If the Web and the Net can be viewed as spaces in which we will increasingly live our lives, the economic laws we will live
under have to be natural to this new space. These laws turn out to be quite different from what the old economics teaches, or
what rubrics such as “the information age” suggest. What counts most is what is most scarce now, namely attention. The
attention economy brings with it its own kind of wealth, its own class divisions – stars vs. fans – and its own forms of
property, all of which make it incompatible with the industrial-money-market based economy it bids fair to replace. Success
will come to those who best accommodate to this new reality.
Contents
Greetings
Change Happens
A Feudal Hope
The New Natural Economy
A Driving Force
Chatting, But Not Necessarily About Anything
Illusory Attention
The Effect of the Audience
A Miniature Working Model
A Material Economy Falls Victim to Its Own Success
It’s Not for Productivity
A Point Worth Repeating, Though Not Too Often
Organizations Diminish as Transparency Grows
Material Things Reinterpreted
Wealth and Property Take New Forms, Too
Money and Attention
Business as Performance
Further Expectations
Advice for the Transition
A Closing Scenario
The End
Notes
Explanatory note: This article began as a draft of a conference[ * ] presentation, and has been left pretty much in that form.
Another version was actually presented.
Greetings
This is a conference on the “Economics of Digital Information.” My guess is that most of the speakers, and most of the
listeners interpret that title to mean that while “digital information” requires special consideration enough to justify a special
conference, the basic meaning of the word “economics” can be taken for granted. What we are to be concerned with is how
prices, costs, productivity, and so forth apply to digital information.
My vantage point is quite different. What we mean by economics cannot be taken for granted if
whatwearetalkingaboutistheeconomicswhichapplies,say,totheInternet,ormoregenerallyg The attention economy and the Net
prices, costs, productivity, and so forth apply to digital information.
My vantage point is quite different. What we mean by economics cannot be taken for granted if
what we are talking about is the economics which applies, say, to the Internet, or more generally
to cyberspace, or more generally still, to life in the foreseeable future. We are moving into a
period wholly different from the past era of factory-based mass production of material items
when talk of money, prices, returns on investment, laws of supply and demand, and so on all
made excellent sense. We now have to think in wholly new economic terms, for we are entering
an entirely new kind of economy. The old concepts will just not have value in that new context.
Of course, there is nothing so new about the insight that the Internet is part of a revolutionary change in the way we do
things and also in why we do them. Many names for the new era have been invoked: the information age, the Third Wave,
the move towards cyberspace, all of which point, vaguely at least to the fact that new patterns of activity and of
interrelationships among people are now emerging. The trouble with that insight is that it is so vague that you can easily
agree with it without feeling the necessity of changing your economic thinking in the least. My effort over the past several
years – it’s embarrassing to admit how many – has been to overcome that vagueness, to come up with specifics about what
this revolution actually implies. My conclusions are that we are headed into what I call the attention economy.
Change Happens
Before offering any details about the new economy itself I want to deal with a feeling you no doubt have. “Economics is
economics; it really can’t change.” Even if you are not saying that in so many words, I feel fairly confident it is somewhere
in your mind at this point. To try to convince you at least to have some doubts about that
certainty, let me invoke two different analogies. (Since it is obviously beyond my capabilities to
explain the full workings of an entire new economy in the brief time available here, getting you
to take the thought of it seriously would not be a useless accomplishment.) The first analogy
comes from science. Most scientists would agree that early in its existence, the planet Earth held
no life. There were various kinds of minerals, volcanoes, sea water, chemicals in solution – lots
going on, but all of it understandable in terms of the laws of physics, chemistry, geology. Then,
fairly suddenly, some chemical molecules began to commingle in a new way, capable of
growing and reproducing. Life had emerged, and, in its tremendous variety, grew and flourished according to completely
new laws, the laws of molecular biology, of physiology, of ecology and so on.
To try to understand life solely on the basis of the old laws of physics and chemistry, would be an enormous, crippling
mistake; you couldn’t talk about the most obvious things, like sex or aging or digestion or species or parasites, since those
are all biological concepts that have no place in physics or chemistry. The parallel I want to draw is that the new kinds of
connection that the Net and cyberspace make possible also demand a whole new way of thinking if you are to understand
what is going on between people, the kinds of organized effort that are now possible, the motivations that most matter, and a
host of other facets of life.
