The Attention Economy and the Net

by Michael H. Goldhaber

(2nd)Draft version of a talk presented at the conference on "Economics of Digital Information," Cambridge, MA, Jan. 23-26, 1997

(©Michael H. Goldhaber,1996)



When confronted with a new phenomenon, the mind generally tends to be conservative, to explain and seek to master what is new in terms of what is already well-known. While that process is often successful, it can badly betray us when something quite unprecedented in our own experience occurs. In this chapter I will sketch out the position that a failure of just this sort is at work in many of the attempts, in this book as well as elsewhere, to comprehend such new developments as the Internet and the World Wide Web in terms of conventional economics.

In such a situation, one must take a fresh look, both by moving back to gain perspective, and by zeroing in on features that standard thinking does not notice. The result is a radically different sense of what is in progress, and therefore a radically different sense of what strategies and practices are worth pursuing, not in some far-off future, but today.

In outline, the view I put forth is this:


Some Key Questions

At this point, a number of obvious questions emerge. Among them:

I cannot come close to fully answering each of these questions in the space allotted here, but I can offer some reflections that bear on each of them.


A Non-Material Economy

Whatever else it represents, the emerging cyberspace implies a vast departure from the old economy centered on the manufacture and distribution of material objects, for the simple reason that material objects are excluded from cyberspace. They cannot travel through the web or the net. What can? The "obvious"answer is in the title of this book, namely "digital information. " In a technical sense that is clearly correct, but what is the economic import of digital information? That is to say, what is its actual value to human beings?

Two different kinds of answer are frequently suggested. The first, conventionally accepted without much question is that the majority of such information, or other computer-generated information is in aid of business of the standard type. In other words, far from in any way undermining the old economy, the function of digital information is supposedly to smooth its operations and to increase productivity.

However, the huge volume of information already passing over the net or the equally huge volume handled by personal and other computers in office settings -- millions of times what was available just a few decades ago -- have quite definitely not contributed to any noticeable productivity whatsoever, and still less to any rise proportionate to the huge increase in information-processing capacities. They should certainly have had a huge effect if that was their function, since a growing proportion of the old economy, in its own terms is devoted to this information sector. Instead, productivity rises after the the introduction of this flood of digital information are, if anything, smaller on the average than before. This is not a conclusion that could be changed by some small upward re-estimate of productivity. The explanation as it stands is just totally false.


Information as Added Value

A second kind of answer related to the utility of the Net, etc., is that it provides a new kind of value, namely that it satisfies our individual need or desire for information. Before examining this notion more fully, I want to set it in a different context.


The Limits of Material Consumption

This context is the fate of the industrial economy proper. Every economy exists in history; every economy of note therefore has to have started out small and then grown. Each one, therefore, has to have some inherent feature that makes it grow. But just as certainly, eventually, the value of that sort of growth ends. The economy has succeeded, as well as anyone really can hope, and there is less and less point in continuing on the same course. The only possibility is a change of direction, a freeing of social energies towards dealing with some kind of desire, some kind of scarcity that was held in check in the background until that moment.

In broad outline, that is what happened about 1950 or 60 or 70 or 80 with the old economy of mass production at least in the advanced countries. (The year I prefer is 1965, but who really cares?) Take cars. Somewhere in that period, we came pretty close to one car per driver. Factories could easily have been enlarged and made more efficient so as eventually to turn out lots of cars per driver, even lots of affordable cars per driver, but whatever the price, having more than one automobile is of diminishing value. As long as you have only one body, you are constrained to ride in only one car at a time; yet if you choose to have several, you take on added responsibilities of keeping track of them, maintaining them, and so forth.

Similarly with quality, or what some economists like to call value added. In terms of material functionality, getting from place to place in reasonable comfort and safety and as fast as the law and traffic allows, only very subtle improvements in quality are possible. This is why engineers add and advertisements emphasize such features as headlight wipers or side airbags, each one of which offer only tiny improvements in functionality, comfort or safety Can you imagine a car that is ten times better in any respect, and therefore should be worth ten times more than today's average car? I can't; I don't think anyone can. Growth in quality,too, is a matter of diminishing, sometimes purely imaginary returns.

