[iDC] A primer on the Attention (Centered) Economy

Michael H Goldhaber mgoldh at well.com
Thu Oct 22 02:01:33 UTC 2009

Dear all,

It would appear that most of the people on this list who have voiced  
an opinion firmly believe both that capitalism remains essentially the  
only current “mode of production” and that the attention economy is,  
if anything at all, only a not very interesting sub-species of the  
former. This is not how  I have understood things for quite a few  
years now. What follows then is a rough and incomplete primer on how I  
see what I shall refer to as “the attention (centered) economy,”  — a  
new, post-capitalist class system, differing in its essence from  
capitalism. I have emphasized features that I think demonstrate why  
some views expressed on this list, or in correspondence off list with  
me, are mistaken. The views I challenge  include the notion that  
attention flows through the Internet chiefly to corporations, that  
attention only has significance if somehow monetized, that it is  
ultimately capitalists who exploit attention, and that money remains  
far more basic than attention. Obviously in such a brief introduction  
I can hardly hope to convince anyone, but I do hope that this will at  
least open some to reconsider the issues more fully. So to begin:

1. Attention (from other humans)  is needed by every human being. In  
fact, no  infant can possibly survive without it.  Many children, at a  
very young age, clearly evince a desire for as much attention as they  
can get. Whether that desire remains as they grow older is a psycho- 
social issue. But many adults clearly want attention, and because of  
its immaterial nature there is no limit as to how much. [I have  
explored the meaning of attention much more fully here: http://goldhaber.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2007/Chap_3_3.19.07.pdf 

2. However each of us has only limited capacity to pay attention.  
Everyone's attention combined is thus also finite. As attention- 
seeking technologies increase, and as social prohibitions against  
seeking  an audience weaken by example, the competition for it grows.  
[I have discussed the Internet in this light here: http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/519/440 

3. If you and I were in the same room, having a conversation, and I  
were saying these same words (and you were interested) you would of  
course be paying attention to me. Even if we happened to be sitting in  
Starbuck’s your attention would still go chiefly to me and not to  
Starbuck’s, Inc. In reading this, likewise, you are paying attention  
to me, the writer of it, and very little directly to your computer  
screen, to your computer’s manufacturer,  to your Internet Service  
Provider,  to the phone or cable company, to thing.net, or even to  
just to the words. (You read Shakespeare, Doris Lessing, or Marx,  
rather than just books they happen to have written. In reading, the  
publisher is of very little importance to you, though the publisher — 
and others in the distribution channel — possibly made a profit when  
you or someone  bought the book.)  Thus, it is irrelevant that  
attention via the Internet passes through corporate sites or to say,  
articles or blog posts on corporate-owned media. Attention still goes  
primarily to the authors of the individual articles, etc. In general,  
our attention can be thought of as primarily going to other humans   
or, at times, to ourselves.

4.  It is actually quite difficult to pay attention to a corporation  
as such,  rather than to, say, a particular spokesperson or at times  
the person who motivates the particular actions of the corporation  
(e.g. Steve Jobs). Even TV fanatics are unlikely to watch just a  
network, as opposed to a specific program with a relatively small  
number of important creators behind it. Likewise, who attends or  
watches a tennis match to see a particular brand of ball, racket or  
tennis clothes?

When a corporation’s executives want to attempt to increase sales  
through getting consumer attention, they normally have to go through a  
complex rigamarole, involving for instance the creative people at ad  
agencies, and much more in the same vein. For instance, advertisers  
try to place commercials as close as possible to programs that draw  
attention; even then, they must also try to have the ads themselves be  
interesting, which often has little to do with what is being sold. If  
the corporation could just get attention on its own, why does it not  
just put its name on the TV screen?

5. If you have enough attention you can get pretty much whatever you  
want, including but not limited to money, should you want that. An  
anonymous  capitalist who loses all her money is out of luck, but a  
star (read: substantial attention getter) if without money, can still   
usually get more attention and through that a very generous helping  
hand from her fans (who are usually net attention payers). Stars exist  
in practically all fields, from entertainment to more serious arts to  
academics to sports to politics to journalism  and on and  on —  
including even business.

6. Without getting at least some attention, a person is likely to fare  
very poorly. Even people without jobs or money, on the other hand, can  
still very often get enough attention to be kept alive. Thus it is a  
complete mistake to think of money as more primary than attention. The  
money system and the attention system are different, but both rely on  
what is immaterial to allow material wants to be satisfied. (You can’t  
live by eating gold or dollar bills or credit cards, after all.) In  
fact attention is much more intrinsic to human existence than money,  
and thus, once it is possible to seek it and obtain it over wide  
networks, it can easily come to dominate.

7. Now we come to the question of classes. For reasons I will not  
address here, I think Marx was right to suggest each class system  is  
essentially dyadic, with the two classes of each in clear relationship  
with each other, one being dominant and the other dependent. A new  
class formation generally originates in a situation in which an older  
class dyad dominates.  The new classes, partaking as they do at first  
of the old milieu, at first do recognize their own distinctness  and  
explain themselves even to themselves according to the older  
formation, though not necessarily in simple ways. Thus a member of the  
nascent star class may see herself more as a worker or more as a  
capitalist (that is assuming she gives any thought to such questions)  
and a fan can also identify either way. Further, these identifications  
are not constant. Whether recognized or not, the new class system is  
in conflict with the old, for it relies on building up fundamentally  
different kinds of relations. The combination of different  
identifications and the underlying  conflict lead to complex and  
changing alliances and/or oppositions among all the four classes  

8.If valid, of what value is the foregoing analysis, beyond intrinsic  

  A. It facilitates a level of both clarity and nuance in examining  
various key trends and situations that would otherwise be difficult or  
impossible to comprehend.

B. Recognizing the possibility of a post-capitalist class society open  
up thinking that has in some ways been frozen ever since Marx.

C. The existence of the attention (centered) economy changes both the  
concept and the understanding of possibility of a basically   
egalitarian society, of the kind that critics of capitalism are  
presumably after.

D. It is possible that in the very complexity of the underlying  
struggle for dominance between the capitalism and the attention  
(centered) economy there might be room for  a new humane socialism to  
emerge. [See also http://www.well.com/user/mgoldh/ 
Technosocialism.html .].[I have argued here  http://goldhaber.org/blog/?p=80 
  that the attention economy is in fact increasingly dominant already;  
the argument is necessarily impressionistic, but I think has some  
heuristic value.]


Michael H. Goldhaber
PH  1-510 339-1192
FAX 1-510-338-0895
MOBILE 1-510-610-0629
michael at goldhaber.org
alternate e-mail:mgoldh at well.com
blog and website: http://www.goldhaber.org
alternate blog: http://mhgoldhaber.blogspot.com

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/attachments/20091021/cff7425d/attachment.htm 

More information about the iDC mailing list