There’s been a lot said about the new Attention Economy and a lot of interest in generating value from “Attention Data.” The enthusiasm bubbles up from excitement about a new abundance to reach the conclusion that Attention is now the scarce resource that smart people will use to create wealth in our post-mass-media, post-mass-production world.
The problem starts with the excitement about a “general abundance” in our newly digital world which Wired famously referred to as The Long Boom in 1997, but we eventually realized was just the Big Bubble. The problem of the New Attention Economy then expands beyond simply a new “Economics of Abundance” with a hubristic assertion that Attention is the secret ingredient for future success, complete with calls to invent an entire new “Attention Economics.”
Unfortunately, Attention is only limited because time is limited. Its value is ephemeral at best and annoying at worst.
We each have just as much Attention in any given day as we have conscious, waking hours. It’s just a function of time. Simultaneously, Attention, once earned, has fairly lightweight value. It can be earned by a distracting but ineffective advertisement and does not in itself indicate anything other than a first-order stimulus response. Put flaming letters flying across the sky, I’ll probably look up at it and pay Attention for a moment. But that doesn’t mean I’ll do anything in response.
So Attention not only presents nothing unique in terms of scarcity, its value is intrinsically frail. That isn’t an exciting basis for a new economy.
Abe Burmesiter over at Abstract Dynamics has a different take on why there is no new “Attention Economy” (worth reading in its entirety):
Somewhere on the edge of academia circulates the idea that economics is defined as the “study of how human beings allocate scarce resources”. It’s a definition that doesn’t show up in most dictionaries, but it has a stubborn persistence…
It’s a curious distortion to make economics strictly a study of scarcity, and like the textbook chaos theory case it starts out as a rather minor disruption. Scarcity is after all essential to the generation of price and value, and economists hold those processes dear to their hearts. There is of course more to economics than just studying scarcity, but it’s not exactly an alien concept. What’s curious is what happens when non economists start latching onto the distortion, what’s curious is when scarcity meets attention from three different directions.
Michael Goldhaber, Richard Lanham and Georg Franck, all more or less independently converged on a phrase, “the economics of attention” in the past decade or so. At the core of their thought (which varies widely in quality) is the observation that in a time where information is becoming, in Goldhaber’s terms, “superabundant” what is scarce is attention…
The first irony is that if economics was really just to be about the distribution of scarce resources it wouldn’t even be about money. For money is about as far from a scarce resource as there is. It can be printed out by any government and by a skilled counterfeiter too. Or it can be generated by any group or organization with enough clout… Money is anything but scarce. The problem is not there is not enough, but that it circulates with a damaging inequality.
Goldhaber and Lanham though don’t seem really want economics to be about money anyways though. They’d much rather refocus it all around attention. It’s an act of overstatement that probably does them far more harm than good. They get to make exaggerated statements about the need for a new economics, perhaps it makes their observations seem bigger, but it also makes it far easier to ignore them. They might want it all to be about attention, but quality and accuracy still have a bit of value left in them. Someone is going to make a career pulling attention scarcity into the wider economic stream of thought, but it just wont have the extreme ramifications the attention lovers vest into it.
In short, thinking about Attention may be intriguing, but it isn’t going to be the foundation for a new economics. It isn’t going to reinvent how we do business or how we work as a society.
So, despite others’ feverish efforts to the contrary, I’ll go on the record as stating unequivocally, 2007 will not be the year of the Attention Economy. Neither will 2008, 2009 or 2010.