This analogy is imperfect in one way though. I don’t mean to imply that the new concepts of economics we need come on
top of or in addition to the old concepts. Rather, economics is about the overall patterns of effort and motivation that shape
our lives, and it is these patterns and motivations that are changing. That implies a wholly new set of economic laws that
replace the ones we all have learned.
A Feudal Hope
My second analogy should make this point more clearly. It also involves looking back to an earlier time, but, instead of
billions of years ago we now must think back a mere five centuries. The expansion into cyberspace now underway parallels
the expansion of European civilization into North and South America that followed Columbus’s discoveries, exactly 498
years before Tim Berners-Lee discovered, or rather invented, the Web. Europe back then in the 15th century was still ruled
pretty much on feudal lines, and the feudal lords took it for granted that the new world would be a space for more of a feudal
g The attention economy and the Net
A Feudal Hope
My second analogy should make this point more clearly. It also involves looking back to an earlier time, but, instead of
billions of years ago we now must think back a mere five centuries. The expansion into cyberspace now underway parallels
the expansion of European civilization into North and South America that followed Columbus’s discoveries, exactly 498
years before Tim Berners-Lee discovered, or rather invented, the Web. Europe back then in the 15th century was still ruled
pretty much on feudal lines, and the feudal lords took it for granted that the new world would be a space for more of a feudal
economy, with dukes and counts and barons and earls ruling over serfs throughout the newly discovered continents. They
did in fact begin to set up that system, but it was not what turned out to flourish in the new space. Instead, the capitalist,
market-based industrial economy, then just starting out, found the new soil much more congenial. Eventually it grew so
strong in North America that, when it re-crossed the ocean, it finally completed its move to dominance in Western Europe
and then elsewhere in the world [ 1 ].
Contemporary economic ideas stem from that selfsame market-based industrialism, which was thoroughly different from the
feudal, subsistence-farming-based economy that preceded it. We tend to think, as we are taught, that economic laws are
timeless. That is plain wrong. Those laws hold true in particular periods and in a particular kind of space. The characteristic
landscape of feudalism, dotted with small fields, walled villages, and castles, differs markedly from the industrial landscape
of cities, smokestack factories and railroads, canals, or superhighways. The “landscape” of cyberspace exists only in our
minds, perhaps, but even so it is where we are increasingly coming to live, and it looks nothing like either of those others. If
cyberspace grows to encompass interactions between the billions of people now on the planet, those kinds of interaction will
be utterly different from what prevailed for the last few centuries, or ever before [ 2 ].
If you want to thrive in this new world, it behooves you not to mistake it for a place where the dukes and earls of today will
naturally continue to prosper, but rather to learn to think in terms of the economy natural to it [ 3 ].
The New Natural Economy
So, at last, what is this new economy about? Well if the Net exemplifies it, then you might guess it has less to do with
material things than with the kinds of entity that can flow through the Net. We are told over and over just what that is:
information. Information, however, would be an impossible basis for an economy, for one simple reason: economies are
governed by what is scarce, and information, especially on the Net, is not only abundant, but overflowing. We are drowning
in the stuff, and yet more and more comes at us daily. That is why terms like “information glut” have become commonplace,
after all. Furthermore, if you have any particular piece of information on the Net, you can share it easily with anyone else
who might want it. It is not in any way scarce, and therefore it is not an information economy towards which we are moving.
What would be the incentive in organizing our lives around spewing out more information if there is already far too much?
Well, my title gives it away, of course. There is something else that moves through the Net, flowing in the opposite direction
from information, namely attention. So seeking attention could be the very incentive we are looking for. Parenthetically, I
have now rejected both parts of the conference title; no economics in the conventional sense, and not digital information
either. You might conclude I am speaking at the wrong conference. I would rather say it has the wrong title. Except the title
did serve its purpose. It did get your attention, and that was something, in fact a lot.
