How (Not) to Study the Attention Economy
First Monday
How (Not) to Study the Attention Economy: A Review of The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information by Michael H. Goldhaber

 


 

Richard A. Lanham.
The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
cloth, 326 p., ISBN 0–226–46882–8, US$29.00.
University of Chicago Press: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/

Richard A. Lanham. The economics of attention

Richard A. Lanham’s The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information has much to recommend it: a breezy, insouciant, generally enviable, often entertaining style of writing; some interesting and important ideas; some fascinating digressions; a close look at some post–modern visual artists and fields of graphic design and typography; a brilliant explanation of the value of rhetoric; a prescription for reviving and redirecting the study of the humanities in general; and more. Given the emphasis on style, rhetoric and design, one might take the first word in the title, “economics” as meant only metaphorically, and thus see the whole work as simply a broad attempt at artistic and literary criticism. But Lanham seems to intend that the title be taken literally. It is not a promise he keeps.

Lanham [1], a scholar of rhetoric and a retired UCLA English professor, has something in common with two other people with quite different backgrounds: Georg Franck, an Austrian professor of city planning; and me, trained as a theoretical physicist. It seems that each of us independently hit on the idea that what dominates economic life today is no longer material goods. Nor is it ubiquitous and superabundant information. Instead, it is the scarcity of attention, which somehow goes along with all that flow of information.

Since economies are based on scarcity, we each reasoned, this means we are now in some sense in an attention economy. (The competition for attention remains superabundantly obvious on the Internet, with more new means to try to snare it developed almost daily.) I believe I was first to hit on the Attention Economy idea, which was in about 1985 [2]. Because Franck writes in German, and apparently does not speak English, we have not communicated, and I am not sure when he began his work on this [3]. Lanham himself is quite explicit that he hit on his version of this discovery about 1994. (He somewhat churlishly nowhere mentions either Franck or me in his book, though in my case he certainly knows better. He and I took part in a couple of small seminars on this subject in the 90’s. Our attitudes and approaches were clearly somewhat different, yet I nonetheless proposed that we continue to communicate at least by e–mail. He demurred on the grounds of illness.)

 

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More than Coincidence?

The fact that three such disparate people hit on more or less the same idea at similar times might just be coincidence, or it might suggest that there is something to it. What does it mean then that none of us are professional economists? Perhaps it was necessary. If you are proficient in a discipline, you have learned to reject thoughts that are outside the box. Economics has to do with actual human behavior, which means it is subject to historical change. Still, the discipline tends to act as if it is in fact discovering or has discovered a set of universal laws. These laws, the field implies, hold regardless of historical change — with the possible exception of very small changes.

The economics discipline also tends to regard itself as a science, not unlike physics. Within contemporary physics, it so happens, it has become something of an open question as to whether what have been regarded as immutable laws are in fact something of a (natural) historical accident. The thought has even emerged that there may be incredibly many different universes that obey quite different laws. Standard economics, however, perhaps out of defensiveness of its somewhat questionable status as a science, ironically hews to an older conception, of science as based on unchanging and certain laws. This, despite the fact that economic behavior, like other human behavior is clearly quite variable and constantly changing. Thus the profession could be expected to be highly resistant to claims of something quite new under the economic sun. Still, it must be said, there are at least a few economists who are not utterly hostile to the thought that we may possibly be entering onto some version of an attention economy.

 

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The Attention–Economy Hypothesis

A new kind of economy will, quite naturally, require at least a somewhat new kind of economics. Before turning to Lanham’s attempt at this, I want to explain what I think this new economics will entail, at a minimum. It will be helpful to outline first the chain of reasoning and evidence that led me to postulate this new economy. (Lanham tries to explain how he came up with his version of the idea, but, frankly, I don’t get it.) My own interest began with an attempt to understand both the social origins and the social consequences of science and technology. That led me, back in the 1970’s, to learn of claims that we had entered “post–industrial” society. The argument for this was basically statistical: a declining percentage of the employed population is employed either in the “primary” extractive industries — such as farming or mining — or in the industrial manufacturing sector. That leaves more and more engaged in “services.” However, services turn out to be simply a catch–all term for work that involves neither manufacturing nor extraction.

