Oct 222007

As readers of this blog already know, I first came up with the phrase “Attention Economy” to describe the entirely new kind of economic system that I see as increasingly dominating our lives. It is an economy in the sense that it involves allocating of what is most scarce and precious in the present period, namely the attention that can come to each of us  from other human beings. As you also know, ever since Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck appropriated my term for their own, different purpose in their book with my title,  my usage has gotten lost in the more unreflective usage they proposed. They do not mean a new kind of economy, basically, but really refer still to the economy based on money, the market etc. This is utterly mistaken. More and more of the activity in which we engage involves paying, passing along, receiving or seeking attention. Even the money economy is ever more tightly an appendage to such efforts, and not anymore a free-standing economy in its own right. (Even D & B’s usage has been further down-graded to refer mostly to the collection of so-called “attention-data” via the Internet, for the purpose mostly, of advertising, a misusage that nonetheless led me to the investigations that will be forthcoming on this blog shortly. )

Overall, the book Davenport and Beck put together with my title has been very hard for me to read, though lately I have gone through it. As it happens, the very makeup of their book reveals they have barely a clue about attention, not to mention writing. (See my draft chapter on attention for a better understanding. An additional annoyance I feel is that book editors inanely tell me that there is already a book “on my subject,” namely D & B.)

The design (of D & B’s book )includes as many distractions as possible on every page, leading to hundreds of reasons to stop reading. Further, like most books with two or more authors, there is no single mind behind it with which the reader can hope to align. Rather, it reads as a middling sort of high-school textbook, put together by a committee and with no real goal other than making the publisher, and perhaps the authors, some money (though D & B are probably smart enough to realize that they want attention as well). As to the contents, the authors occasionally make quite astute comments,  but  their level of self-reflection is amazingly low, while the amount of nonsense they include is quite high.

The book has no overall point or even a consistent point of view.  Unlike even a better-quality high-school text, D & B’s  does not call upon the reader ever to think critically or reflectively or ever to have to struggle to get a key concept.  Any time a flaccid half-thought can be introduced, they put it in, as they bounce around nearly randomly from topic to topic. They never consider just why attention or its economics should be of particular importance now, partly because they seemingly have no concept of history or historical changes, of the kinds of changing motivations that arise at different times or even of the desirability of attention and why that should be.

D&B are both apparently psychologists, and there is of course  a huge but problematic psychological literature on the subject  of attention. (One reason it is problematic: psychologists, in doing experiments on how people or even animals pay attention rarely consider that the experimental subjects’ attention may mostly be focused on they themselves as experimenters. The subject, especially any human one, continually understands she should be doing what the experimenters ask, and that is the primary attention focus. )

D & B  introduce and misuse Abraham Maslow’s 1970’s “hierarchy of needs,” which, taken literally, is nonsense anyway,  just made up without any attempt to verify that needs actually occur in such a hierarchy, or in the order he proposed. It in fact conflicts with much that psychologists and ethologists (students of animal behavior) had already discovered when Maslow wrote.  According to Maslow, the need for food is more fundamental than the need for attention; this is a reductive falsehood. Virtually every mammalian infant has parental attention as at least as primary a need as food; anorexia is only one sign that attention-seeking can come even before physical survival. The historical fact that the Thing Epoch came before the Attention Epoch is a matter of historical and perhaps technical contingency, not biological fact. Of course, D & B don’t have nay particular point to make in introducing Maslow’s thought, other, perhaps, than to impress the gullible reader that they are saying something weighty.

At several points, D & B imply that attention may simply be bought for money, though in other places they make fairly clear that they do not themselves believe this foolishness. They do not ever seem to offer the simple truth that all that can be bought is some chance to get and hold attention, which then depends entirely on the abilities of the would-be attention-getter to connect with the audience; nor do they have a coherent theory as to how the latter might happen.

Perhaps I should not be surprised at D&B’s low-brow approach. Their book is after all intended to be read by business people. The average business person probably coasted through high school without being much interested in any complex thought that did not have to do with making money. The current occupant of the White House was in fact touted as the first President with an M.B.A. (from Harvard Business School, incidentally, the very same school whose Press published D&B).  By now almost everyone can see what a disaster that has been. Despite the aura surrounding this degree,  the number of best leaders in any field — including even business itself — who hold it as their actual  pinnacle of formal education is not high.

I would guess that most business people simply flip through D&B’s book, get the idea that, as they put it “paying attention to attention” is somehow important and probably leave it  at that.  Then, every time this reader notices the book, she gives a tiny bit of extra thought to attention, which is an example of how objects do focus attention. My next blog entry, in fact, will discuss just how material things — of all sorts, but especially  human-made ones — now have as their primary role just such attention focussing role. D&B’s book may not really be worth reading — if indeed it can be read — but it does serve as a model of how a certain part of the actual Attention Economy, while a mystery to them,  operates.

  2 Responses to “The Wrong Book”

  1. Dear Mr.Goldhaber, I have read your article on the attention economy and been following your blog for a while. It even changed the way I see things as I can think of how they impact on “attention”. I also read “the book” and didn’t find it to be so miserable as you imply in your post. Beyond the critic you do here and did in the past, you had a good article that could have turned into a book… that was 10 years ago and it never happened. So your post on this topic shouldn’t be titled “the wrong book” since there is no other!

    Although I have a lot of respect for your work, I don’t come to the same conclusion about other’s work. Please continue to share your opinion and enlighten us on what “you” think is the real “attention economy”.


  2. I agree with this criticism.

    I have had the following experience with D&B’s book: it is the ONLY book that makes me unsure about whether I have read a particular section or not.

    I don’t use bookmarks. I don’t always read liearly. Still, with any other book I have a good recollection of what the main topic was and where each idea is in the book. With D&G book, no matter how short the time between reading sessions, I have no clue.

    It’s almost like constructing a book by pasting together cafeteria discussions, in a way so disconnected that for all that matters, you could randomly rearrange the ideas within the book every time the reader closes it, and he wouldn’t even notice next time he opens it.

    This is quite a feat (if we were talking about a literary work).

    Disclaimer: I’m a psych Phd who has done research on attention, and have a bias towards computational modeling and formalisms.
    I write about it at http://academicproductivity.com

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