Attention, at least the kind we care about, is an intrinsically scarce resource [ 4 ]. Consider yours, right now. You are reading
this paper, or more likely, since it is intended to be delivered at a conference, listening to me speaking it. You have a certain
stock of attention at your disposal, and right now, a large proportion of the stock available to you is going to me, or to my
words. Note that if I am standing in front of you it is difficult to distinguish between paying attention to me and paying
attention to my words or thoughts; you can hardly do one without doing the other. If you are just reading this, assuming it
gets printed in a book, the fact that your attention is going to me and not just to what I write may be slightly less obvious. So
it is convenient to think of being in the audience at this conference in order to consider what attention economics is all
about.
First of all, if this talk is not a total bust, at this moment I am getting attention from a considerable audience. There is a net
flow of attention towards me. If this is a reasonably polite group, there may be no great competition for your attention at the
g The attention economy and the Net
it is convenient to think of being in the audience at this conference in order to consider what attention economics is all
about.
First of all, if this talk is not a total bust, at this moment I am getting attention from a considerable audience. There is a net
flow of attention towards me. If this is a reasonably polite group, there may be no great competition for your attention at the
moment, but nonetheless, if there were, you would have to choose, or someone else, say the chair, would. The assembled
audience cannot really pay attention to very many people speaking at once, usually not to more than one, in fact. Which is
another way to say that the scarcity of attention is real and limiting.
Now this might not matter if attention were not desirable and valuable in itself, but it is. In fact, it is a very nice feeling to
have respectful attention from everybody within earshot, no matter how many people that may include. We have a word to
describe a very attentive audience, and that word is “enthralled.” A thrall is basically a slave. If, for instance, I should take it
in my head to mention panda bears, you who are paying attention are forced to think “panda bears,” a thought you had no
inkling would come up when you decided to listen to this talk. Now let me ask, how many of you, on hearing the word
“panda” saw a glimpse of a panda in your imagination? Raise your hands, please. Thank you. … A ha.
What just happened? I had your attention and I was able to convert it into a physical action on some of your parts, raising
your hands. It comes with the territory. That is part of the power that goes with having attention, a point I will have reason to
return to. Right now, it should be evident that having your attention means that I have the power to bend your minds and
your bodies to my will, within limits that in turn have to do with how good I am at enthralling you. This can be a remarkable
power. When you have superb control over your own body, so that you can perform great athletic feats, it feels great;
likewise, it feels good when your mind feels focused and powerful; how much more wonderful then to be able to have the
minds and bodies of others at your disposal! On the rather rare occasions when I have felt I was holding an audience “in the
palm of my hand, hanging on my every word,” I have very much enjoyed the feeling, and of course others who have felt the
same have reported their feelings in the same terms. The elation is independent of what you happen to be talking about, even
if it is to decry something you think is horrible.
A Driving Force
This is not a particularly huge audience, but it is possible to enthrall any number of people if you can reach them and if you
are good enough at it. So having attention is very, very desirable, in some ways infinitely so, since the larger the audience,
the better. And, yet, attention is also difficult to achieve owing to its intrinsic scarcity. That combination makes it the
potential driving force of a very intense economy.
Of course, not everybody necessarily wants a great deal of attention, just as in a money economy not everybody wants a
great deal of money or many of the material goods that money can buy. But, just as in a money economy practically
everyone must have some money to survive, so attention in some quantities is pretty much a prerequisite for survival, and
attention is actually far more basic. This has always been the case for tiny babies. About the only thing they can get for
themselves, or can give, is attention, which they begin to do within a half hour of birth, by smiling at those who smile at
them. Without attention an infant could never satisfy its material needs, for food, warmth, fresh diapers, being burped, and
so on. At a slightly later stage infants and toddlers need attention if they are to develop any sense of themselves as persons,
and neither of those needs ever completely goes away. So even if you do not especially make a point of reaching for
attention, even if you are very shy and reclusive, you still probably cannot do without some minimum, which however
reluctantly, you may have to fight for. And no matter how humble you now may be, at some time in your own childhood you
certainly sought attention, or you wouldn’t be here.