That analysis fell far short, in my eyes. Why should a way of life be defined, as the word “post–industrial” does, not by what it is but simply by what it no longer is? The term “services” equally fails to say enough. “Service providers” would include the President of the United States, a top rock singer, a star quarterback, a restaurant server, a cable guy, and a garbage collector. Do these activities really have anything important in common? Why has the post–industrial turn occurred? And what is it a turn to? Such explanations as were available struck me as forced and unconvincing.

Then, around 1980, on the basis of newly collected statistics, the rise of the personal computer, etc., it began to seem that a common thread might be captured with the term “information revolution.” More and more of us, it turned out, could be counted as not simply providing generalized services, but as somehow involved, on the job, with information. By 1982, I was trying to posit that post–industrialism was in reality an economy based on information.

An economy is based on scarcity, and information is anything but.

This did not quite satisfy me either. Lanham and I are in nearly total agreement here. An economy is based on scarcity, and information is anything but. It was common even then to speak of information overload, or an information glut. Since then the glut has only gotten greater — an unlikely effect if information were indeed the motor of the new economy. As Lanham more colorfully puts it, information comes at us as if out of a fire hose. What is scarce is human attention. The rubric I came up with early on was “where information goes one way, attention goes the other.”

Now we must take a step that Lanham never clearly does. We must ask what the impetus for all the information is. It is not enough to say, with Lanham, that economics studies the allocation of what is scarce. Supply matters, but only in relation to demand. Plenty of things, such as grotesquely enlarged hearts or poisoned spinach may be scarce, but they are not in much demand. Who would want them? Attention is not like that; it is very desirable, in almost endless amounts, at least to some people. That is how its scarcity really enters in. If you want attention, you must, in some sense, put out information or something like it. An economy is a set of activities that ties people together, and this activity only exists, ultimately on the basis of some sort of desire. (Some may act only out of compulsion, but then what motivates those who compel them?)

Raw desire, in turn, is not enough, either. Unicorns, Picasso’s painting Guernica (the original) and the kingship of England all are scarce and quite desirable, yet who bothers to go after them? They are so obviously out of reach for most of us that it wouldn’t occur to us to try. (Prince Charles may feel differently, but, if so, he’s the exception who proves the rule.) We expend effort to get what seems at least somewhat within our grasp.

One more question comes up. Who seeks attention for itself? Principally, human beings do, not texts, pictures, data streams or Web sites. Not even corporations want attention for its own sake, though the people behind many corporations well might.

If a new economy is to emerge, it also requires something else: a principle of growth, or, in other words, a dynamic of its own. It does not start out with everyone already on board, so it must grow, and the question is — how? Does all this require that the economics of attention be at all different from standard, that is industrial–era, economics? Well, yes.

 

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How Attention Economics Must be Different

If attention were just a standard sort of economic item, an economy focused on it would never emerge because it would already fit in the predominant dynamic. If we have gone from an economy based on making, buying and selling goods, to one based on attention, then we must have turned a corner. We have changed direction in both how our activities are linked and how they are propelled by desire. That corner must have something to do with the way attention is different for us from a material good.

Attention is pursued by quite different methods than the ways goods of any kind are gathered, produced or bought. You cannot generally or reliably buy it. Unlike standard commodities or money, attention cannot be exactly quantified. You can accumulate attention, but you do so primarily in the minds of your audience; it is not graspable as property the way ordinary goods are. To some degree, that makes it harder to steal or even lose completely. Also, most importantly, unlike ordinary goods in the history of industrialism, the total supply of attention from other human beings remains limited. You can’t crank out significantly more. Nor can you really substitute something else for attention the way we might be able to substitute solar or nuclear power for oil. We can’t even easily substitute conservation the way we might with energy needs.

If attention economics were mathematizable, it would certainly require a rather different mathematics.

