Attention, Media, Value and Economics
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Attention, Media, Value and Economics by Philippe Aigrain

Building on the debate about the "attention economy" initiated by Michael Goldhaber and Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, I introduce the notion of valuing process, i.e. the process by which potential value can be translated in an economy. I show that the valuing processes applicable to attention depend on the nature of the media through which attention can be given and looked for. From there, I claim that the integration between attention and action, and the creation of a related literacy are the keys to the sustainable growth of an attention economy.


Say I am confused
Attention as potential value and not as value
Medium: the missing layer
The Web as a medium and as a meta-medium
Manifestations of attention
Forms of attention
Attention, ownership and action
Setting the ground for action

Say " I am confused"

The recent debate in First Monday between Michael H. Goldhaber and Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, regarding whether or not one can rely on the tools of classical economics to handle the Net and more generally the attention economy, leaves the reader somewhat confused [ 1 ] . It is hard not to agree with the last paper on this topic you happen to read, no matter how many times you re-read their papers. One might conclude that the problem lies within the reader. Let us assume for the moment that it is not the case. Another hypothesis is that the level of description chosen by each does not allow for real assessment of their affirmations.

Attention as potential value and not as value

Usage is not value. The fact that a physical good can be used (has usage value in the old political economy terms) makes it a candidate for having value, but it is only in the process of exchange that this value can translate in economical value. This operation of translation from potential value to value is a non-transparent one. It depends on the organisation of exchanges and markets, and on their relation to monetisation or barter. Exchange value if not just a manifestation of some "intrinsic" value, it is the creation of a new entity through the organisation of a process. In this meaning, economics are a project as well as the theory of an existing domain.

Now how does one go from here to attention and the economy of cyberspace? By considering the concrete process, the mediations by which attention can translate itself into value. Let us not jump to conclusions when this is obviously an open question: the economy of cyberspace is not there yet. The question we should ask ourselves is: "What is a reasonable project for an economy of cyberspace?" Well, reasonable here means first that it will have to be consistent with the substance of operations, the concrete steps of producing, distributing, accessing, perceiving contents. This is the missing layer in both Goldhaber's and Ghosh's positions: there is a technical mediation, a medium by which attention can be searched for and can manifest itself. The nature of this medium is a key input to understand how some form of value can emerge from the Web for instance [ 2 ] .

Medium: the missing layer

In another paper [ 3 ], I defined a medium as the "successful association between ways of producing documents (including "live" documents) and situations for their perception (technical apparatus such as a stereo, environments such as the movie theatre, functions such as the fast forward on a tape player, human perceptive habits and culture)." In a longer text, I would have added the distribution, content categorisation and retrieval mechanisms, and the funding, clearance and transactions mechanisms, etc. These last aspects are still unstable or unknown for an immature medium such as the World Wide Web [ 4 ] , but we know already more or less what is its technical substance. It is claimed in the following that this technical substance very much determines what type of valuing processes can be applied to it.

The Web as a medium and as a meta-medium

The substance of the Web can be characterised by four properties, related to the underlying protocols and standards HTML and HTTP:

  • the fact that the user pro-actively accesses contents through a shared networked infrastructure,
  • the fact that information is structured in relatively small chunks (measured in perception time and space not necessarily in data) between which one navigates through links,
  • the fact that this information is basically page structured illustrated text, with illustrations ranging from typography, layout, still images to animation, and indexing and retrieval being based on structured text processing, and
  • the fact that there is no large complexity barrier to the production / posting of contents, resulting in something like a continuum between attention grabbing and attention giving instead of the clear cut line of some other media.

Of course, about every reader is going to challenge this list. Did I stop reading and using the Web before everyone started speaking about push technologies, broadcasting on the Web, Java and applets? Wrong. I maintain that if one takes an anthropological view on the Web, and takes field notes about what Web surfers actually do, perceive and manipulate, what one will see will fall under the above categories. Of course, Web surfers painfully access some time-based media contents or larger pieces of contents, but they switch to other medium perception modes to perceive them, including printing Goldhaber's text to read it and scribble notes on it. In some cases, Web surfers will even switch to ordering and paying for physical goods, delivered by a completely different infrastructure.

What this means is that the Web is at the same time a medium in its own right and a meta-medium: an access mode and promotional layer for other media and exchange processes. These two aspects cannot be separated: the possibility to have live links to pieces of contents in other media is an essential component of the attractiveness of the Web as a medium.

