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Richard Lanham Discusses the “Attention Economy”

Posted By Paul Comstock On April 3, 2007 @ 8:30 pm In Architecture,Business,Economics,Education,Non-Fiction Reviews | 3 Comments

Richard A. Lanham

Richard A. Lanham is professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Los Angeles and president of Rhetorica, Inc., a consulting and editorial services company. His most recent book is The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information.

Let’s start with a definition. What is the “Economics of Attention” and how does it differ from our traditional view of economics?
The basic argument is simple enough. We’re told that we live in an information economy. We remember from Econ.1 that economics studies “the allocation of scarce commodities that have alternative uses.” But information is not a scarce commodity; we’re drowning in it. What is scarce is the human attention needed to make sense of it. We really live in an attention economy. What does such an economy look like? What are we to make of it?That attention is in short supply seems to be born in upon us from all sides. From frantic multi-tasking two-career parents to soldiers in computerized fox holes or pilots inundated by cockpit information, we’re all drowning in a sea of information.
The usual life preserver thrown out to us was first suggested by Herbert Simon in 1971. He argued that what we need are filters. “Knowbots” that pre-google our experience for us. Plenty of these life-preservers have been thrown over the side to keep us from drowning in information and often they do help. But information filters are not what we need the most. We need to know where the flood originates and what it means. This holds doubly true if we are moving the other way, trying to attract attention from people immersed in a flood of information.
The common assumption runs deep. What is really important, really real, is the physical stuff of the world. Commodities. Substance. We dug and grew it in the Agricultural Age, and we built it in the Industrial Age. The allocation of such stuff, after all, is what classical Adam-Smith economics came on the scene to explain. The rest is just “Fluff,” style not substance, “rhetoric” instead of “reality.” But now we are in a third age, the Age of Information. Now we’re stuck, it seems, with the “everything else.” With the “fluff.” And the fluff sometimes seems to be more important than the stuff.
The driver of the change, the earthquake that has caused the tsunami, is how we have come to think of physical nature itself, as information, information “as an active agent, something that does not just sit there passively, but “informs” the material world, much as the messages of the genes instruct the machinery of the cell to build an organism.” [Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language, and Life, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1982.) In an agricultural and an industrial economy, we think of nature as matter and energy. In an attention economy, we think of it as information.
It is important for our purposes here to remember that information never comes without a package, as pure truth, la pura and sancta verita. We always have to package it somehow, if it is to make sense to us. Packaging tells us what to expect of the contents, what kind of attention to pay to it. You don't have to package a rock to kick it. But you have to package information somehow if you mean to transmit it. There have to be X and Y coordinates somewhere in the picture if you are to make sense of the equation. And this packaging will always, to some degree, be persuasive. That's what it means to tell you - what kind of attention to pay to it. The word we usually employ for persuasive packaging is style.
When the digital computer came along, it found this fundamental form/content shift between substance and style just waiting for it. For the computer, by the way it works, through an informing code, embodies just this same form/content shift we have applied to nature itself. The computer is a knowledge machine, a system of cultural memory, but of a particular sort. Like the genes, it stores information in code. The code is the fundamental "content," the real "stuff." What we are accustomed to think of as the "real world" becomes a printout, a printout created increasingly by computer graphics, by digital design. You see this designed, this synthetic reality everywhere you look nowadays, from video games and TV commercials to scientific visualizations and military training. Made objects, from buildings to airplanes, find their beginning and central reality in computer-assisted design and manufacture. And, as information has to have a package of some kind, a computer has to have a package too, an operating system which tells it how to pay attention to the data.
The earthquake that created the tsunami of information was, then, this combination of a new way to look at nature and a new machine, a new method of cultural notation exactly suited to expressing this new view of nature.
Time for an "Of course." Of course we have always sometimes thought of physical reality as generated by a code. In medieval Christianity, the world was conceived as existing in the mind of God and having its only true reality there. Down here on earth, we have only printouts of God's design, and confusing ones at that, with which to play out the drama of our salvation. Further back, Plato found ultimate reality in a series of forms, not in the imperfect realization of those forms on earth. Further back still, we have the atomism of the pre-Socratic philosophers like Democritus of Abdera. But it has been a long time since we've thought about nature, our daily reality, as a printout. The digital computer has now returned us to it.
When the computer came on the scene, then, it found a conception of nature, and of human reality, just waiting for it to express. Fixed print couldn't do this. The digital screen could. That was what digital code was all about.