Why does precise quantifiability matter? Sometime around 1945, conventional economics took a highly mathematical turn. Now, mathematics often deals with entities that are not strictly quantifiable, such as stretchable topological surfaces. That is not the kind of mathematics that economists chose. Theirs involves elaborations on the curves typically found in economic graphs. Such curves derive their meaning from one key underlying assumption. The entities being graphed must have numerical values that can be distinguished at different times (or positions of whatever parameters are plotted). Otherwise, it would be impossible to know, at any given point on the graph, whether the curve goes up or down or stays even. Thus, empirical economists are always reporting slight variations in things like the money supply, the value of the Dow–Jones industrial average, the number of housing units sold in the last week, the unemployment rate, the price of a barrel of oil, the national debt, etc. The more sophisticated mathematical economists offer theoretical results based on the underlying quantifiability of such entities.

With attention, however, there are at best no more than numerical proxies for partial attention, such as best–seller lists, Nielsen ratings, and counts of Web site visits. That tells us little about how and to what extent attention gets paid. We could not determine, for instance, whether the total per capita attention supply went up or down last week or last year, or, usually, whether your share of attention did. If attention economics were mathematizable, it would certainly require a rather different mathematics.

 

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What Can and Cannot be Taken Over

My own prejudice is that standard economists use much more mathematics than makes real sense. When I began thinking about attention I did write down some coupled integral equations, and the like. Still, I thought of them as more suggestive than actually worth emphasizing — of use for my own thinking, but little more — except perhaps to impress the natives.

Leaving such impressions seems to work. One of the consequences of the intensive mathematization of standard economics is that a humanist like Lanham is utterly snowed. He wears his innumeracy on his sleeve, and so declares repeatedly that he cannot be a “real” economist. He then tries to convert this weakness into an asset by arguing that the economics of today — the economics of attention, that is — is in fact the study of rhetoric, defining the latter quite expansively. It seems to me he has already conceded too much, as well as claiming too much for rhetoric. In fact, a standard economist is no longer a “real” economist, since she or he can no longer get her or his mind around attention economics. Nonetheless, certain economic thoughts, not requiring mathematical sophistication, still ought to be considered for possible relevance in discussing a new economy. Lanham fails to make the attempt.

We can try to pin down something of what a simple “attention transaction” is, and what it means to pay attention in the first place. We can talk about what makes attention scarce, what makes it desirable, how it can be used to obtain various sorts of wants, how one person may channel or divert the attention of another, how attention is multiplied by having an audience, what causes people to pay attention to a particular other person in the first place. We can try to understand larger chains, networks, or loopings of attention, as it passes, say from person to person. We can view the entire economy, or some large subset of it as a system, and try to show how people respond to relative scarcities of attention and how they might be attracted to those who have lots. And so on. An economics of attention should encompass any and all of this.

Very broadly then, an economics of attention will bear some relation to industrial–era economics. It will for instance have elements that are more “micro” and others that are more “macro.” As some economists have done in recent years, it will focus quite heavily on underlying motivations, some rational, some irrational. It may have its own versions of: minimax principles; satsificing strategies; concepts of efficiency (obtaining the most attention for the least attention put in, for instance); relative, if not absolute, growth (of audiences, say); international and intercultural effects; notions of advanced versus underdeveloped attention economies; etc.

 

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Lanham’s Wrong Foot

Very little, if any, of this is to be found in The Economics of Attention. Lanham starts off on the wrong foot on the first page of the preface, and though he pursues a complex and interesting trail, he never really gets back on course. “Attention is the commodity in short supply.” It is in short supply, but it is hardly a commodity. Commodities are usually standardized, more or less generic things or substances that can be bought and sold in measurable amounts. None of this holds for attention.

Lanham starts off on the wrong foot on the first page of the preface, and though he pursues a complex and interesting trail, he never really gets back on course.