Or take food. On average, we are overweight in this country, but that is despite incredible efforts to resist consuming. If you were to eat all the food you could afford, you would burst very soon. Except in war zones, there is no place on earth today with more than distributional problems in keeping everyone fed. At least for the time being, the long era -- most of recorded history -- of cycles of famine is over. Enough food is grown for everyone. Ditto with clothes. It used to be that photos of the poor conspicuously revealed rags, garments in tatters. Now such photos, even from the poorest countries, are hard to come by. For the middle classes, closets bulge as much as profiles. We accommodate ourselves to more and more kinds of clothes for different occasions; we follow increasingly short term fashion trends, but we still do not come close to consuming what the capacity exists to produce. If clothes could be produced fast enough for you to be able to change to a new outfit every five minutes, would that be a blessing? Can more work make endlessly better clothing?

Such considerations can be applied to virtually every category of material good. Having only one body constrains each of us all in the amount of such goods we can make any direct use of, thus limiting our capacity and inclination to consume. New kinds of good can be invented, but it takes time for them to attain much acceptance, often at the expense of some older category. In that time, generally, productive capacity can be made ready to meet any demand.

The result has been that as productivity increased, average net employment in factory production had to fall, since per capita consumption, though continually rising just could not rise fast enough to keep up. If agricultural employment is included in overall figures for employment in material production,as it should be,then there has been a worldwide drop in the total of such employment per capita, even as consumption per capita world wide continues to grow.


. . . A Return to the Question of the Value of Information

In that context, with material superabundance having an ever more pressing effect, could it be that by turning productive skills and efforts to the creation and its distribution of new information new potentials for consumption could be tapped, and thus further increasing the quality of life, while continuing the old economy, only slightly transformed? The problem with that hypothesis stares us in the face. If material goods are abundantly available, then information is vastly more available. Consider the web in this regard. Every new piece of information put on the web is potentially available,with hardly any technical barriers to millions, instantaneously. Thus information "productivity" can be gigantic, virtually infinite, if defined by the number of "consumers" each piece of information can be "used" by, that is, if defined in parallel to a common-sense definition of productivity for material goods.

Consequently, the oversupply of information is far greater than that of material goods. Indeed, each of us tends to be drowning in it, experiencing more and more difficulty in keeping up with the torrent that comes our way, and yet the torrent keeps increasing. Huge numbers of postings on the Web or the net, along with many kinds of information distributed by more primitive means, never receive the slightest attention, that is, in the old terms they are not consumed; there is no demand for them. No matter how curious or inquisitive we may be, or much desirous of being entertained, there is already far too much information coming at us for us to make good use of it, or indeed to take it in at all. If the growth of material production was limited by the ability to consume, then the growth of information should have been limited even more, if the economic motives for that growth had been the same. In other words, the tremendous growth of the information sector is entirely irrational from the viewpoint of standard economics, carefully analyzed. A different explanation is required.


The Attention Hypothesis

If the desire for information of any kind is hardly so strong as to justify the vast growth of what is known as information technology,then why did it grow, and why does that growth continue at an accelerating pace? Material goods don't flow through things like the net. Information does, but what else? There is only one basic answer, and that is what has to be present somewhere along the line if information is to have any value at all. It something that is scarce, as well as desirable, so that there is a clear motivation for putting out effort to obtain it. Namely attention.

The real promise of the Web and the net and the like, though also a promise it can never completely fulfill, is to help satisfy the ever more pressing desire 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.