As we move towards an attention economy in a fuller sense, the ethos of the old economy which makes it often bad taste or
a poor strategy to consciously seek attention seems to be giving way to an attitude that makes having a lot of attention rather
admirable and seeking it not at all to be frowned upon. Think of the sorts of things people are now willing to admit about
themselves just to get on the likes of Oprah or the Sally Jesse Raphael show. Even the President of the United States is
willing to discuss his underwear on nationwide television.
ChattingButNotNecessarilyAboutAnythingg The attention economy and the Net
willing to discuss his underwear on nationwide television.
Chatting, But Not Necessarily About Anything
But I am running a bit ahead of myself. Before saying more about the workings of the attention economy and its
ramifications, I have to offer you a bit more of an idea about how to view different situations in terms of the exchange of
attention. Earlier I suggested that when information flows one way through the Net, attention has to be flowing the other.
Now I want to say that it would be even better to think in terms of attention of some kind flowing both ways.
Consider an ordinary conversation. You could describe it as the exchange of information, but except in a highly technical
sense that is rarely a very accurate description of what takes place. A conversation is primarily an exchange of attention.
When you say “how are you?” for instance, you don’t really want to know, as a rule, but if whomever you’re talking with
chooses to say how he or she is, it is more to get attention from you than to convey information. Even if this person
genuinely thought you did want to know about her/his health, in answering, s/he would be attempting to pay attention to
you. And even if you, in turn genuinely did want to know, the usual reason would be to pay attention to her/him.
Information, in the sense of something not previously known to one of the parties or another is secondary, if present at all. If
I want your attention for any reason, I might begin by asking you for information, such as who you are and what you do, not
necessarily because that is of great interest to me, but because it is a good way to get your attention. Children ask countless
questions with this motive often patently obvious, and adults are not necessarily any different. Even if I am desperately
searching for some fact that you happen to know, to get it from you I first have to get your attention. So what really matters
in every conversation is the exchange of attention — an exchange that normally must be kept more or less equal if one party
or the other isn’t likely to lose interest.
Illusory Attention
Now, let us come back to the example of this conference, in fact the very interchange going on between me and you at this
moment. If you are still paying attention, it is at least in part because what I am saying interests you; that is, to some extent I
am addressing some need or desire that you now have. Thus it appears, in a certain sense that I am paying each of you
attention individually, even though I can’t really be doing that. Of course, in this setting it helps that I have some idea of why
you are here, but I obviously am not in a position to focus on your individual needs. If just the two of us were having a
conversation, rather than my standing up here and reading this paper to this whole audience, you would be quite rightly
incensed if instead of pausing to answer your questions or seeing whether you were still interested I just talked on and on in
this fashion. As another sign of the asymmetry between us, if I leave the room after this talk, I would be extremely unlikely
to be able to recognize a particular one of you three months from now, though you might well be able to recognize me.
What I am trying to get at here is that while you would normally want a conversation to involve a more or less equal
exchange of attention, in the special circumstances that you are listening to a speaker, your feelings about what is a fair
exchange are altered. What I would suggest is going on is less that I am providing you with information that you deem in
advance will be of value, than that I am offering you individually the illusion of my full attention. I don’t claim to be very
good at this, but what I have done to some extent is to set up some expectations in you about what I will get to by the time
the talk is finished, and any sense of progress towards that goal then feels as if I am filling your need, even though it is a
need I have subtly created. (Any speaker must somehow do this, of course, to hold attention.)
If rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech, then anyone who speaks or writes or seeks attention in any way has to become
something of a success in the special rhetoric of persuading listeners, readers, and so on, that he or she is meeting their
individual needs, when in fact some of these needs have been artfully set up in advance [ 5 ]. You want to know what I am
driving at, for instance, because I have already provided clues galore that I am driving at something that should matter to
you.
My success, if any, in meeting these expectations I have myself set up in you will appear to be attention – call it illusory
attention-thatflowsfrommetoyou.Thathelpscreateanapparentequalityofattention,anditcaninfactgobeyondthattog The attention economy and the Net
driving at, for instance, because I have already provided clues galore that I am driving at something that should matter to
you.