Lanham goes on, later on the same first page, with, “The devices that regulate attention are stylistic devices.” Sometimes this is true, but hardly always. The most attention–getting event of the last few years was the terror attack on September 11, 2001. Style did not play a very noticeable role, unless you consider suicide and murder chiefly a matter of style. The announcement of a cure for AIDS or cancer or a solution for global warming or a promising Middle East peace deal would attract great attention with little explicit style. And, are the devices that draw us — say — to a Bach cantata, a Sharapova tennis match, a Pollock painting, a Kubrick movie, a Wittgenstein treatise, an Auden poem or a Shakespeare play essentially stylistic? None of these can be separated from their style, of course, but what draws us to any of them is I think deeper than style.

Lanham further develops his major thesis in the first chapter, in which he repeatedly uses a Latinate word that he may have coined, oscillatio; a verb “toggle;” a preposition, “through;” and two oppositions, “style” vs. “substance” and — only slightly jocularly — “stuff” vs. “fluff.” How he juxtaposes and juggles these varied terms reveals much about both his thesis and its inadequacies.

Let’s start with the last key term above. Here is how Lanham introduces his stuff–fluff dichotomy:

“OK. If you interpret nature as matter and energy, you create the industrial society within which we have grown accustomed to living. Real persons dig mineral out of the earth’s crust and make stuff out of them. Stuff, things that you can drop on your foot, predominates. So a young businessman recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal: ‘My dad always said to me, “You’ve got to dig it, grow it, or build it; everything else is just fluff.”’

So there you have the three ages of economy redefined: agriculture, industrialism, fluff.

So there you have the three ages of economy redefined: agriculture, industrialism, fluff.

“But when you interpret nature as information, stuff and fluff change places.”

This is charmingly put indeed, but how relevant is it, or right? Where does attention come in? If we are going to be discussing an attention economy, the interpretation of nature as information is slightly misplaced. An economy is not ultimately about nature at all; it is about human interactions. What matters in an attention economy is much more why and how humans want, seek, obtain and pay attention. And, despite my own early formulation about attention and information going in opposite directions, in an attention economy, attention has to be primary.

 

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The Disinformation of “Information”

As an aside, let me point out here that “information” itself, as used today — including as by Lanham in the above sentence — is a highly misleading concept. Information is an old term. You can trace it back to fourteenth–century England, when it principally meant convictions and understandings, mostly of a religious nature, and primarily imparted by God. The root of course is the word “form”, and so information meant a kind of shaping of mind. Over the centuries, the word became more secular and more loosely used to mean any kind of knowledge amenable to being passed on. Around 1945, however, primarily through the work of Claude Shannon, the word information took on its main contemporary guise as a number of bits passing from machine to machine. It had become part of communications theory, only peripherally involving humans at all.

Seeing information as primarily the movement of bits tells us something about our preferred sort of hardware, and in that sense we are in an information age. However, while the flood of bits that come through to us via various devices keeps increasing, it is not as bits of information in the Shannon sense that we take them in. To have any impact on us, they still must be so arranged that they shape our minds. We have no reason to believe that our minds, so shaped, are any more full of knowledge than at any earlier time, but the kinds of knowledge we now have, on the whole, are different. Far more than ever before, we are more intimately connected at the mental level with the very wide world we inhabit and with certain people in it — chiefly those who get a great amount of attention.

 

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Toggling Back to Oscillatio

This is one way that Lanham’s term oscillatio matters. On the one hand, it characterizes his view of attention, as oscillating (or “toggling,” the verb form he prefers) at different moments or times, from the surface, that is style, to the deeper level of substance. (I disagree with that breakdown, as I have hinted and will explain more deeply in a moment.) But oscillatio is for Lanham not only a theory of how attention goes, but a theory of history as well. His underlying view, which was already evident in his earlier book, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), is that, as the French say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” In other words, there is nothing really new under the sun. Like the eighteenth–century historical theorist Giambatista Vico, he appears to believe that history only moves in cycles, with various elements moving in and out of fashion. This strikes me as quite mistaken. For better or worse, we are not trapped in endless repetitive cycles. Instead, quite new configurations of basic human propensities, capabilities and connections are always emerging. While they each may somewhat call to mind aspects of earlier periods, they are, in their full working, utterly unprecedented. That is definitely the light in which we have to take the attention economy, if we are to understand it.