While we do not customarily speak of attention flows, or think of attention as something that even can flow through wires, etc., ,there is no reason not to. As you read this, a significant portion of your attention is obviously going to this text, but equally, in a certain sense, to me,the emitter of these words. That would be completely obvious if you happened to be listening to me say the words rather than reading them. Whenever you pay attention to anyone speaking, you are also necessarily paying attention to the words being spoken. And vice versa: you can't only pay attention to words being spoken without paying attention to whoever is speaking them. How you hear the words -- over the radio, through a phone system, by way of the Internet or in an auditorium or simply in direct face-to-face conversation -- makes no difference in that regard. In a very real, if little considered sense, your attention flows to the person speaking.

The flow need not end there. Attention has a sort of commutative property; if you have my attention and X has your attention, you can easily pass mine eon to X. Whether I keep paying attention to X will remain in question, but at least for a moment you can direct the flow that way. This is commonly done by introducing a third person in a conversation, by handing over the mike (or the "floor") when speaking before a live audience, by mentioning, quoting or citing someone else in written materials, and so o

The World Wide Web's key feature, the hyperlink, more or less automates this redirection of the flow of attention making it easy to pass attention further up the chain, helping to unify the world wide flow of attention into one complex free-standing system.


The Unavoidable Fact of Attention Scarcity

If scarcity is a main motivator of the type of organized activity that could possibly be labeled an economy, then the scarcity of attention is an especially good one. Paying attention implies some degree of understanding and taking in what ever is being done or expressed. Hence, only a sentient being can be a source of attention, and only a sentient being very similar to ourselves is likely to be capable of any real understanding, and of an acceptable level of attention paying. Few people would say that their personal computer, their telephone or any other gadget is capable of understanding them, though they might say their dog or cat is. But understanding to some degree comes from empathy; you cannot understand me if you cannot somehow put yourself in my position or my shoes,and to do that you must be somewhat like me, enough so that if I can want attention, so can you. If we feel that our pets are capable of understanding us, we probably also feel that our pets have some desire for our attention in turn. They may in fact demand more than they give us. Whatever is capable of paying attention also is capable of wanting at least as much. For this reason, the amount of attention available per capita will always be limited, no matter what we do, technologically, to try to ease the scarcity. Even a computer that could really pay attention would be just as capable of demanding it.

Furthermore, each of us, no matter how able or well-trained or equipped with technical aids or dosed with stimulants, has only a limited capacity to pay attention. We can each only give our full attention, as rule, to one other person at a time. On occasion one can fake it, and seemingly being fully attentive simultaneously to two, three, or maybe even a few more individuals, each of whom is not too demanding. Even so, there are very real limits on the total amount of attention we can personally put forth.


The Infinite Desirability of Attention

For something to inspire economic activity it must be more than scarce; it must be desirable. Unlike material goods, attention is something we receive primarily with our minds, nor does receiving it require that we pay equal amounts of it out. This means there is no obstacle to having (consuming, if you like) the attention of everyone on earth, provided there is a way to get it. New technologies move us further towards that theoretical possibility every day.

But even if you could have everybody's attention, would anyone want that? The clear empirical answer to his latter question is yes. It is quite possible that many people would not want a great deal of attention, but that is irrelevant,since it is also abundantly evident that very many do.

When the director Steven Spielberg received his Academy Award for Schindler's list, he happily and helpfully reminded the audience that they were a billion strong. The novelist Martin Amis expresses his regrets that people bother to read other novelist's work when they could be reading his. Getting attention in large quantities is being a star, and the number of people who openly make evident that they crave stardom and put out endless effort to achieve it is quite substantial.

Furthermore, beyond craving attention there is exulting in it when one has it. If you are good enough at attracting attention, your audience can be said to be "enthralled," which literally means "enslaved. " This may be a temporary enslavement, and may feel very voluntary, but nonetheless, when you have someone's full attention, that means they have turned over a large part of their mind and even body to your control. If you are sufficiently adept, that power can be extraordinarily potent.

When you have superb control over your own body, so that you can perform great athletic feats, it feels great; likewise, it feels good when your mind feels focused and powerful; how much more wonderful then to be able to have the minds and bodies of others at your disposal! Those who have been in that position frequently have reported this exhilarating feeling.