Manifestations of attention

When an anthropologist monitors me surfing the Web, how do I manifest my attention to some particular piece of contents, and by extension to the people who produced and posted it? First of all, I manifest, during navigation (including the use of a search engine), my preference for this particular piece of contents, based on how it is made visible to me when I choose a link leading to it preferably to other accessible links. Even more, I use some of my time perceiving it within the particular constraints of the Web medium, and eventually I initiate actions such as saving it, printing it, sending an e-mail to an author or Webmaster, or forwarding the link to friends.


Preference, attention time, and initiated actions are three manifestations of attention that have been very well described by Goldhaber, but he does not elaborate on the consequences for the emergence of value. Possibility to manifest preference is a prerequisite of the emergence of economical value, it indicates that something like a market can be organised. It also indicates that how this market is organised is an essential issue, and that control of information access presentation (from which preference can be expressed) by some particular interests can lead to major distortions. If essential to the emergence of value, preference is not directly translatable in value: it leads to other manifestations of attention.


Attention time is obviously one way of valuing attention on the Web. The only reasonably sustainable economies of similar media (online services with pro-active access) are attention time-based. There is nonetheless a great reluctance of many to use time as a source for the valuing process in a future Web economy. This reluctance is partly based on a confusion and partly points to a major problem.

Confusion exists between what is acceptable as a valuing process for perception time and what is acceptable for initiated actions. When some piece of digital information is copied, the copier acquires something whose potential value bears little relation to the time spent copying it. This dis-equilibrium has caused its share of problems but this has nothing to do with the foundations of the Web economy itself. Copyright and author rights management can address this issue as long as we get a clear foundation for value in each medium [ 5 ] .

There is another factor leading many to reject perception time as a foundation for valuing attention.It is clear that the rapid spread of the Web has been made possible by the zero marginal cost of the use (and some time the end-user cost as a whole [ 6 ] ) of the Web itself. When one focuses on the meta-medium layer of the Web (as in most debates on electronic commerce), one is tempted to consider the Web as a whole as a global utility, and to look essentially for indirect valuing mechanisms. The most naive version of this view states that the Web does not need any infrastructure [ 7 ] . Other recognise the existence and the further need for a complex infrastructure, of which the network itself is only a very small part [ 8 ] , but would like to maintain its free marginal cost, for instance by funding it by advertising or by making all or part of it a public utility.

If we were able to separate the meta-medium part of the Web of its medium part, this could be quite fine, and we could focus on further investigating the benefits and drawbacks of the various indirect funding mechanisms. But if it is also applied to the media themselves (because one cannot separate them from the meta-medium), it could be the worse mistake since the birth of the television economy. As was demonstrated by Goldhaber [ 9 ] and by myself [ 10 ] , it would restrict the attention economy to a very small part of the global economy, by constraining its growth to the availability of a resource which cannot grow faster than the global economy.


The real problem is the transition to a number of new attention economies. There will be many media competing for our attention, not one single universal medium, and the properties of these media will lead to different foundations for the valuing of attention, and different possible strategies for the transition to this new form of value.

Forms of attention

Just as there are many media, there are many forms of attention. Listening to the radio is something I do mostly when cooking, when eating breakfast, when driving my car. In these instances, the radio gets only part of my attention, and it gets a kind of attention which is maybe not easy to make value of except in an indirect way. By listening to the radio, I may discover some new music (new to me, that is) which I may want to purchase. I am happy paying the annual licence fee which makes radio possible. Sometimes at night, I listen to a concert broadcast. I just sit down and listen. The music gets a very large part of my attention. But still it is a kind of attention which would not be easy to make direct value of. Let us consider how this is done in our embryonic attention economy. There is an incredible contrast between the 0.05 ECU / hour (and zero marginal price) I pay for listening to radio (appliance excluded), and the 20 ECU / hour I willingly pay to listen to a concert performance. Goldhaber would analyse this difference as resulting from the difference in intensity of illusory attention I get.

Attention, ownership and action

But let's look at it closer. There is also an incredible difference between the cost I pay for listening to radio and the 1.2 ECU / average hour I pay for listening to CDs. And here intensity of illusory attention cannot explain it. The explanation lies in two other notions which are key in my opinion to the successful valuing of attention: ownership and action. Ownership is important in its own right but even more so because it sets the basis for action. Goldhaber has pointed out that if I have your attention, I can direct your attention to someone else. But we should also look at it from the other side. If I give Goldhaber attention, I might be able to get attention from others. The primary way of doing this is just to set a link to Goldhaber's site on my home page, but this is very primitive and somewhat noise producing. But I can also write a review of Goldhaber's forthcoming book and post it on a site such as Or can I can, as I am doing it now, develop a piece of intellectual work building on Goldhaber's ideas.