In The Electronic Word, Lanham argued that the highly pictorial and graphical forms of current computer interfaces and other aspects of contemporary culture are nothing really new, basically a reworking of the illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period. Don’t get me wrong; I love to look at such manuscripts. Quite a few of them are objects of rare beauty. Indeed, they are — and were — always rare, because they took immensely detailed and skilled artisanal effort to be completed. Only a very few very rich nobles or priests or the inmates of very wealthy monasteries would have even been able to count such items as parts of their environment. Today, the opposite is the case, in much of the world. Colorful graphics and the means to create them are widely available. Further, a video camera is now nothing unusual; just about anyone in the western world can get hold of one and proceed to make videos that then can be uploaded to the likes of YouTube.com. This is just one aspect of the world that in its effects is wholly new. It is one aspect that helps make the current advance of this startlingly new economy so rapid.

Lanham himself oscillates (or “toggles”) on this. He seems to grasp it, and then he doesn’t. He apparently lacks the categories or the coherence of thought to see that he has co–discovered something truly new. Or perhaps, to be more charitable, one could say that he and I approach the world from different ideological standpoints, that he is looser and less uptight, and more willing to cobble together his thoughts in ways that do not demand any great rigidity or rigor. Is this an attention economy or an information economy or simply the good old market economy, perhaps a little spruced up and more stylish? It matters not to Lanham. He is very largely just having fun, and he is quite willing to talk about what is considered fluff. As he says quite specifically, the rhetorician does not normally concern himself with rigor. Style is what counts.

 

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Staying in Style

Let us return to the other meaning he attaches to his concept of oscillatio — that our attention oscillates (or, again, toggles) back and forth, first to style, and then through style to underlying substance. At other points, Lanham fully recognizes that style and substance cannot truly be separated in the way this formulation suggests. We cannot present anything in a truly styleless way, although one form of style is to ignore style and try to proceed without it.

Consider architecture. Many a building has been thrown up with no conscious thought as to how it will look, with the only concern being whether it will serve its intended function, say as a barn or a strip mall. Still, it is subject, at the least, to prevailing styles of building, including available materials, tools and accepted methods of construction, along with ideas about how slanted or not roofs should be, how wide and where placed should be windows, doors and stairs, and so on. All this will play out as interpreted by whoever is in ultimate charge of the construction. Such buildings may appear style–free to a cursory look by a contemporary with only local experience. “That over there is just a barn,” or “just a strip mall” or — even more often — “just a house.” To more observant colleagues in the neighborhood, slight peculiarities will almost surely give away the builder’s or architect’s identity. Anyone looking with wider knowledge will see how the building is an example of a certain period, a certain locality and a certain outlook. A New England 1960’s strip mall does not closely resemble a Los Angeles 1990’s version. A sixteenth–century British barn would never be mistaken for a late ninteteenth–century Illinois one. Style in building cannot be avoided.

Much the same holds for supposedly un–styled sentences, paintings, photos, films, or works of music. There is no underlying meaning without style, or without rhetoric. This formulation still leaves a lot out. First of all, our attention always goes through what is before us, but not in my view in the limited path from style to substance that Lanham suggests. Rather we attend to the person who put out what is before us, whether that is a snippet of speech or text, a work of art, or even a well–designed computer program or car. In paying attention to a particular person, we are held by whatever is characteristic about that person and their way of uttering, and this is at once both style, personality, and what we have encountered from her before. That can include personal details, name, face, voice, biographical facts, opinions, etc. Neither style nor personality is ever wholly uncontrived, wholly natural and nothing more.

 

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Through Style to Star?