But in addition, as common usage makes plain, attending to someone shades over into listening to them, heeding what they say, doing what they ask, waiting on them, waiting for them, serving them, loving them, in short doing anything and everything for them, which is what having power over their minds and bodies suggests. Having attention means having recognition, identity, and meaning in the eyes of those around you. It provides sustenance to spirit, mind and body, in just about any form.


Attention as Omni-Versatile Resource

The versatility of attention would not be all that helpful if it were entirely momentary or transitory, but it isn't. If you are enthralled by someone to any degree, your mind is permanently altered in the process; you are very likely to remember the experience and the person. You will also feel a sense of obligation and gratitude that will make you want to pay further attention to that same person again, and very likely again and again, which of course is exactly what star power is about.

Andy Warhol famously said "in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," but if taken approximately literally that is doubly untrue. There is not nearly enough attention or fame available to permit anything like an average of fifteen minutes for all. Equally critical, those who do get that much fame have a considerably enhanced chance of holding onto attention for much, much longer. Warhol himself is as good an example as any, his fame enduring years beyond his death.

Once you become a star, you can subsequently bore your audience several times in a row, disappoint them, mystify them, or do something they consider utterly immoral without necessarily losing them permanently or even temporarily. You can disappear for years, say on a drug bender, or in hiding or jail or whatever, and then return and many of your audience will still be eager to pay you fresh attention. This was true even in the distant past. Writers,artists and composers have of course retained audiences for centuries, though what benefit is it was to them after death remains a moot point.

The web and the Internet enormously enhance stars' opportunities to obtain and make use of attention, converting it to whatever they may desire because they permit many stars direct and continuing lines to fans.


Stars and Fans

So obtaining attention becomes the key goal in the new economy. Of course, not everybody necessarily wants a great deal of attention, just as in a money economy not everybody wants a great deal of money or many of the material goods that money can buy. But just as in a money economy practically everyone must have some money to survive, so attention in some quantities is pretty much a prerequisite for survival, and attention is actually far more basic. This has always been the case for tiny babies. About the only thing they can get for themselves , or can give, is attention,which they begin to do within a half hour of birth, by smiling at those who smile at them. Without attention an infant could never satisfy its material needs, for food, warmth, fresh diapers, being burped, and so on. At a slightly later stage infants and toddlers need attention if they are to develop any sense of themselves as persons, and neither of those needs ever completely goes away. So even if you do not especially make a point of reaching for attention, even if you are very shy and reclusive, you still probably cannot do without some minimum, which however reluctantly, you may have to fight for. And no matter how humble you now may be, at sometime in your own childhood you certainly sought attention or you wouldn't be here. .

As we move towards an attention economy in a fuller sense, the ethos of the old economy which makes it often bad taste or a poor strategy to consciously seek attention seems to be giving way to an attitude that makes having a lot of attention rather admirable and seeking it not at all to be frowned upon. Think of the sorts of things people are now willing to admit about themselves just to get on the likes of Oprah or the Sally Jesse Raphael show. Even the President of the United States is willing to discuss his underwear on nationwide television.

If some succeed in the hunt for a great deal of attention and become stars, most do not, ending up as "fans," putting out more attention than in fact comes back to them, which may well prove to be not only less than they would like, but even than they may need even to feel very human or conceivably to obtain whatever material necessities they require.


Illusory Attention

They (and this is the vast majority) are then largely reduced to making do with what I call illusory attention. Earlier I suggested that when information flows one way through the net, attention has to be flowing the other. Now I show that it would be even better to think in terms of attention of some kind flowing both ways.

Consider an ordinary conversation. You could describe it as the exchange of information, but except in highly technical sense that is rarely a very accurate description of what takes place. A conversation is primarily an exchange of attention. When you say "how are you?" for instance, you don't really want to know, as a rule, but if whomever you're talking with chooses to say how he or she is, it is more to get attention from you than to convey information. Even if this person genuinely thought you did want to know about her/his health, in answering, s/he would be attempting to pay attention to you. And even if you, in turn genuinely did want to know, the usual reason would be to pay attention to her/him.

