on Facebook what just appeared in their own news feeds as a crude tool to multiply the attenetino that goes to themselves. And so on….

Despite the relative sizes of the TPI index, despite the fact that most people are in reality deeply immersed in the Attention Economy, when the issue of “the economy comes up most of us think in terms of the older one. Why? One reason is simply that the economics profession only knows how to measure the old type, in numerous statistics that are broadcast every day. Perhaps a more fundamental reason is that most people have a sense that certain kinds of activities are “economic” and others aren’t.  Yet another reason is that there are obvious ways in which many expect that government can impact the old economy, but not such obvious ways to impact the new. Thus, political fights are focussed around the money economy, not the Attention Economy.

For all those reasons, it’s clear why the Attention Economy idea keeps getting misinterpreted as simply a way of characterizing nothing more than a particular phase or aspect of the money economy, as if nothing else were possible. One point that gets lost is that it’s individuals primarily, who desire the attention of others, not corporations or even governments as such, and it’s individuals who primarily benefit from it.

Some of the different understanding of the Attention Economy grew specifically from the appropriation of the term by Davenport and Beck in their 2001 book of that title (a title they incidentally admit they got from a website of mine). Loosely, they see the new economy more as either an advertising gambit or simply an issue of the problem of focussing one’s personal attention, rather than emphasizing the eagerness with which attention is sought. As is perhaps inevitable, the concept has been further simplified by some since then. Just yesterday, I saw someone equate the whole notion to “sellers seeking buyers” which has virtually nothing in common with my approach.

From my standpoint, much of the current use  of the term Attention Economy not only misses what is really going on, but actually makes that reality harder to notice. Still, I doubt these misunderstandings will remain cogent too much longer. As more and more of us come to depend on various aspects and tools of the web to seek the attention we consciously or unconsciously want, the increasing failure of the advertising model to to provide the backing for key tools (such as Facebook) will force at least many us to confront the new circumstances more accurately and meaningfully.

Scattered examples already show more clarity. For instance, the comedian LouisCK was able to sidestep the usual means by which standup comedians benefit from their audiences via the producers, agents, ticket agencies  and TV channels who usually take their large cut. He simply asked his audience directly to pay him a relatively modest amount each to view his Internet show.

A final thought: A slight difference in emphasis from what I originally described is that with more and more accessible media by which to seek attention such as the ease of youtube or even book self-publishing, obtaining twitter followers,  repeat commenters on NY Times blogs, Amazon or Yelp reviewers, etc., we have more  what might be called micro-stars. This makes the Attention Economy a little less unequal than I thought it would be, but it by no means gives everyone the same star status.

-EyeQuant’s co-found Fabian Stelzer recently noted in a lecture at Forum Oxford that ironically, while information is growing exponentially and attention spans are decreasing rapidly, our screen sizes are also reducing in size. The rise of mobile technology has drastically changed the organization of information and the direction of attention in the last few years, and I would love to read your insight into this. 

A tiny screen held close occupies the same or more of the angular portion of space than a big screen farther away. But we interact more intimately and sensually with a smartphone that we can  — and indeed must — physically caress with our hands and voice  than we could a TV or Movie screen or a computer monitor. This gives a greater feeling of receiving as well as paying attention. (It also helps explain the naturalness of sexting as a means of seeking attention.)


In earlier work I put forth the notion of “illusory attention” — the attention you can unconsciously feel you are obtaining from say a TV announcer or book author who cannot really be aware of your existence. That effect is heightened, I think, with the intimacy of a smartphone or touch-sensitive tablet. The fact that the very same device one can use to carry on a conversation with an actual friend or loved one also is used to pay attention to some major or minor star enhances that intimacy effect. Illusory attention makes unequal exchanges of attention feel more equal to the fan who is paying out more attention than he or she receives. The coming of the smartphone enlarges this misplaced sense of fairness.

