The Poverty Of Attention

As a Nobel prize-winning economist puts it, “What Information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” This technologically-driven ADD is transforming politics, entertainment, sports and culture. There is only so much attention to go around, and we are being bombarded with more information all the time. Most of us have no idea how to allocate our attention widely or productively. Those who can help us will be rich.

As a Nobel prize-winning economist puts it, “What Information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” This technologically-driven ADD is transforming politics, entertainment, sports and culture. There is only so much attention to go around, and we are being bombarded with more information all the time. Most of us have no idea how to allocate our attention widely or productively. Those who can help us will be rich.

There are thousands of working actors, but most of us only have the mental means and technological devices to pay attention to a handful — names like Cruise, Roberts, Affleck. There are plenty of athletes, but only a dozen or so — Shaq, A-Rod, Tiger — are familiar to the public beyond sports fans. The same is true of software or computer games like Quake and Tomb Raider. And in politics, attention consciousness or lack thereof is upending civics. Only a few leading candidates get widespread attention or are considered electable.

And of all the technology companies vying for their dollars, most Americans can only name Microsoft, AOL or IBM.

In the U.S. and other wired countries especially, this reflects a cultural and civic attention deficit. Attention Consciousness is the growing realization that the new economy depends as much on gathering attention as it does on selling particular services, because if the first isn’t done, the second becomes irrelevant.

This largely Net-generated change is as important as it is ironic.
The poverty of attention is changing society, and is often misundertood. Younger people in particular are often derided as apathetic or ignorant, but the brutal truth is that their new information lives are much more interesting than the old civic and entertainment options.

Social and political activists complain they can’t get the media or citizens to pay attention to political issues. This seems indisputably true, but they might do better to learn about Attention Consciousness than to lament widespread apathy. There’s a growing mismatch of supply and demand that has already led to a constantly-worsening attention deficit. Most people have no way of processing vast amounts of information effectively; most of us are already confused about how to allocate our attention effectively. Software, people and services that can do that for us are in urgent demand, and they should grow and prosper.

When there is competition, those who seek attention turn to the most reliable magnets: sex, calamity, scandal, confrontation. Everybody paid attention to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, even though it ultimately wound up having little real civic significance beyond the act of presidential impeachment itself. Yet the attention paid to the social impact of the decoded human genome or the global AIDS crisis was a fraction as great. There’s been even less focus on new issues involving attention itself. Few people online paid attention to the l996 Digital Millenium Copyright Act bulled through by entertainment industry lobbyists, even though it probably had more direct impact on Net content than any other single act or law in recent years.

This is partly a result of the new Attention Economy we started writing about a couple of weeks ago.

As scholars Thomas Davenport and John Beck found in their book The Attention Economy, every economy has organizational and individual participants, and the attention market qualifies as an economy in that respect.

Organizations participate in this economy when they want to attract the attention of customers, partners, investors or employees. But in the new Attention Economy, each individual also becomes a player, especially when it comes to technology. We are all information providers, trying to attract the attention of friends, family members, customers, employers. Those who can gain it — Jobs, Grove, Andreesen, Torvalds – do well. Those who can’t struggle or even disappear.

Attention doesn’t automatically mean success, though: Andreesen’s business ventures have struggled, as have some of Grove’s, and Open Source has yet to reach a commercial critical mass. As wealth is glorified — and gets attention — people become hungry for other ideas and ideals, which then also get attention. But not always as much, or as profitably: corporatism is now so inextricably linked to the Attention Economy that it’s brutally difficult to compete.

In the Attention Economy, the qualities that lure attention are not necessarily the finest. Sheer brilliance, generosity, innovation or ethical behavior rarely generate much attention. What counts more is impact, utility, timing and presentation.

The hard reality is that there is only so much attention to go around. It can only be increased in small increments, either by stretching humans’ mental capacities or by increasing the number of humans on the planet.
Just as the Attention Economy concentrates disproportionate attention on a handful of celebrities who know to get attention, it marginalizes everybody else. That means more and more attention will be paid to fewer and fewer people, and information and services will tend to become homogenized for most people. How many different kinds of gasoline, for example, can you actually buy for your car? How different is the programming from one TV network to another?

Talented people have always generated attention — in the summer, Spielberg and Lucas come to mind — but they were innovative, successful in creative as well as financial ways. E.T. and Star Wars arrived a bit before the Attention Economy had fully bloomed. Now they all face difficult issues of independence, integrity and compromise. It takes more marketing, more revenues, more of everything to assure a blockbuster now, and the tie-ins surrounding the Star Wars films got nauseating a couple of episodes ago, undermining the credibility of the idea itself. As great as the series has been, it sometimes seems that half the characters were conceived as premiums to be sold with Happy Meals or Whoppers. The Attention Economy is ravenous.

This has enormous implications for technology. Which applications from genome research is the public likely to focus on? Those that promote health and well-being, or those that promote beauty and longevity? Which software merits attention: the genuinely innovative and empowering, or the latest product mass-marketed by Microsoft?

Beyond sensationalism and whorish marketing, how can smaller entrepeneurs, events and products gain attention?

By paying people. Magazines, websites or TV shows could simply offer users a fee to eyeball their products regularly (there are ways to track this) rather than the other way around. Open Source may well be one of the culture ideas that has to pay it’s way into the Attention Economy.

And somewhat more obviously, attention comes to things that provide real utility. Customers paid plenty of attention to the car, the Web Browser, the phone and to the Net itself, simply because they wanted mobility or instant communication. Revolution gets attention. But that kind of revolution occurs rarely.

Meanwhile, narcissistic, me-to-me media have become fashionable online, the newest example of the confusion between what’s neat and what’s significant. As good as many of them are, outside of their creators they don’t command much attention. But modern corporations like Microsoft and AOL Time-Warner manufacture attention as much as anything else. They can do this by advertising, by the sales of synergistic products, or by political and media lobbying. They have the skills to manipulate regulators, elected officials and journalists and the money to bombard our consciousness with advertising and marketing. Af if that stops working, they may be the first to start sending us checks.

For hundreds of years, attention has been a luxury or a by-product. Now it’s become one of the most valuable commodities in the world. That suggests the people who will be the most successful at gaining attention are those with the deepest pockets to pay for it.


Related article:
Yo – Pay Attention!

Author: Jon Katz

News Service: Slashdot

URL: http://slashdot.org/features/01/06/28/1522228.shtml