Information, in the sense of something not previously known to one of the parties or another is secondary, if present at all. If I want your attention for any reason, I might begin by asking you for information, such as who you are and what you do, not necessarily because that is of great interest to me, but because it is a good way to get your attention. Children ask countless questions with this motive often patently obvious, and adults are not necessarily any different. Even if I am desperately searching for some fact that you happen to know, to get it from you I first have to get your attention. So what really matters in every conversation, formal or informal, conducted over the net or in person, is the exchange of attention, an exchange that normally must be kept more or less equal if one party or the other isn't likely to lose interest.

When one party is communicating to an entire audience, what goes to each audience member may be thought of as illusory attention. A crude but ubiquitous example is the attention that seemingly comes to you when you see someone talking and looking in your direction and you momentarily ignore the fact that they are appearing on television, and don't in fact know you from Adam. . Perhaps only the tiniest child can be completely fooled by this, but without a partially successful illusion television would be of little interest, and neither would other media.

If rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech, then anyone who speaks or writes or seeks attention in any way has to become something of a success in the special rhetoric of persuading listeners, readers, and so on, that he or she is meeting their individual needs, when in fact some of these needs have been artfully set up in advance. You want to know what I am driving at, for instance, because I have already provided clues galore that I am driving at something that should matter to you. Success in this is a necessary component of creating illusory attention.

That helps create an apparent equality of attention, and it can in fact go beyond that to create a feeling of obligation on your part or the part of other readers, viewers or listeners. The audience members can each feel they have not paid as much attention to a performer of any sort as the performer has paid personally to them, even though, a very real sense the reverse is closer to the truth.

Most of us, much of the time, can do little better than get illusory attention, which does not really focus in on who we actually are very successfully. But getting that is enough to make us feel a gratitude to the stars who provide it, in part simply because it feels as if, with their large audience, they have singled us out. This gratitude can account for our further efforts to pay them attention in any of its various forms. By focusing on stars in this fashion, we further restrict the availability of real attention, which in turn intensifies the competition for it, and that, in its turn pushes still more of us towards the lure of illusory attention, and so on in a tightening spiral.


The Effect of an Audience

There is a further wrinkle to illusory attention, a wrinkle essential for stars. As I mentioned above, attention has a commutative property; it can be passed on from someone who has it to someone else, and on and on, which is of course a vital feature if there is to be anything resembling an economy. If you are in a live audience, whoever is the center of attention could at any moment single you out, and hand the audience's attention over to you, quite genuinely. If you are receiving illusory attention from someone who you believe has an audience, since the illusory attention seems to be coming to you specifically, it is as if the entire audience's attention, personified by the performer were coming your way. In other words, in certain situations, you can feel as if a star is not only repaying your attention but doing so in spades. The larger the audience, and the more aware you are of its existence (or its apparent existence), the greater the effect, and the greater the resulting gratitude to the star.

We have all been in audiences and felt this incredible force, a mixture of awe and gratitude many times. Some people are so good at getting and holding attention that just to be near them or to see them again or to do something or other for them seems only to be desired. This is the phenomenon of celebrity.


Stars and Money: A Phenomenon of the Transition

In addition to obtaining attention,we are all quite aware that stars currently make money, in huge amounts. That fact is best understood, as a feature of the period of transition between old economy and new. A look at other historical examples of transitions between economies, suggests some general rules. One is this: while acting more and more according the new economy, people retain the concepts and forms that applied to the old, using the old forms whenever they can, even when it isn't very effective. A second rule is that old wealth flows to the holders of the new kinds of wealth.