-Dominic Basulto wrote an article for BigThink in August of last year positing that the Location Economy is the ‘new’ Attention Economy. I am personally wary of these kinds of “…is the new black” arguments, but am curious about what you think about this idea. When we reach the apex of one age or epoch, must it die and be usurped by something else? Furthermore, how can we think of the rise in location and proximity in Internet applications as a part of, or an evolution from the Attention Economy? 

“Hello. I am at x (or The Plaza, or Joe’s Pizzeria) Since I’m here this is now the center of the universe. If you can get here in time, come and adore me, and maybe I’ll deign to look upon you.” OR “Please, please. I’m at x and no one is paying any attention to me. Please come and save me from this perdition, andI’ll pay attention to you too, and I promise you we’ll have fun or go in deep. Just trust me.” I think these are the extreme meanings of location software indications. They merely connect cyberspace to more ordinary space, but they barely change the nature of what is scarce and desirable. So not an economy, as far as I can see, just an added fillip for existing ones, and especially of the Attention Economy.

In the 19th century newspapers would report who had arrived (especially in first class) on the latest ship to dock or even who had arrived by train. Far more people move around now, but tools of location and proximity only have relevance on the whole for small groups of fans of minor stars, etc.

The larger question about reaching the apex of one economy and then seeing it die and be replaced by another does seem right — at some timescale, and if there is a new one to replace it. But despite the fact that in many ways the pace of change is increasing, economies cannot give way to new ones too fast, since they are based on human reactions, customs,  understandings and experiences, and these cannot become radically different in a time short compared with the turnover of human generations, if then. For a new economy to come about the old one not only has to have gotten as far as it can, but a new form of scarcity and desirability has to come to the fore. I don’t know what that might be and I expect the Attention Economy is as yet quite far from its likely apex.

- When you were formulating your primary hypothesis for the Attention Economy in the early 80′s, whose research were you taking into account? Herbert A. Simon is another thinker/scientist who is frequently credited with speaking about a crisis of attention in the late 1960′s, and I wonder if he had any influence on you

For some time, I  had been interested in the question of a so-called information economy, a term which I myself tried hard to expound on and for that was using Marc Uri Porat’s research in particular. More generally, I was seeking to understand what a Post-Industrial economy really would be, and read many articles and books on the subject including the work of Daniel Bell. But I was unsatisfied with the answers usually provided in both cases. They didn’t really explain what motivated the kinds of activity observed. (The post-industrial economy was often taken to mean an economy centered around “services.” But what are services? Both starring in an opera and handing over hamburgers at Macdonald’s are considered forms of service, but they have little in common except that neither is exactly factory work.)

In that period I was vaguely familiar with some of  Herbert Simon’s work, but didn’t consider his focus on efficient organization and administration to be very revealing, nor very interesting. Until many years later, I never saw what he wrote that is now so widely quoted in this context:


“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” (Simon, H. A. (1971), “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World”, in Martin Greenberger, Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, ISBN 0-8018-1135-X, pp. 40–41).

Note that Simon’s formulation fails to consider the receipt of attention (from others) as in any way a motivating factor in the production of information. For him economy of attention is only at issue for the person or organization who seeks to make wise use of information. I think that this a) doesn’t suggest a wider economy at all, and b) misses what I consider the most important point, the great desirability for many people of getting attention from others, as well as the necessity of doing so, in some amount, for almost all. (By the way, it’s crucial to recall that information in this context can mean any kind of transmission, be it  a picture, a song, a porn video or anything else, including, but by no means limited to numerical data of some kind. )

This brings us to your next question:

You say that “One point that gets lost is that it’s individuals who desire the attention of others, not corporations or even governments as such, and it’s individuals who primarily benefit from it.” I’m not sure I agree. I would argue that businesses are extremely savvy to the notion of the Attention Economy (both seeking and directing it), and it has become a key aspect of marketing and advertising, even if it strays from your original concept. Would you agree with this, and if so, what would be the positive benefits of businesses understanding how to direct attention?