The classical Greeks and Romans were fond of saying that all the world is a stage, but digital expression really makes it so, a series of printouts. And so, much of what we say about that world becomes-here's where a literary critic like me enters the picture-dramatic criticism. This new means of expression brought with it a profound transformation, the radical dramatization of conceptual thought and indeed of human experience. This dramatic reality includes many of the aspects of human life which economists most sedulously avoid. Thus we have to begin our consideration of an economics of attention by pointing out a fundamental source of confusion: we are being asked to pay attention to two different kinds of reality, old-fashioned stuff and a fluff which turns out to be a new kind of stuff. The famous economist Alfred Marshall begins his classical treatise, The Principles of Economics [1890, many editions], by asserting that economics studies “the ordinary business of life.” Well, it is a different kind of “ordinary” when we find our center of gravity in attention rather than stuff. It is hard, often, to keep these two kinds of “ordinary” life, stuff and fluff, straight.
All around us we see signs of this confusion. Americans are often called a “materialistic” people and we certainly are surrounded by material possessions and revel in them. But at the same time, the “real world” of physical location seems to be evaporating before our eyes. You don’t have to go to the office to go to the office; you can go to New York and Rome by going to Las Vegas; you can shop in your kitchen and go to school in the living room. A surgeon can remove your gall bladder from a thousand miles away. Physical location threatens to evaporate. And yet we want more and more of it. We yearn for the authenticity of location. The whole tourist business-now, by some accounts, the biggest business in the world-is built on a search for “authentic” locations. And yet, as soon as they are found, they are “spoiled by the tourists,” and become a stage set and not a “real” place. And even our attitude toward our stuff is changing. It doesn’t last long and, more and more, we rent it rather than owning it. It isn’t the stuff which is essential but what we can do with it. Stuff is not a possession but a convenience. More like Fluff.
So it isn’t just the amount of new information generated that confuses us but the kind of reality it brings with it and the kind of attention we are asked to pay to that reality. On the one hand we still live in the physical world of old-fashioned stuff and all the old economic rules apply. On the other hand, we live in a world of digital drama and new rules are called for.
Information filters are not what this bifurcated world needs the most. It is training in how to recognize which kind of reality you face and thus what kind of economics applies to the situation at hand; otherwise you may be conducting the wrong kind of cost-benefit analysis or, perhaps, waging the wrong kind of war. We are being asked to move continually from material to immaterial stuff; to recognize what kind of assets we actually possess, and to act accordingly. Conventional economics, at least as I’ve come to understand it, does not consider this oscillation to be its business. Yet occasionally someone has noticed. It was a remark by Walter Wriston, the late Chairman of Citibank, that set me off on the economics of attention quest. The world desperately needs a model of economics of information that will schematize its forms and functions. But even without such a model one thing will be clear: When the world’s most precious resource is immaterial, the economic doctrines, social structures, and political systems that evolved in a world devoted to the service of matter become rapidly ill suited to cope with the new situation. [Walter B. Wriston, The Twilight of Sovereignty, Scribner's, NY, 1992] This new “model of economics” is what The Economics of Attention seeks to supply.
Right after 9/11, cops, firemen, fighter pilots, etc. seemed productive “stuff” while the rest of us often felt like ineffective “fluff.” It’s hard not to assign moral values to stuff vs. fluff or style vs. substance, but you say that’s a mistake.
Ah, the question of questions. The besetting sin of the aging scholar (well, one of the besetting sins) is to reply to a difficulty question by saying, “Oh yes! I’ve addressed that in an earlier book.” But I will commit this sin nevertheless by referring you to the chapter called “The Q Question” in my The Electronic Word. The “Q” in “The Q Question” was Quintilian, and my essay took as its departure point his statement (it was not presented as an argument) that the perfect orator was, ipso facto, the perfect man. Thus, once we think of rhetorical training as comprising pretty much the whole of humanistic instruction at that time, the problem of justifying “fluff” doesn’t exist. It is defined as intrinsically good. This seems, in Quintilian, an embarrassing begging of the question, but humanistic inquiry has continued the begging up to the present time, albeit disguising it more effectively than Quintilian did. I’ve wondered my whole career about the moral value of humanistic inquiry. And the practical value as well. A humanistic education does not seem, judging from ordinary department life, to make us more charitable. And perhaps the firefighters and fighter pilots do finally do the central work, while we stand chatting nervously to one side. I have taken comfort in the traditional explanation, best exemplified perhaps by A.E. Housman’s “Introductory Lecture” when he was made professor at