My success, if any, in meeting these expectations I have myself set up in you will appear to be attention – call it illusory
attention – that flows from me to you. That helps create an apparent equality of attention, and it can in fact go beyond that to
create a feeling of obligation on your part or the part of other readers or listeners. The audience members can each feel they
have not paid as much attention to a speaker as the speaker has paid personally to them, even though, in a very real sense the
reverse is closer to the truth. The speaker may still not know them from Adam though they have the speaker’s visage, voice,
and thoughts permanently etched in memory.
The Effect of the Audience
Much more is going on here. One thing is the question of why you started listening in the first place. Well one reason is that
I was introduced by the chair, who had your attention already, she was paying attention to the committee that set up this
conference, in particular to Brian Kahin. He in turn paid attention to Esther Dyson, who gets paid a lot of attention. And
indeed you possibly came here because you saw Esther’s name on the organizing committee, and you already had gotten
used to paying her attention. A key truth is that if you have the attention of an audience, you can then pass that on to
someone else. For instance, if I happened to spot a friend of mine in the audience, or just chose someone at random, I could
turn over all of your attention to that person.
Now, the fact that attention can be passed on from someone who has it to someone else, and on and on, is of course a vital
feature if there is to be anything resembling an economy. We will return to this general point. But right now, I want to
combine the idea that I could pass the whole audience’s attention on to you with the thought I introduced before that you can
feel in a certain sense that I am paying attention to you specifically – what I referred to as illusory attention. Since I
observably do have at least a good fraction of the whole audience’s attention, if I were to pay attention specifically to you in
reality, by singling you out, I would of course be paying not only my own attention but that of everyone else here, and yet, it
would seem to be arriving at you through me.
A Miniature Working Model
And now, just a few more quick points about this conference. First, the whole conference works pretty much as an attention
economy. While you are here, your main concern is how you pay attention and where you pay it, perhaps whether you get
enough in return to have a chance at being one of the conference stars, perhaps only through the brilliance of the questions
you ask. Even between sessions, the exchange of attention is what mostly tends to occupy people at a conference. Of course,
there are material considerations, such as having enough to eat, a comfortable chair, etc. But they tend to be secondary
issues, taken for granted, and not occupying much attention. We are living a temporary attention economy in miniature right
at this moment.
It bears repeating: We are living a temporary attention economy in miniature right at this moment. It should be evident by
now that everyone has always lived with some degree of an attention economy, but through
most of human history it hasn’t been primary. Material needs and the production of material
goods or the provision of purely material and basically impersonal services such as railways
held sway. Even fifty years ago, the percentage of the American population that could take
basic material needs for granted and didn’t work directly in factories or on farms was much
smaller than it is today.
If you look at how you live your life when you are not attending this conference, you will
probably see that quite a bit of what you personally do is better characterized as involving
attention transactions than monetary transactions. You most likely make many more decisions
every day about where and towards whom your attention should now go than about where
your or anyone else’s money should go. It is an issue every time you get a phone call, receive a memo, see someone you
know waving at you, decide whether to go to a movie, or surf the Web, to list just a few examples. You are probably quite
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held sway. Even fifty years ago, the percentage of the American population that could take
basic material needs for granted and didn’t work directly in factories or on farms was much
smaller than it is today.
If you look at how you live your life when you are not attending this conference, you will
probably see that quite a bit of what you personally do is better characterized as involving
attention transactions than monetary transactions. You most likely make many more decisions
every day about where and towards whom your attention should now go than about where
your or anyone else’s money should go. It is an issue every time you get a phone call, receive a memo, see someone you
know waving at you, decide whether to go to a movie, or surf the Web, to list just a few examples. You are probably quite
concerned too with getting attention in one way or another, or perhaps helping someone else get it. In this you are typical of
a growing proportion of our society, and indeed of almost every sizable society on this globe now.
A Material Economy Falls Victim to Its Own Success
The simple fact, which I have no time to discuss at any length, is that compared with our capacity to produce material
things, our net capacity to consume those things can no longer keep pace. Thus fewer and fewer of us, on a percentage basis
are involved in producing standard items than ever before, and this is true despite the fact that per capita consumption of
material goods keep rising. It just cannot rise fast enough to keep pace with possible production. There just is not enough
work of the older kinds to keep us as busy as we once were. So, for example, actual manufacturing employment as a fraction
of the total population continues its slow decline. Even in so-called developing nations, the Green Revolution in agriculture
has led to the same sort of decline in the number employed producing material things, including food crops.