Let me phrase my main assertion as to this a little differently. For individual people, attention can be an end in itself; it can feel utterly wonderful, for instance, to have an audience in the palm of one’s hand. Most children are aware of this and relish it.  So do many adults. Businesses pay a lot of money for attention, as I’ll discuss in a moment, but only a small part of our total attention goes to them or even their products. For corporations and governments attention is at most a means to an end, and usually a quite indirect one. The primary goal of most businesses is to make money, and to accomplish that they they seek to sell something or other. In order to do that, they may make deliberate efforts to get some portion of the public interested in buying. It is only in order to do the latter that they seek attention, in the form of publicity, advertising or perhaps shelf space.

Of course, long before the idea of the attention economy arose, advertisers, marketers and publicists realized that they needed to get the word out where the ads , etc., had any chance to get some attention, which was often in close proximity to newspaper or magazine articles, or to radio or TV shows, which got the brunt of attention. The vast majority of attention still goes to the  surrounds of ads, which represent the creativity of writers, bloggers, photographers, film directors and actors, etc., who still get most of the attention. A small percentage of that goes not to businesses as  such but to what is being sold. Even so, ads have to proceed quite indirectly in terms of where the attention actually goes. They require their own elaborate  mini-dramas or other devices so that they don’t get tuned out before the product gets a mention; even so, they mostly do get tuned out. By the same token, part of the convenience of going to the likes of Starbucks is that you don’t have to pay attention to the business since you already know what to expect. When you look at Facebook, you’re not paying attention to Facebook, but to your friends on it, etc. When you do have to pay attention to some new aspect of Facebook, it is often disorienting and annoying, and this is true of most corporate offerings. You don’t pay attention to YouTube (or its owner Google) , Tivo or HBO (or its owner Time-Warner as such but to your particular choice of the programs on them.  So businesses principally support the creative endeavors of others who really get the attention, not themselves.

Even within businesses, there is competition for attention from individuals in various ranks, teams, sections, divisions, etc. Some  — but only some — of that competition can aid the growth of a particular business by increasing its effectiveness in some way. With the advent of the Internet, competition between businesses at different places had intensified, but this means it is more difficult than ever for a corporation to constrain the attention of its employees to the firm’s best interests rather than to whatever catches their attention or their attempts to gain outside attention for themselves.

With regards to your answer about the location economy, you said, “They merely connect cyberspace to more ordinary space, but they barely change the nature of what is scarce and desirable.”, which is an interesting statement, but I think also neglects the flip-side, that being: marketers and advertisers are using location apps as a way to track consumer tendencies. The use of ‘location’ is also a brilliant word-of-mouth advertising campaign – which is completely free. What is scarce is the ability to be physically close to someone, which seems to be an aspect of what the ‘location economy’ wants to simulate. Could we thus think of the ‘location economy’ as an arm of the ‘attention economy’, as it suggests that the scarcity of physical proximity (or just the feeling of it) is valuable, and is what drives marketers and advetisers to ask people for their location all the time?

You suggest that the “location economy… wants to simulate physical closeness,” but I don’t understand this. A vocalist huskily singing intimate words would simulate physical closeness far better than some app would, and in fact the great appeal of the Internet itself is largely that everyone seems nearby. The advantage of an actual city or a creative neighborhood such as Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is that one can get actual and direct and physical  attention from the people who live there, but  what’s new in that?

Businesses have long had a pretty good idea of where consumers in the aggregate are.  Following consumers one by one is indeed new, and it may be of some value, but I ‘m skeptical that location or other information collected on individual consumers is worth anywhere near what some claim.  In attention terms, for an advertiser to convey some knowledge of a person’s taste will convey a hint of having paid attention directly to that person, but not necessarily a very convincing hint. We are much more than the sum of our consumer preferences, including  favored locations.

The fact is that most advertisements don’t work on most people most of the time. Advertisers are always desperate to get around that or at least outdo the pretty low average, but that desperation doesn’t mean that what they come up with actually works very well or for very long.

I simply don’t think there’s a location economy in any valid sense.

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