University College, London: liberal learning is valuable in itself. Here is how Housman puts it: “But the pleasure of learning and knowing, though not the keenest, is yet the least perishable of pleasures; the least subject to external things, and the play of chance, and the wear of time. And as a prudent man puts money by to serve as a provision for the material wants of his old age, so too he needs to lay up against the end of his days provision for the intellect. As the years go by, comparative values are found to alter: Time, says Sophocles, takes many things which once were pleasures and brings them nearer to pain. In the day when the strong men shall bow themselves, and desire shall fail, it will be a matter of yet more concern than now, whether one can say ‘my mind to me a kingdom is’; and whether the windows of the soul look out upon a broad and delightful landscape, or face nothing but a brick wall.” But this justification, eloquent as it is, simply argues for the life of the mind as the most aristocratic of pleasures. As Aristotle might have said, “It is so.” But that does not answer the “Q” question. Here is how I answer it in The Electronic Word (pp.155-56) “So, like Quintilian, we first deny the problem resolutely and then construct something that I shall call “the Weak Defense.” The Weak Defense argues that there are two kinds of rhetoric, good and bad. The good kind is used in good causes, the bad kind in bad causes. Our kind is the good kind; the bad kind is used by our opponents. The Strong Defense Samuel Johnson summarized with his usual absence of cant as, “Sir, you do not know it to be good or bad till the Judge determines it.” The Strong Defense assumes that truth is determined by social dramas, some more formal than others but all man-made. Rhetoric in such a world is not ornamental but determinative, essentially creative. Truth once created in this way becomes referential, as in legal precedent. The Strong Defense implies a figure/ground shift between philosophy and rhetoric-in fact, as we shall see, a continued series of shifts.
If we put forward the Weak Defense, then we do indeed stand at the periphery. It is the Stuff that really counts, and all we do is explain why. If the Strong Defense, then we help constitute social reality and that is surely as important as putting out a fire, though not a substitute for it. But, if done properly, maybe a Strong Defense would have prevented the fire.” So, at least I argue.
As for style and substance let me, having cast all modesty aside, call your attention to Chapter 3 of my Literacy and the Survival of Humanism. The essay is called “The Choice of Utopias: More or Castiglione.” More’s Utopia constitutes a renunciation of style, like Plato’s Republic, but not nearly so honest. He sneaks the pleasures of style back in the back door, and humanism has been doing so ever since. How he does it has constituted a template humanist thought has used ever since. If you want to know what I have to say about style and substance, this is the best I have done to trace it to its source. The essay seems to me, with whatever wisdom hindsight can offer, the best single essay I’ve written. I wish it had not been forgotten. It explains the origin of the “style = hypocrisy/substance = truth” equation. And it is the best explanation I’ve been able to come up with for why style has come to have a dyslogistic force and substance a eulogistic one which simply inhere in the words.
It is natural, but perilous, to assume that our “rhetoric” is simply the transparent truth, our opponents’ is “merely rhetoric.” You hear this pairing everywhere, used without any thought, but it really does put you on the road to the bad place.
Nothing seems to galvanize our attention more than an external threat – whether it’s a tornado or a terrorist. Do you have any concerns in this wired age with governments creating an overblown crisis and enacting a response before people have time to fully evaluate the degree of the threat? Do we need to be more vigilant to the dark side of an attention economy?
Do things often get “overblown” by the media? Who can doubt it? What is exaggerated and what is not will depend, more often than not, on the opinions you hold about the events in question. No change here really from the days of print, except in speed and breadth of the audience. But these are huge changes. Everything, not simply news about the war on terror, gets overblown. Too many “news” sources chasing too little attention.If you are thinking about the war on terror, then there really is a change that can be correlated with an economics of attention. The terrorist war is an intensely theatrical one and they wage it that way because they understand, though not perhaps at a theoretical level, that we live in an attention economy. War has always been theatrical-look at the Iliad if you doubt it-but there has, to my mind, been a real change with the terrorist war. Tactics and strategy both change. I’ve done some reading about this change but I’m not qualified to express an opinion. I’m not sure that those, military and civilian, who wage this terrorist war, quite understand how the theatricalization (ugly word, sorry) of war changes things. To describe how would require a book, and I’m not qualified to write it.

You don’t spend much time on architecture in your book, but I’d like to get your thoughts. Architects seem to be following this “attention grabbing” view of the world and I’m not sure if it’s for the better. Will we be burdened with frivolous buildings lasting decades or even centuries that were designed to grab our attention for only a few seconds?