Yet strangely, we are all busier than ever. In fact, in the light of what I have been saying so far, that is not so odd. It is
precisely because material needs at the creature comfort level are fairly well satisfied for all those in a position to demand
them that the need for attention, or what is closely related to attention, meaning or meaningfulness of life, takes on
increasing importance. In other words, the energies set free by the successes of what I refer to as the money-industrial
economy go more and more in the direction of obtaining attention. And that leads to growing competition for what is
increasingly scarce, which is of course attention. It sets up an unending scramble, a scramble that also increases the demands
on each of us to pay what scarce attention we can.
And because we all need some attention, as competition for it rises, the effort begins to take on still more importance. When
real attention of the right sort is unavailable, one has to make do to make do with the illusory kind, which comes through an
increasing variety of media: paperback books, sound recordings, movies, radio, magazines, TV, video, and most recently
computer software, CD-ROMs and the Web.
It’s Not for Productivity
But the longing to get real attention and lots of it is only intensified by that experience. If the average kid today at age
twenty has seen over 30,000 hours of TV, and, if, as is often suggested, TV offers young viewers role models for acceptable
behavior, then the one thing everyone visible on the tube has in common to model is going after attention and getting it. This
is also what is universally modeled by rock stars, successful athletes, politicians, and to a lesser degree even by school
teachers and college professors.
So it is no coincidence that some of the most popular uses of computers, fax machines, networks, phone systems, etc., have
more to do with getting attention than with directly aiding what they are supposedly about, increasing productivity of an
organization or society as a whole [ 6 ]. For an important truth is getting attention is of primary
value to individuals rather than organizations, and attention also flows from individuals. This
conference is sponsored by several organizations, most notably Harvard University, and quite
possibly additional organizations have sent more than one attendee apiece. However, within the
confines of the conference, attention flows primarily irrespective of organizational affiliation.
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teachers and college professors.
So it is no coincidence that some of the most popular uses of computers, fax machines, networks, phone systems, etc., have
more to do with getting attention than with directly aiding what they are supposedly about, increasing productivity of an
organization or society as a whole [ 6 ]. For an important truth is getting attention is of primary
value to individuals rather than organizations, and attention also flows from individuals. This
conference is sponsored by several organizations, most notably Harvard University, and quite
possibly additional organizations have sent more than one attendee apiece. However, within the
confines of the conference, attention flows primarily irrespective of organizational affiliation.
If you are after attention, you use whatever organization you are part of as a stage upon which to
perform for as wide an audience as you can manage. The Web and the Internet fit well in this
model. The physical walls and barriers that might once have defined a university, a government
bureau or an industrial corporation, making outside and inside sharply distinct, are pretty much
no barriers at all on the Web or the Internet, or even on a phone system equipped not with a
central switchboard allowing an operator to direct every incoming call but, as most are today,
with direct inward dialing. You often don’t even know what organization goes with the number
you are dialing, the e-mail message you are responding to or the particular Web site you have been linked to.
In a full attention economy practically all organizations will be basically temporary, either communities in which attention is
shared around pretty equally, or, more often, entourages of fans who form around one or a few stars to help them achieve the
performances they are attempting. Think of the groups that come together to make a movie or to create a new piece of
software, etc. More often than not, a few stars dominate the process; in the case of a movie, it is not only the main actors, but
the directors, writer, producer, and possibly the cinematographer, the chief editor, and a few others. If the movie is to be
made, everyone else involved focuses their attention on these stars; afterwards, the stars usually go their separate ways,
bringing together different entourages for their next performance.
A Point Worth Repeating, Though Not Too Often
This might be good point to add that since it is hard to get new attention by repeating exactly what you or someone else has
done before, this new economy is based on endless originality, or at least attempts at originality. By contrast, the old
industrial economy worked on the basis of making interchangeable objects in huge numbers. One could spend a lifetime of
work in a factory, for instance, repeating the same motions over and over, polishing the same small area on car after car, for
instance. And it was such repetition that allowed standard prices for things and standard wages for definite jobs to make
sense. The entire money system is based on the simultaneous inter-changeability of units of money, on the one hand, and of
standardized goods on the other. One dollar is as good as another; one quart of non-fat milk is as good as another; both
statements must be true, or non-fat milk will have no price.