In the past, the person behind various sorts of works, expressions or utterances often could only be deduced to a limited degree, and that little mostly through the utterances themselves. Today, however, the other aspects of persons are available to us very easily and directly, and we would have a hard time rejecting any interest in them. They must affect how we pay attention. We (almost) all start naturally nosy, naturally people–centric. It used to be that we could only experience those in the closest and most immediate circles around us — family and good friends — in ways that we can now experience people thousands of miles away through various media. It is for good reason that even such an austerely academic publisher as the University of Chicago Press now routinely includes an author photo on the back flap of books such as Lanham’s. Whatever his own feelings about the inclusion of this photo — and, admittedly, he doesn’t look that pleased — there can be no doubt that he has chosen to include in his book a large number of barely relevant autobiographical tidbits. This is a perfectly sensible strategy if he wants attention, if I am right. It does not much fit into his own explicit theory, and so he says little about it. He just chattily spills the personalizing beans. Maybe he has also taken to the book talk circuit, appearing around the country on radio and TV, or giving university or bookstore talks.

 

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Some Glue

Speaking of university talks, except for his first chapter, Lanham has mostly cobbled his book together from disparate talks or occasional articles. The clever glue he uses to bind the different chapters into a whole is the set of lengthy bibliographical and autobiographical narratives offered as “background” after each chapter. Still, the glue is only holding together a patchwork without complete coherence. The book remains something of “a little of this and a little of that,” with Lanham’s effervescent personality bubbling through like a more literate Pinky Lee’s [4].

 

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Wrapping Soup

In the second chapter, for instance, Lanham undertakes to describe what he calls “attention economists.” His chief two examples are two “post–modern” artists, Andy Warhol, the pop artist most famous for his deadpan depictions of Campbell’s Soup cans, and Christo, the artist famous for draping textiles in unlikely places, such as wrapping the Berlin Reichstag. They are certainly both interesting and worthwhile examples of how artists can play with our attention, drawing it from us and even making us examine our own attentiveness as they do. Still, despite Warhol’s oft–quoted though invalid remark that “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,” it makes no more sense to speak of them as attention economists than it does to speak of a successful car salesman, industrialist or boat builder as a standard industrial–era economist. Like Lanham, perhaps even more than Lanham, they undoubtedly each intuited (and Christo is still intuiting) some salient aspects of attention economics, and they may have had some pretty explicit thoughts on this as well. But they have not explicitly engaged in a proper study of how an attention economy works, so it seems odd to set them up as parallels to the sort of people who populate academic economics departments or even to those who impart economic advice to banks and governments.

 

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Trapped in the Type and Matted in the Matrix

The next two chapters of The Economics of Attention go even further off the rails, in that they focus on relatively far–out examples of typography or type–based art, in various media. This is entertaining, but not very central. Typography does matter in an attention economy, just not so very much. It happens though that Lanham is fascinated by it. He is not alone. Everyone who ever got hold of desktop publishing software must have been lured into this sort of thing, as if typography alone could render mundane thoughts more attractive. If you are first with a particular kind of wild type, perhaps. But most of the examples Lanham offers already have a look of old curiosities about them.

And so it goes. The book begins to meander, maunder and dissolve. After the two typographical chapters, he tries to get more serious. In what he calls the “style/substance matrix” he puts forth a take on life itself:

“Style and substance, fluff and stuff, are loose and baggy categories but useful ones even so. Important vs. peripheral, planned vs. spontaneous, natural vs. mannered, appearance vs. reality, inside vs. outside, why vs. how, manner vs. matter [he is repeating himself a bit, not for the first time]; we must make such distinctions every day. Confusingly enough, though, such pairings describe both the world and what we think is important in it, so the opposites in each pair can change places in a wink. If you are a car designer, for you the style will be the substance. If you are a philosopher, ‘what you think about things’ will be the ‘things’ of your world.

Such loose but handy categories do not endear themselves to the scientific mind, either physical or social, and rightly so. What good are terms if they can change places with their opposites just by how you look at them?”

This last part is especially silly. Evidently, the 80–year–old news of Niels Bohr and the quantum mechanical notion of complementarity has yet to reach Lanham. The idea of the dialectic and of the “social construction of reality” also appear to be beyond his ken. But in one way he is right about his list and the potential objections to it. It is completely arbitrary. There is no sense in which he even bothers to suggest that with these categories he has covered any particular or general swath of human experience, values, or behavior. What all this has to do with attention economics is another mystery.

