Attention Economy
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Attention Economy

H.A. Simon: "a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention"

Given that the amount of attention that we can devote to our work is finite, a growing amount of information clamoring for our attention must at a certain moment produce an overload, where a number of (potentially important) items simply can no longer be processed. Agreeing about "netiquette" or appropriate rules of conduct in communication may significantly reduce this information overload, but it will not stop the people who have something to gain in transmitting their messages.

This is most obvious for commercial publicity, where it is in the interest of the seller to inform as many people as possible about their offers, but it also applies to individuals and organizations (e.g. lobbyists, pressure groups, political parties) who for various reasons want to attract attention to their ideas. While freedom of expression makes it impossible to strictly limit the number of messages that are produced, the concept of attention economy may suggest a more flexible approach.

The roots of spam

Ephemeralization has made the production and distribution of information extremely inexpensive, inciting senders to spread their messages ever more widely. It costs hardly anything to send a commercial message to millions (and soon billions) of email addresses. With such mass-mailings, while most addressees would find little of value in the message, only the tiniest response percentage is sufficient to make a huge profit. Therefore, there is no real advantage in targeting restricted groups. Where the cost for the sender is minimal, the cost for the receivers, while individually almost negligible, is collectively huge. Assume that an addressee spends on average a mere second to decide that a spam message should be deleted. If the message is sent to 100 million people, this entails a total loss of some 700 working weeks. Now consider the losses when 100 such messages are distributed every day!

Information tax

The cost has shifted basically from sender to receiver. If attention is the most scarce, most precious resource to remain after ephemeralization, then it would seem logical that people should pay to receive it. While unorthodox, a straightforward way to implement this principle would be to instate an information distribution tax. Instead of letting email be basically free, a protocol could be created so that every sender would pay a small amount (say, 10 dollar cent) per addressee. Such an amount would be too low to make anybody think twice about sending a message to a loved one, but it would make spamming uneconomical, forcing publicity messages to target their audience very precisely.

The tax could be collected centrally, and used by the government e.g. for combating information overload at large. Alternatively, it could be implemented as a decentralized transaction, an "attention fee", that is paid directly by the sender to the receiver. The protocol could be further expanded so that if the addressees of the message would indicate their satisfaction with the message (e.g. by clicking an "OK" button, or by maintaining a list of "OK" colleagues and friends), the fee would be waived.

In that way, people would be less inclined to send messages that are unlikely to be appreciated, while the people who do get more messages than they desire would at least receive some form of monetary compensation for their wasted effort. (While the intention is different, there already exist schemes where people are being paid for their willingness to simply pay attention to advertisements, e.g. by clicking on web banners, or listening to commercials during their phone conversations.)

This economic analysis of attention can be taken a step further. While attention is a universally valuable resource, some people's attention will be more valuable than others'. Generally, the attention of people who are powerful, popular or authoritative will be much more in demand, as their reaction to the messages they receive will generally have much more influence in the outside world. For that reason, presidents, film stars, religious leaders, royalty, and Nobel prize winners generally receive immensely more solicitations than little known pensioners or homeless people. According to the law of supply and demand, their attention should therefore command a much higher price.

In practice, such people are surrounded by a secretarial staff that processes the great majority of the messages, and the upkeep of this staff does require a lot of money. The high status of these people is usually accompanied by material wealth sufficient to pay for such upkeep, and therefore there does not seem to be an urgent reason to force senders to pay huge sums in order for their messages to reach a high-status person. Moreover, such a purely monetary way of valuing scarce attention would appear highly undemocratic, making it almost impossible for non-wealthy people to get the attention of their leaders (though it must be noticed that in practice this is just what happens, even without explicit fees for attention-getting).

Receiving attention

An additional argument why high-status people should not be paid more highly for their attention is that in a sense they are already being paid back by the attention they get themselves. Goldhaber [18] has argued that attention is not only valuable because we have too little of it to give, but because it is intrinsically pleasant to receive. It is part of human psychology that we seek to increase our status, and this goes together with increasing the amount of attention we get from others. Therefore, becoming famous is the dream of many. Since ephemeralization has democratized wealth, but kept attention scarce, fame may actually have become more attractive than wealth. Goldhaber [18] therefore suggests that the traditional economy, based on the exchange of material wealth, is being replaced by an economy based on the exchange of attention.

This view of the attention economy has a basic flaw, though: attention is not a tradable good. While attention is valuable both when spending it and when receiving it, the one cannot compensate for the other. All the attention that is focused on a famous person's private and public life will not help that person tackling information overload. At best, public attention can be converted to money, as when it helps a pop star sell records, which in turn can help the receiver buy the support to process more information, but this seems hardly an efficient way to direct information processing capacity where it is most needed. The market's "invisible hand" that balances supply and demand may be a relatively effective mechanism for allocating tradable goods and capital (cf. [19]), but the same does not seem to apply to attention.

Controlling attention

One reason why attention is so difficult to allocate rationally is that people have very little control over the emotional drives, such as sex, status, and danger, that focus their attention on one subject rather than another. News and publicity agencies have very well learned how to manipulate these drives in order to sell their messages, e.g. by including pictures of sexy women or cute babies that are wholly irrelevant to the message itself. Most of these drives are deeply rooted in our genes, being adapted to a prehistoric hunting-gathering lifestyle very different from our present information society. Yet, several authors (e.g. [20, 21]), building on centuries-old spiritual traditions such as yoga, meditation and Zen Buddhism, have argued that it is both possible and desirable for people to learn to control these drives.

While the effort and discipline necessary to achieve mastery over one's emotions may be daunting, the first step is simply to become aware of the relatively simple ways in which our emotions are being manipulated. This awareness could be part of the rules of information hygiene that everybody should learn. Another reason why control over drives may not be so difficult to achieve is that, according to the need hierarchy of Maslow [22, 23], "lower", material needs become less pressing as they are better satisfied. Thus, in a society where most basic needs of food, security, company, etc. have been satisfied, people will spontaneously pay more attention to higher, cognitive needs. The problem remains that there is an "inertia of desire" [24] which keeps desires active long after the underlying needs have been satisfied. Here too, there may lie a role for a generalized education into "mental" hygiene.


[18] Goldhaber M.: The Attention Economy and the Net. First Monday 2, No 4, (1997)

[19] Heylighen F.: The Economy as a Distributed, Learning Control System, Communication & Cognition- AI 13, nos. 2-3, p. 207-224 (1997).

[20] Stewart, J. E.: Evolution's Arrow: The direction of evolution and the future of humanity (Chapman Press, Australia): <> (2000)

[21] Csikszentmihalyi M.: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row (1990)

[22] Maslow A.: Motivation and Personality (2nd ed.), (Harper & Row, New York) (1970).

[23] Heylighen F.: A Cognitive-Systemic Reconstruction of Maslow's Theory of Self-Actualization, Behavioral Science 37, p. 39-58 (1992).

See also: Attention economy in Wikipedia

Copyright© 2008 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Apr 9, 2008


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