With the endless originality and diversity of the attention economy, that kind of exchange is no longer possible. Even though
one can loosely compare amounts of attention paid to different performances, attention does not come in precise,
indistinguishable units, and neither does the illusory attention for which it is exchanged.
Organizations Diminish as Transparency Grows
Again, I digress. Let me return to the thread I have been trying to follow: the breakdown of organizational barriers. The Web
and other media aid this development by allowing you to look behind the scenes as easily as at them. Gossip, interviews,
biographies of individuals involved in specific efforts, photos, videos of rehearsals, documentaries of pre-performance steps,
all are visible or can be visible on the Web, taking equal status with the final performances themselves. Documentaries about
the production of movies are common by now; a movie about a movie is just as accessible as the first movie.
This transparency will even more be the case in the very near future, and, as a result, organizations will diminish in
importanceatrapidpacerelativetotheimportanceoftheindividualswhoaretemporarilyinthemEvenasstableandlongg
the production of movies are common by now; a movie about a movie is just as accessible as the first movie.
This transparency will even more be the case in the very near future, and, as a result, organizations will diminish in
importance at rapid pace, relative to the importance of the individuals who are temporarily in them. Even as stable and longlasting an institution as Harvard will be less its familiar buildings and more the people in the buildings, and the networks of
attention among them. And whether these people are physically at Harvard or somewhere else will matter less and less, until
the institution loses all coherence, all distinctness from other universities or from any one of hundreds of other organizations
which have audiences in common.
In a full-fledged attention economy the goal is simply to get either enough attention or as much as possible. Recall now what
I pointed out earlier: if you have a person’s full attention, you can get them to perform physical acts, ranging from moving
their eyes to follow you, to raising their hands, to applauding, to bringing you a glass of water, to handing you a sandwich,
or, as is not uncommon in the case of rock groupies or sports fans, having sex with you (to cite a notorious example). Just as
a parent paying attention to a child fills its material wants and desires, so a fan, that is anyone paying attention can feel an
obligation or a desire to do the same for whomever they are paying attention to.
Material Things Reinterpreted
In an attention economy as confined as a conference of this sort, the material goods such as a snack or a sandwich come
from outside the system. If the whole world is an attention economy, then making material goods, growing food from
scratch in a garden or on a farm, or obtaining resources in any other fashion, and ultimately turning these over to you can be
a direct act of attention paying. Thus, if you have enough attention, you can get anything you want. If you don’t have enough
your options will be distinctly more limited, but supplying you with some range of items, produced in a fairly automated
fashion, can also be a successful form of paying you illusory attention, in return for some real attention that you pay to
whomever is apparently doing this for you.
Wealth and Property Take New Forms, Too
One lesson to draw is that material goods and the acts of producing them are only secondary in an attention economy. What
is primary is attention in the form of hanging on your every word or gesture. Paying
attention in that sense is not over when its over. If what I say to you today makes
any impression at all, for instance, you will remember me as well as some of the
message for some time, possibly even for the rest of you life. Even if you find what
I say outrageous or stupid, it will be easier for you to tune into me the next time I
come across your field of vision, however that might happen. That is, getting
attention is not a momentary thing; you build on the stock you have every time you
get any, and the larger your audience at one time, the larger your potential audience
in the future. Thus obtaining attention is obtaining a kind of enduring wealth, a
form of wealth that puts you in a preferred position to get anything this new
economy offers.
Wealth that can endure and sometimes be added to is what we mean by property. Thus, in the new economy attention itself
is property. Where is it? Primarily it is located in the minds of those who have paid you attention in the past, whether years
ago or seconds ago. You may have forgotten all about some children’s author whose books you had read to you as a child,
but if you come across the book again, your memory will very likely be reawakened. Likewise you will remember actors
you saw on television, sports figures who captured your attention in the past, professors, teachers, politicians, business
leaders, etc. Thus, attention wealth can apparently decline, only to revive later. It is rarely entirely lost.