Both were the case when the feudal economy, based on the hereditary control of land, began to give way to what evolved into the industrial economy . For a long time, centuries really, most failed to "get it". Even the rising industrialists thought that the real purpose of their activity was to ascend into the nobility. Nobles had little understanding of money, and as the market system gained in dominance, many of them found themselves in desperate circumstances. The possessors of the new money wealth were able to marry into noble families, have kings grant them titles or buy estates complete with titles, which according to the old feudal patterns was just not possible. And all that came at bargain prices. In other words, the old wealth flowed, in ever larger streams to the holders of the new, who didn't really need that old wealth at all, but only thought they did.

Essentially the same process explains the ever-increasing monetary value of stardom, and indeed the rising inequality in our society as a whole. Attention is held unequally, and the old wealth, which is money in our case, flows to the holders of the new wealth, which is attention, and whom we call stars, celebrities, and so on. In effect, paying money to the stars when they ask it of us is simply part of part of paying attention to them. This explains the rising income inequality between CEOs and ordinary workers as well. Roughly speaking, today's ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay is at least four times what it was 25 years ago; sometimes much more disproportionate. CEOs are also stars to a far greater extent than in the past.


Further Effects of the Transition

The rising emphasis on attention also explains other features of our times neatly. It was once thought that rising productivity would lead to increasingly short work days. In fact, in the 1960's the question of what to do with all the forthcoming leisure was considered a serious social problem. Since then however, whether at work or not everyone is busier and busier. The divide between work and home, work and play, that characterized the industrial economy is rapidly eroding. In the attention economy there is no down time.

Today what counts more and more is performing, not producing in the old routine sense of factory production. Since performance involves your whole personality, everything about you, you are always at least preparing, except perhaps when you are paying attention to others, which is always to some degree effortful,and certainly requires time.

Also explained is how the US can have a negative international balance of payments for years, and still be thriving. The ordinary figures simply fail to count the huge excesses of attention paid to this country's stars. The openness of American culture makes our stars better as a group at projecting illusory attention than those of any other nation of comparable size. As a result the whole world eagerly watches them, and feels gratitude towards them, some of which rubs off on most of the rest of us. This helps make the U.S as a market so alluring that negative ordinary trade balances are more than canceled out.


Attention as Property and Its Incompatibility with Intellectual Property

Property is the ownership of wealth. If attention is the important kind of wealth, whenever you attract and hold it, you gain property. You do that by making yourself and whatever you want attention for as visible as possible. You would only gain if there were gossip about you and what you are doing. You would benefit from revealing as much as possible about yourself, including your weaknesses, your sex life, and just about anything else. By humanizing yourself in that fashion, you not only stir up interest, but you make it easier for others to imagine themselves in your shoes, which means turning their minds to see from your position, a key part of any paying of attention. If you close the door and window, hiding yourself away from their sight, fans will more likely turn elsewhere and you risk losing at least some of the attention you already have.

Thus you hold onto the new form of property the best by being most open. This property literally is in the minds of your beholders, and you want that to be as many minds as possible.

This is totally the opposite of what it took to hold onto material property, whether land, goods, or money in previous economies. For that you needed walls, locks, gates, and safes, police patrols, etc. The very concept of intellectual property as it is now understood is an attempt to try to extend that old form to what is basically the new situation. That is why intellectual property, even though its roots in law extend back to the twelfth century, has become vastly more important in recent decades. Intellectual property requires that no one pay attention unless they pay money. Even if they have the money, that complication, especially on the Internet, will often be too much for them, and they will focus their attention instead on what is uncomplicated and easy. They would also want to get attention by quoting, citing, criticizing, parodying, gossiping about, or referring to you if you are a star, and the more difficult you make that by imposing the law and its arduous enforcement between you and them, the more you limit the attention you can get, thus lessening rather than adding to your store of attention as property.

In the long term intellectual property is thus a foolish and losing proposition. This helps why the old and new economies won't continue to coexist forever; they are diametrically opposed around this central question, as well as some others, and one can only grow at the ultimate expense of the other.