There is certainly plenty of attention-grabbing architecture around. Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall here in Los Angeles can stand for one kind: a civic landmark intended to establish Los Angeles’ place in the tourist business, develop a new brand awareness. Pity Bilbao got there first with this kind of building but that was because the city fathers bickered so long before building it. I’ve not read anything about roof leaks yet but the shiny surface has had to be dulled down because the people in the neighboring building were being blinded. And the seating is so cramped that even an ordinary sized concert-goer (me – 5′ 11″) can’t sit comfortably. On the other hand, the acoustics are terrific. How it will wear as the years roll by, both in practical terms and as a design, impossible to tell. But clearly, it was aimed at an economy where attention was the commodity in short supply.Yet is this really anything new? Haven’t architects always aimed at such attention-grabbers? At least architects at the top of the prestige ladder? I happened to see, when we were in France last spring, Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel. I’d been wanting to see it ever since I was an undergraduate (it was just being built then and hot stuff in the art history department). It certainly grabs your attention, stuns you, when you first see it sitting bright white up on it green hillside, and even more when you ponder it as you sit inside. Yet it seems to me to be much less self-centered than Gehry’s monument and much more beautiful. And it uses the same asymmetrical curves. Corbu got there first! Maybe, though, my response comes from its being so much smaller, so much-I’ll say it-less pretentious. But did Corbusier hope it would make him famous and attract the world’s attention? You bet he did.
A second kind of attention-grabber. I was part of a conversation recently on the public radio station in Las Vegas, when the host of the show called attention to the showy glitz of Vegas architecture, especially its imitation versions of New York, Rome, etc. Here is the attention economy par excellence, one would think. You could write a study of its attention economy, picking up where Robert Venturi et al. left off. Attention architecture you might well call it.
Yet here again, how new?, I wondered. I had just been walking around Paris and it had struck me how fake, finally, all that neo-Roman housing for the infinite French bureaucracy looked. Huge, separated by huge public spaces that dwarfed you as you made your way across them, intended to intimidate and impress by importing classical Rome into modern France. How different, in essence, from the Vegas effort to impress with borrowed splendor? The French intellectuals who despise Euro-Disneyland for being fake ought to take another look at Paris. A third kind of attention-grabber, the mega-mansion. They are enough to give Tuscan architecture a bad name, and that is pretty hard to do, because Tuscany doesn’t cry “Look at me!” in this way. Although in the book I try to take a non-judgmental attitude toward design, I confess that the mega-mansion urge makes my heart sink. You make a little money and all you can think of is to build an imitation villa or palace of Versailles on a scale of 1/18, right out to the lot line and to hell with the neighbors and the neighborhood. I live in a neighborhood started by a group of people who wanted to live quietly and built quiet and modest modern (this was in the 50′s) houses. Private people living a private life. Megamansions folk move in just the opposite direction. Discouraging.
Of course there is plenty of glorious contemporary architecture. (Not, though, in my neighborhood.) Bridges, for a start. All those bridges the Norwegians have built to cross their fjords seem, somehow, to fit into the landscape as perfectly as they contrast with it. Or the Oresund bridge that connects Sweden and Denmark. Driving across it is impressive but viewed from the air it is astonishing. Or Calatrava’s foot-bridge up in Redding (I think Redding, but northern CA) of which I’ve seen only pictures. And there is plenty of utilitarian building, too, thank Heaven. Much of it still in the international style, but ok by me. If I were trying to house a corporation’s offices, I don’t think I’d try Frank Gehry, although there is a building of that kind in London, looks like a rocket, but I can’t for the life of me think of its name [Swiss Re headquarters].
So, I’d like to say that current architecture fits my argument perfectly, but it doesn’t seem to be so, and I’m not sure what template of understanding does fit.
What does the future hold for books?
Obvious things first. Books are going to be around a long time, however many of them get digitized by Google, Amazon, or whoever. The codex book has proved to be a much more enduring operating system than any of the computer systems, as the librarians kept warning us. I confess that I do not understand the current book-publishing scene. Although, according to Bowker, book production dropped in 2005, the long term trend is ever upward. Never have more books been published; never have there been so many different kinds of books; never have they been sold so imaginatively; never have there been so many books that I want to read! It is not all best-selling rubbish, fictional or non-. But who reads all these books? We keep being reminded that Americans are not book-readers and, if young, not print-readers at all. My wife and I go on house tours from time to time, to visit some of the landmarks of “mid-century modern,” as it is now called, in which Los Angeles abounds; not many bookshelves in those houses. Never what you might, with some exaggeration, call a “library.” The market surveys about how many hours young men spend playing video games now are more depressing than how many hours the TV is on. So what do we have? “The Great Age of Books that Nobody Reads”? On the sunny side, surely this is a great age for the book trade. The used book market has been transformed by web services like Amazon, ABE, etc. We hear a great deal about the pressure on the small new book seller; I’d like to read an article about what is happening to the used book shops. I’d bet they are thriving. Lots of articles about how many other sources of entertainment compete now with books but I’ve never read a price-comparison. Books are, in fact, a phenomenal value for money; always have been, of course, but much more so now than before.
