Ramblings and thoughts from Jan. 14, 1997

Ramblings and thoughts from Jan. 14, 1997

This is an e-mail I sent to Brad with my impressions of a talk I had just gone to by Michael Goldhaber on the attention economy. The first part is the announcement of the talk that intrigued me enough to go to the talk itself, and the second part is my reactions to the talk, pieced together from memory and notes I took while at the talk.

The talk announcement itself


                Escaping from the Library:
            The Natural Economy of the Net, or 
          Routes to Attention in the Digital Maze

                   Michael H. Goldhaber

                    January 13, 4:15 pm
                 Gates Building, Room 104


The basic concern of the Digital Library project seems to be how to make
networks such as the Internet most useful. That implies some view as to how
they are to be used, how they fit into life as a whole. If the usual
answers to that are mistaken, as I argue, then it follows that different
considerations than usual should be the basis of tool design, as well.

Start with the premise that the net at least holds out the promise of
meeting some extremely important need. Otherwise how do you explain why it
has grown and continues to grow at such a reckless and explosive pace?
Frequently this growth is discussed as if it is somehow the result of a
move towards an economy based on information; at other times it is taken to
be merely a byproduct of the industrial economy's somewhat mysterious
exponentially rising need for data.

Such explanations falter when confronting the realities of the net. For
instance, the majority of newsgroups and of web sites, etc., judged by the
size of their audiences hardly seem to be responding to anyone's need for
facts, or anything like it. One could give up on a more general explanation
and simply accept that much of what is done in these new media is done just
for the hell of it, but that seems to be giving up too much.

The reason for thinking in economic terms is that it should offer clarity
otherwise unavailable. Such an outlook, at its most basic, asserts that
when many people end up doing similar things it is because of a combination
of similar motivations, similar pressures and similar capabilities. The
main kind of economic pressure is scarcity. If x is abundantly available,
there is no need to do anything special to go after it; if y is scarce,
there is such a need, at least if y is also desirable, and if there is some
clear path towards possibly succeeding in getting it.

Information doesn't fill those requirements as a motivator. For one thing
the simple fact is that even before, say, the Web ever got under way, we
already were drowning in more information than we knew what to do with, and
>from  that perspective, far from offering any help, the Web simply
compounds a problem of long standing.

The real promise of the Web or the net, though also a promise it can never
completely fulfill, is to help satisfy a need for something that is truly
scarce. That something is attention. To get attention you must emit what is
technically identifiable as information; likewise for information to be of
any value, it must receive attention. Therefore an information technology
is also an attention technology, or in other words, a transfer of
information is only completed when there is also a transfer of attention
proceeding in the opposite direction.

By reversing the normal perspective and concentrating on attention, on its
economics and on the flows and  structures an economy based on attention
brings forth, one an get a clearer idea of what particular features would
make the Web most effective. One also can understand the larger role of the
Web as part of a historical transition from the money-based industrial
economy as dominant to the new attention-based one. Since much effort
these days goes into trying to make the Web or the Internet a suitable
avenue for the conduct of industrial commerce, this perspective offers a
framework for questioning the utility of elements of the effort.

"The digital library field today... think[s]... in terms of the selection,
authentication, cataloguing, indexing, inter-relating, preserving,
organizing, and displaying of materials, which libraries have always done."
--Terry Winograd

Inevitably in paying and seeking attention, each one of us must carry out
every single one of the above functions, almost continually, and the task
of creating tools to aid in this looks quite different when seen from the
attention economy perspective than when seen from the information
perspective pure and simple. I illustrate this point by considering how
hyperlinks and other Web mechanisms aid in the key process of circulating

Also, it is helpful to recognize that the prime sort of private property in
the new economy is attention itself, a kind of property that is quite
literally in the minds of the beholders (attention payers). Technological
developments that aid inthe preservation of such property are altogether
different from the kinds of tools have been put into effect or proposed to
aid the hybrid, transitional  kind, so-called intellectual property. I
discuss some.

About the Speaker:

Michael Goldhaber is completing a book on the attention economy.
Formerly a theoretical physicist, and later editor of Post-Industrial
Issues, he is currently head of his own think tank, The Center for
Technology and Democracy, and is a visting scholar at UC Berkeley. His
previous book was Reinventing Technology.