An Approach to Intellectual Property for the Transition

Today, in our transitional period, it is still possible and practical to charge for material mass-produced embodiments of what I refer to broadly as illusory attention. I mean such things as books, magazines, CD's CD roms , video tapes, seats at concerts, etc. But elaborate efforts to enforce intellectual property restrictions in other countries can be self-defeating. Nothing will aid the buildup of a Chinese film industry faster than too great an insistence on the part of American film makers that only authorized videotapes may be shown at a sufficiently high price. The losers would be American stars, and the country as a whole. Much the same goes for software.

Meanwhile,whatever is done about the material embodiments, as the Web and the net continue to grow, essentially free transmission of everything will grow too. Stars who insist on monetary payment for that will lose out to those who get a wider audience by simply letting go. Even if entire books, for instance, are passed freely along the web today, that will only increase the attention for the handier printed text,and so at present the best strategy is a combined one:free on the web, charging money off. As new technology and new habits eventually make reading a portable computer screen even more convenient than reading a book, the sales of actual books will start to drop; the same for CD's, and all the rest. There will be no money in books, but it still can be lucrative, in new- economy terms to write.


An End Game Scenario

Compared with monetary transactions, attention transactions on the Web will be far more numerous. Money will not necessarily fade in value, in other words inflation will not set in, in the old sense; neither will recession nor deflation. Instead, money will just lose importance, just as noble titles have over the past few centuries. The stock market might not even fall; stockholders may simply lose interest, ceasing to sell and buy in equal ratio.

Am I speaking about the far future? I think not. Already, if you are reading this, you are probably involved in far more organized person-to-person or audience-type situations where what is being exchanged is attention, real and illusory,than you are in direct monetary transactions or the direct production of material goods. The fraction of time spent in pursuits more closely tied to the new economy is, even now, well above fifty per cent and rising. The new practices are already almost fully functioning for some, and more and more in place for others.

At the end of the feudal period, the pomp and display of the nobility reached a level never before attained; the most gorgeous armor, the most magnificent knight tournaments, the most elaborate ceremonies between rival nobles, the most brilliant marriages, the greatest interest in noble lineage. But by then it had lost all real function or importance. So today, when the stock market goes up and up, when money wealth itself seems a source of fame more than ever, when being number one on Forbes 400 list seems the height of perfection, when every basketball superstar wants a contract that is at least a million more than the last record one, we seem to be more dazzled by money than ever, just as we seem to be more intrigued by material goods than ever. But these interests are superficial and faddish. They are signs of decadence not of a glorious future for the money economy. Even in themselves they speak to the growing desire for attention, the need for it as well. Money is now little more numbers, one number among many, and as a source of lasting attention it can fade in an instant. The attention economy is already here, and more completely so every day.

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So far I have said only a little about the Internet or web, but it should be pretty clear where they fits in. If you can easily become a star by appearing on TV, the Web offers everyone a crack at something like this. If it keeps expanding in both number of subscribers and variety of media usable through it, then in barely a decade everyone on earth, more or less, can be connected, and have two-way video capabilities. Not long ago, John Malone of TCI was promising us 500 cable channels. Instead,we might soon have more like five billion, one for each of us. The scarcity of attention means that most of these channels will hardly ever be watched, but the Internet permits the flow of attention in so many ways that everyone will be able to get a little bit o f the action or at least hope to.

In a sense the Internet functions much like a conference, but on a global, continuing scale. The internal economy of any conference, including this one is already basically an attention economy. Attention goes to relative stars, these stars can then pass it to others, and in between sessions, everyone get a crack at a little attention. The stars here are not so gigantic that the fans are necessarily prepared to do much for them, but to a certain extent they do, offering a variety of special attentions.

When the conference is enlarged to be the whole world, the variety of services that can be offered within its confines to stars obviously will be much larger than now. Material goods, such as food, will then be secondary, having been ousted from the primary position it held in the industrial economy , much as family subsistence farming as a way of life and a source of most wealth moved away from the center as the feudal period passed, to be replaced by industrialized agriculture. Now all material production, like the production of Star Wars memorabilia, will be secondary to more primary forms of real and illusory attention.



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