It is just babble, or bad poetry, if you prefer.

He goes on in the chapter to describe four dimensions of a “matrix’ of dualities, (or in one case , confusingly, trialities) as follows:

“Signal (Through vs. At)
Perceiver (Through vs. At)
Motive (Game vs. Purpose vs. Play)
Life (Life as Information vs. Life as Drama)”

While he does have some interesting and/or entertaining things to say about each of these “spectra,” the whole, considered as a comprehensive view of anything, as Bohr said on another occasion, “isn’t even wrong.” It is just babble, or bad poetry, if you prefer.

 

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Scrolling Through Footnotes and Copyright

Another lengthy chapter takes up the issue of intellectual property in the strange context of copyright disputes over the Dead Sea scrolls. (These were ancient parchment fragments discovered in caves near the Dead Sea about 60 years ago and ascribed to a more–or–less monastic sect of Jews, often known as Essenes, who were active around the time of Jesus,) To me, the very meaning of intellectual property, especially copyright, represents an important area of conflict between the old economy and the new. If a full attention economy is possible, the equivalent of property will be the traces of having paid attention to oneself or one’s works that reside in the minds of one’s audience. The more people are able to pay attention, the larger one’s “worth.” The central tenet of copyright in particular becomes an effort to keep the unauthorized from paying attention, but to insist on such restrictions is usually a self–deluded gambit.

The copyright case the chapter takes up is hardly typical, however. For about a half century, a small coterie of scholars completely monopolized the scrolls. Other would–be scholars had no access. Then someone managed to publish the texts of some of them. The original coterie sued, claiming copyright infringement. In this case they wanted the attention that the novelty of the scrolls might engender to pass to them, or so it could be argued. The difference between this and more straightforward cases is substantial. More commonly, as in the controversy over the sharing of music for free over the Internet, large publishers of book, movies, videos, pictures or music insist on exclusive rights so as to obtain corporate profits. They do so even though that limits the attention that authors and artists can receive. While the original creators might benefit more from a reduction in copyright enforcement, they tend not to see this, because the issue is generally discussed only from the standpoint of the old economy. I don’t think Lanham’s farrago on the subject is likely focus anyone’s thinking very much, even though he does say a few things with which I agree.

 

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Michel Gets a Good Jab ...

One of his jabs in passing, for instance, refers to “the silly Frenchman —what was his name?” who insisted on the “abolition of …[the] author. (Part of the joke is that anyone at all familiar with post–modern theory can supply the name — Michel Foucault, who famously posited this notion that there is no author, as if all texts merely appear out of zeitgeist in which they are written — with the evident exception — or is it? — of Foucault’s own work.)

 

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... But Only a Jab

Lanham missed a chance to carry forward this thrust beyond a bon mot, into some important territory. The norm in attempts at getting attention, the sine qua non of this new economy, are more in the line of self–revealing than either self–concealing or merging into some mass. True, one can sometimes choose a kind of anonymity and still do well in the attention economy, as long as one puts oneself forward with a recognizable screen name or pen name, and has an identifiable personal style. (Since style is a subject of such interest to Lanham, this latter point about a recognizable style would have seemed an obvious one for him, but he does not seem to make this point either.) Foucault’s focus on the “death of the author” is at best a challenge, pointing out what would–be attention getters must overcome. He works much better as an example of how to evade anonymity than as a valid critic of the idea of authorship [5].

 

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Do Deans Require This?

The final chapter takes up the subject of how university departments of the humanities might get a new lease on life because of the rise of the new economy. This chapter strikes me as quite possibly added to satisfy the editors at the university press. Or maybe it is a widespread assumption that any serious book by a humanist academic these days must close with an examination of how to revivify the humanities. Another University of Chicago Press book by another University of California English professor that I read recently, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) by Alan Liu, which covers a related topic from a very different standpoint and with a very different tone, and never even mentions attention, still ends with a similar final chapter on possible new roles for academic humanities departments.