Directions and a seminar schedule with abstracts can be found at
To receive the announcements for this seminar series, send a message 
to lists@diglib.stanford.edu containing 'subscribe dlsem' in its body.

Martin Roscheisen

My reactions to the talk

The talk was pretty interesting. Although he didn't say anything really mind-bending, it was an interesting hypothesis that was pretty easy to find evidence for - a paradigm if you will. Anyway, I scribbled down some notes during his talk so I'll pass them on to you and if you don't want to see them you can always just page past :)

He was saying that money is not going to be as important in the future, except perhaps as a counter for where attention lies. I mean, that's already turning out to be the case. Athletes and rock stars get a great deal of attention, and, as a function of that, end up with a great deal of money. Even the stock market reflects this idea - the stocks that go up are the ones that draw attention - almost regardless of the actual company (i.e. the huge IPO's of various internet companies). Money won't be as much for the sake of material wealth (as he pointed out, there's only so many material goods you need no matter how rich you are), but for the sake of the attention that the money brings you (i.e. Bill Gates).

Also, attention will actually outweigh money in some ways. If I can get and keep your attention, I can find a way to make money off of it. Sort of like how famous people can always get stuff for free (dinner from fans or shoes for athletes) just for the sake of the attention they bring to the giver of the stuff.

This ties into another point he made about the re-direction of attention. Attention can be circulated. When I have your attention, I can re-direct it to other people. He gave the examples of picking somebody out of the audience and talking to them (the rest of the audience will look at whoever he's talking to), and of hyperlinks from one's web page to another. This is the principle of TV advertising (or Oprah's book club) of course. It's not quite like money being passed around, but there can be a case made for it being an economy of sorts.

He also made some points about intellectual property that I think are somewhat shaky. But he was noting that in an industrial/material economy, when you have information you want to keep it secret, and make sure only you can use it (hence the principle of intellectual property) because that's the only way you'll make money from it. In an attention economy, you don't care as much about the money (or the money is secondary) as the attention for your ideas. In which case you want to publicize your ideas far and wide so that everybody hears of them and hears of you. Now, as a result of this, you may make money, but it's secondary - more the idea of once you have their attention, you can find a way to make money from it. This ties in with ideas like Netscape's free browser and stuff like that. It's kind of odd that, as he mentioned, the two economies are contradictory as to how one's ideas should be used.

As a side note, while I'm thinking about it, his economies tie in directly to Toffler's Waves (which may or may not be intentional). In the talk, he mentioned the feudal, the industrial and the attention economy, analogous to Toffler's Agricultural, industrial and information revolutions.

As a tip to people trying to get attention in this economy, he noted that what helps is to pay attention to one's audience. Using the various tricks of the speaker to create expectations, it make it seem like you're filling the audience's expectations/needs when you later go on to talk about their expectations which you created - this comes across as you paying attention to them, which is a sure way to ensure their continued attention to you.

He had a couple sample technologies which he wanted to see which tied in with his ideas, but most of them were concerned with the web and weren't too interesting to me.

Another thing which I just remembered was his concept that we do need attention - it is something which is desired if not required (even if I don't seem to remember it on Maslow's pyramid :) ). And if we don't get it in one arena, we'll find a way to get it elsewhere. This kinda hit home with me since I only started wasting huge amounts of time on a mud after I moved out of TEP...after I didn't get my daily dose of attention from people in real life, I created a character of some "fame" on the mud to make up for it. It's a stretch, but I can see some evidence for it.

He also supposedly had a web site which I haven't been able to find yet (I later found it) - i may e-mail winograd to find out this guy's e-mail address so i can ask him directly. He's also publishing a book about it sometime soon which I didn't catch the name of.

Anyway, I thought it was pretty interesting. My notes above might not be 100% accurate to his ideas (considering I was using examples I thought of rather than his cuz his were boring and all had to do with the web) but you get the general flavor I think.

Talk to ya later,
On Tue, 14 Jan 1997, Bradley J. Rhodes wrote:
> Ooh, that is interesting. Sortof fits in with what I've been saying to a
> lesser degree for awhile now -- that Time magazine should pay *me* to read
> their views and be influenced by their worldview.
> So how goes the rest of life?
> -- 'Bug

Eric Nehrlich's WWW home page / nehrlich@alum.mit.edu