On the plus side of the ledger, too, you have to register an enormous change: books have gained a voice. Audio books constitute an enormous advance. In an age of secondary orality like our own, this ought not surprise us as much as it has. Example: the novels of Alexander McCall Smith. The readings are superb; try “Tears of the Giraffe” or “The Villa of Reduced Circumstances.” Will this hurt the sales of the printed book? My guess is no, but I’ve seen no numbers and, in fact, I don’t see how an empirical study could be formulated. I wonder, in this regard, how many “listeners” there are, as against “readers.” And the gain when readers are reminded that prose does have a voice is enormous. It feeds back on everything one reads.
I think the digitization of books is an extraordinary advance, too, but you have to redefine book, separate the binding from the writing. If you think that prose must come in a printed, bound book then of course you will be in deep despair. But if you accept all the advantages of digitization: that the distribution costs of digital text are practically nothing, that the search powers are exponentially augmented, that special-interest books which cannot make it in the market can be sold at a profit on a print-on-demand basis, that sound and dynamic images can be added to the text, that the storage and inventory costs are practically nothing, that portions of books can be sold, as Amazon plans to do, etc.; how can you not rejoice? Even the publishing world seems to be catching on; Rice University has recently announced that it will reactivate its university press as a purely digital publisher.
The argument that people don’t want to read text on line doesn’t seem quite to fit the enormous amount of reading that now takes place on line. The argument that the resolution of print is superior depends on the current state of electronic display. This has recently taken a big step forward with Sony’s Reader. Take a look at the display there. Terrific. Of course, they want to display only propriety material on it, but that kind of stupidity can’t go on forever.
Libraries are going full speed ahead in digitizing their collections. Microsoft will scan (is scanning?) 25 million pages of the British Library collection. Google is bashing on. Less obvious but disquieting, people doing research (and not only students) increasingly restrict themselves to what they find on-line. The librarians sometimes feel like the clerks of a forgotten mood. But surely the answer to that is more digitization, not less.
The VCR and DVD player have given film back its history, made it available to everyone. Something of the sort seems to be happening to publishers’ backlists. Print-on-demand will eventually put everything “back in print.”
Less happy is the textbook situation. Textbook costs threaten to be even more extortionate that university fees. The textbook as weight-trainer still reigns. Why there has been no move to the obvious pattern-on-line texts for courses supplied by the university as part of taking the course-surely must be that the publishers fear a loss of income. How to introduce the competition that will solve this problem I will not pretend to have thought out.
So, the future of the book? For the traditional bound book, brighter than before. For the digital text, bright beyond imagining.

Where do you see education heading in an attention economy?

I’ve really had my say in Chapter 7 of The Economics of Attention and don’t have much to add. The only thing I would have added to this chapter concerns the enormous importance of branding to higher education. Every college and university (Harvard excepted of course, where perfection has already been attained) is working on improving their brand, and the ways they do it don’t always coincide with the central instructional purpose of the enterprise. But they argue that they must compete for attention and this is how such competition evolves. I wonder, though, about how deep their desire to protect the brand runs. The center of brand protection must be the value of the degree, and that depends on the quality and difficulty of the instruction and the honesty of the grading. That grading is a joke is now a public joke. Nor am I optimistic about the quality of instruction, and even less so about the amount of work demanded. If you hire graduates from Brand X U. and they can’t write a correct sentence, nor speak three words without inserting “like” between them, then your faith in the brand is compromised. I see nowhere in the university world any real willingness to defend the brand against this kind of compromise. But I’ve been retired from teaching for a dozen years and maybe such defenses are being mounted that I haven’t read about. On the other hand, the public demands brand value without much consideration of how the brand is being supported. Let me report a saddening conversation I had recently which demonstrated this. At a Milken Institute talk, I fell into conversation with the fellow next to me. When he learned that I was a university professor, he told me about a problem he was having with his daughter, a student at the best private school for girls in Los Angeles. She was doing well enough, but had fallen in love with Latin, at which she excelled. Well, what good was that? People in Los Angeles think “Latin” means “Spanish.” (In fact, they do.) Worse still, she liked the visual arts and yearned to draw and paint. I suggested that the best fit for her would be a small liberal arts college. Such a place would probably provide a better education than a name-brand school anyway. No, no, he replied. He was willing, he said, to come up with the dough to send her to Harvard or Yale, or some other name brand school, but otherwise it simply wasn’t a good investment. Before I could suggest that educational branding was a tricky business, the speaker had started and our conversation ended. The poor girl.

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