Not surprisingly, given his predilections, Lanham’s tack is to call for renewed emphasis on rhetoric and style. Both he and Liu see their recommendations as helping students obtain worthwhile jobs in business. This is actually an odd conclusion for each of them, since Liu rather looks askance at the grinding down of “knowledge workers “, while Lanham is presumably discussing a new, intrinsically post–business economy.

This is probably not the place to delve too far in this discussion, but I suspect both Lanham and Liu take far too shallow a look at how academia will probably shift if the new economy comes into being. Universities are in some ways a bit on the periphery of economic systems, since they owe their origins to the Middle Ages, and, up until now, have rarely been viewed as centers of profit. At the same time, they have become an important stage for academic and student stars of various sorts, and this is only likely to increase if universities survive in the new economy. At the same time important academic categories are likely to shift even more substantially than the current divisions into professional–school and liberal–arts–yet–science–centered undergraduate curricula would easily allow.

 

++++++++++

Tomeward Bound

In one way, the pastiche–like quality of Lanham’s book does go along with his suggestion of history as cyclic. It has some of the qualities of the cobbled–together works found in monasteries in the mediaeval period. Then the book–form was dictated partly by the difficulty of obtaining fresh parchment and biding it together with heavier leather or wood. As printing became more commonplace, the currently customary idea of a book as a highly coherent and unified work arose. In the age of the blog, that seems like one of the chief justifications of adhering to the book form and especially to the published, printed, material book that can still hurt when it falls on your foot. One wonders why exactly to risk this minor calamity for such a disjoint work as Lanham’s. End of article

 

About the reviewer

Michael H. Goldhaber is a writer and consultant living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. He originated the concept of the Attention Economy in the mid–eighties and has since worked to better understand what is at stake. This is part of a larger framework of trying to understand how the human species and its apparent reality are constantly modified and changed by human actions and predilections that somehow connect with biologically evolved propensities. See, in this regard, e.g., “The mentality of Homo interneticus: Some Ongian postulates” ( First Monday, volume 9, number 6 (June 2004), at http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue9_6/goldhaber/) and also Reinventing Technology: Policies for Democratic Values (Boston: Routlege & Kegan Paul, 1986). His Ph.D. is in theoretical physics.
Web: http://www.goldhaber.org
E–mail: michael [at] goldhaber [dot] org

 

Notes

1. Richard A. Lanham is also the author of the useful A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms: A Guide for Students of English Literature, second edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, and The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), and other works.

2. Earlier references to my work may be found in http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue2_4/goldhaber/index.html , where I also refer to Lanham, and more recently in http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_6/goldhaber/index.html. See also, my blog http://goldhaber.org for additional references. Note also that a book entitled The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business by Thomas Davenport and John C. Beck (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001) admittedly took their title from my Web site (see page viii of their preface) and have a different idea altogether. They also cite Lanham.

3. See http://www.t0.or.at/franck/g_franck.htm

4. Pinky Lee was an American children’s TV personality, who danced, sang and performed very innocent jokes from 1954 –56. (The author P.G. Wodehouse, the creator of Jeeves, once referred to himself as “the Pinky Lee of literature.”)

5. Lanham chooses to discuss this case by means of a dialogue among an odd cast of characters, and with an assortment of different kinds of footnotes. The footnotes themselves sometimes obtrude into the dialogue as well. This is too obviously meant to be witty, but the humor is a bit too broad and the results somewhat flat–footed, at least for me. Lanham took the conceit of using footnotes in this active way from the mediocre, slightly “experimental” 1992 novel Book, by Robert Grodin. In my view, it was done better in the 1968 novelette Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife,, by the philosopher William H. Gass (TriQuarterly Supplement Number 2, 1968, Northwestern University Press, Evanston Ill.)


Contents Index

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

How (Not) to Study the Attention Economy: A Review of The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information by Michael H. Goldhaber
First Monday, volume 11, number 11 (November 2006),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_11/goldhaber/index.html





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