The possibility of getting attention because one has given attention is the process which can make the attention economy happen, and on which its sustainable growth can be based. This possibility is intimately linked to the possibility of action originating in attention. When I invite friends to my home, after dinner we may sit in the living-room listening to music from a compact disc. I will choose this CD using two types of attention, the one I gave before to music, and the one I am giving to my friends to anticipate their preferences or to induce a pleasurable surprise. This is why I pay much more for a CD than for listening to the radio: because owning the CD opens the possibility for me to initiate actions at a chosen time. The operators of the Nordic Downloadable Music Site understand this factor; their slogan is: "downloadable digital copies of songs which you can download once and own forever [ 11 ] ."

Setting the ground for action

I choose the example of recorded music because this is one case in which, apart from a limited number of professional environments, very little apparent connection exists between attention giving and actions to obtain attention. The growth of the attention economy will be possible only on the basis of perception and creation tools and infrastructure, that allow for the seamless integration between giving attention and creating artefacts which deserve it [ 12 ] . Creating these tools and a sufficiently widespread literacy [ 13 ] in each medium will be a long process, due to many difficulties, the most important of which being the contradiction between the time needed to elaborate anything worthy of attention and the time intensity pressure on the economy of attention. End of article

The Author

Philippe Aigrain is Principal Scientific Officer in the Multimedia Systems domain of the ESPRIT European RTD programme in information technology. He was trained as a mathematician and theoretical computer scientist, and holds a Doctorate and "Habilitation à Diriger les Recherches" qualification from University Paris 7. From 1972 to 1981 he worked in software engineering research labs of software companies. He was a research fellow at University of California Berkeley in 1982. Since then, and before joining the European Commission in 1996, he headed research teams in the field of computer processing, indexing, retrieval, and user interface for audiovisual media (video, music, still images). He is the author or more than 60 research and technology assessment papers.

Electronic mail:


1. This paper does not represent the official position of the European Commission or any other organisation.

2. Goldhaber is evidently closer to considering this layer, and it is what leads him to question the ability of classical concepts to handle the new situation, but he fails to address it properly. For instance, the use of the conference talk metaphor in "The Attention Economy and the Net" is misleading: a conference is also a medium, and of course all media have commonalties (like resting on the ability to attract attention as a source for value). But how value can emerge from the conference medium is by all ways very specific of its concrete process, and cannot extend to a different medium.

3. Philippe Aigrain and Philippe Lepain, 1995. "Computer-Assisted Perception: A
Framework for Multimedia Interaction with Existing Media,"

4. Cyberspace is inhabited by more than one medium. The Web is analysed in the following, but similar analysis can apply to e-mail, forums, etc.

5. Including the Web medium and "live" media. See Dominique Gonthier and Philippe Aigrain, 1997. "Gestion et négoce électronique de la propriété intellectuelle," to appear in Document Numérique, Volume 1.

6. For academics for instance. On the contrary for home users, the end-user cost is quite high, but its larger part goes to equipment and basic software suppliers and the rest to telecommunication companies and access service providers.

7. Zak Muscovitch, 1997. "Taxation of Internet Commerce, " to be published in First Monday.

8. See issues around the delivery of domain names or financial transactions, user privacy, etc.

9. Michael Goldhaber, 1997. "What's the Right Economy for Cyberspace?," First Monday, Volume 2, number 7,

10. Philippe Aigrain, 1996. "Macro-Economics and Time Issues in Consumer Access to Media and New Media," (November), available on request to:

11. Ownership is not absolute, it is bounded by a number of rights, including the copyright, author rights, use rights, etc.

12. I am very much indebted to Bernard Stiegler's views on integration between perception and action. See Bernard Stiegler, 1994. La Technique et le Temps. Paris: Galilée/Cité des sciences et de l'industrie; translation will be published by Stanford University Press.

13. Literacy is the ability to construct new contents in a medium from the perception and assessment of existing contents in a medium. The pure ability to perceive contents does not constitute literacy by itself.

Copyright © 1997, First Monday

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First Monday, Volume 2, Number 9 - 1 September 1997

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