Seeing this kind of wealth as property suggests a strategy for maintaining and enlarging what you have that is far different
from what is usually considered to be the case when dealing with ideas or information. Suppose you get attention through
some text you send out over the Internet. Would you want your audience to copy this and pass it on to others who might pay
attention in turn? Of course you would. It would be insane to want to stop or restrain such copying, since that would deprive
g
you saw on television, sports figures who captured your attention in the past, professors, teachers, politicians, business
leaders, etc. Thus, attention wealth can apparently decline, only to revive later. It is rarely entirely lost.
Seeing this kind of wealth as property suggests a strategy for maintaining and enlarging what you have that is far different
from what is usually considered to be the case when dealing with ideas or information. Suppose you get attention through
some text you send out over the Internet. Would you want your audience to copy this and pass it on to others who might pay
attention in turn? Of course you would. It would be insane to want to stop or restrain such copying, since that would deprive
you of much attention you could otherwise get. This is an area, clearly, where the new economy and the old are at sharp
odds. Thus the fight over intellectual property and rights to make copies is actually a struggle between the outlooks of the
new economy and the old, a reason why they cannot both coexist forever, and thus a feature of the period of transition from
old to new.
Money and Attention
So let’s now take up the topic of this of transition, which has been underway for some time and will loom still larger in the
next few years. I have described the attention economy itself without saying anything about the role of money in it, which
was easy because in a pure attention economy money has no essential function, no real role to play. In the period of
transition from old economy to new, however, the connection between money and attention is significant and needs
examining. If you have a lot of attention, you are a star of one sort or another, and we all know that these days stars
generally have little trouble obtaining money in large amounts. Just think of the amounts that go to movie stars, sports stars,
or even leading politicians or generals who retire to the lecture circuit or propose to oversee the ghostwriting of their
memoirs. And if they have some pet project, such as a movie they want to make or a cause they want supported they can
often influence their publics or bankers to cough up many millions more.
Within the framework I have suggested, there is little mystery as to why this should be. If fans are willing to do anything up
to some limit for stars, such as wait in long lines to see them perform, avidly make sure to be there when they come to town,
applaud them and sing their praises however they can, often paying more attention to stars than to members of their own
families and so on, then it should come as no surprise that fans are also willing to pay out money at the stars’ behest. It is just
one more way to follow a star’s wishes.
In other words, money now flows along with attention, or, to put this in more general terms, when there is a transition
between economies, the old kind of wealth easily flows to the holders of the new. Thus, when the market-based, protoindustrial economy first began to replace the feudal system of Western Europe, in which the prime form of wealth was
aristocratic lineage and inheritance of land, both the noble titles and the lands that went with them soon ended up
disproportionately in the hands of those who were good at obtaining what was then the new kind of wealth, namely money.
With considerable ease, the rising merchant and industrialist class could buy old titles, induce governments to grant them
brand new ones, or marry into the old impoverished gentry. The parallel today, again, is that possessors of today’s rising kind
of wealth, which is attention, and whom we label stars of every sort, have an easy time getting money.
But now let me point out that the other way round doesn’t work nearly as easily. Contrary to what you are sometimes urged
to believe, money cannot reliably buy attention. Suppose it did work that way. Then you could have been paid to sit here and
listen closely even if I were to read you something as boring as the phone book or an unabridged dictionary. Presumably it
wouldn’t even matter if I kept repeating the same few syllables over and over. If money could reliably buy attention, all I
would have to do is pay you the required amount and you would keep listening carefully through all that, not falling asleep
en masse, nor allowing your minds to wander. In truth, even if you had been paid a huge sum, this would be most difficult,
and if you did it, it would be a testament more to your own deep sense of principle than to a general condition in which
another roomful of similar people could be expected to do equally well.
Someone who wants your attention just can’t rely on paying you money to get it, but has to do more, has to be interesting,
that is must offer you illusory attention, in just about the same amounts as they would if you had instead been paying money
to listen to them — which by the way is closer to the case here. Money flows to attention, and much less well does attention
flow to money.
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