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Michael Erard

A Short Manifesto on the Future of Attention



Photograph by Leander Johnson
 
In 1971, the oft-quoted political scientist Herbert Simon predicted that in an information age, cultural producers (that's designers, but also filmmakers, theater types, musicians, artists) would quickly face a shortage of attention. "What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients," he wrote. The more information, the less attention, and "the need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it."
Now we have a wide-ranging discussion about what is and what can't be free (Malcolm Gladwell on Chris Anderson, Virginia Postrel on Chris Anderson), which is basically about the future of profit. Maybe we should be considering a dilemma of a human nature: the future of attention.
Because there's a connection between the two. 
Making something "free" is obviously an allocation strategy. "Free" attracts attention. Making things brief is an allocation strategy as well. The problem is that free isn't sustainable, and that brief is underpriced. 
We need a Ronald Reagan of attention, someone to inspire us away from the fight over smaller and smaller pieces of the attention pie. Someone who will inspire us to make the attention pie bigger. 
I imagine attention festivals: week-long multimedia, cross-industry carnivals of readings, installations, and performances, where you go from a tent with 30-second films, guitar solos, 10-minute video games, and haiku to the tent with only Andy Warhol movies, to a myriad of venues with other media forms and activities requiring other attention lengths. In the Nano Tent, you can hear ringtones and read tweets. A festival organized not by the forms of the commodities themselves but of the experience of interacting with them. Not organized by time elapsed, but by cognitive investment: a pop song, which goes by quickly, can resonate for days; a poem, which can go by more quickly, sticks through a season. A festival in which you can see images of your brain on knitting and on Twitter.
I imagine a retail sector for cultural products that's organized around the attention span: not around "books" or "music" but around short stories and pop songs in one aisle, poems and arias in the other. In the long store: 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzles, big novels, beer brewing equipment, DVDs of The Wire. Clerks could suggest and build attentional menus. We would develop attentional connoisseurship: the right pairings of the short and long. We would understand, and promote, attentional health.
I imagine attention-based pricing, in which prices of information commodities are inversely adjusted to the cognitive investment of consuming them. All the candy for the human brain — haiku, ringtones, bumper stickers — would be priced like the luxuries that they are. Things requiring longer attention spans would be cheaper — they might even be free, and the higher fixed costs of producing them would be covered by the higher sales of the short attention span products. Single TV episodes would be more expensive to purchase than whole seasons, in the same way that a six-pack of Oreos at the gas station is more expensive, per cookie, than a whole tray at the grocery store.
I imagine an attention tax that aspiring cultural producers must pay. A barrier to entry. If you want people to read your book, then you have to read books; if you want people to buy your book, then you buy books. Give your attention to the industry of your choice. Like indie musicians have done for decades, conceive of the scene as an attention economy, in which those who pay in (e.g., I go to your shows) get to take out (e.g., come to my show). It would also mitigate one oft-claimed peril of the rise of the amateur, which is that they don't know from quality: consuming many other examples from a variety of sources, even amateur producers would generate a sense of what's good and what's bad: in other words, in their community they'd evolve a set of standards. This might frustrate the elitists, who want to impose their standards. But standards would, given enough time, emerge. (In this I have faith.) 
I imagine software, a smartphone app, perhaps, you can use to audit your attentional expenditures. So that before you embark on trying to write a book, you will be able to see how much time you spent reading books over the last month or year. So that before you design a marketing campaign that assumes that people aren't doing much else with their time until you show up, you will be able to see what you yourself were doing with your time, which was something perfectly good. This will show you that you're a savvy allocator of your attentional resources — and so is everybody else.
And yet I can't shake fantasizing about attention that has no price, that can't be bought or sold, but is given freely: a gift. I buy and read books because I want to give the gift of my attention to the attention economy I'm (as a writer) a part of. I'm inspired by Lewis Hyde in The Gift, who says that what distinguishes commodities is that they're used up, but what distinguishes gifts is that they circulate — the gift is never trapped, consumed, used up, contained or confined. That seems like the best basis for cultural production to thrive.
So this is what it's come to: when an attention gift economy seems more practical and sustainable than an exchange economy for information commodities, which is being rotted by the gift's ugly negation: the free. 


Posted in: Advertising, Books, Economy

Comment 46  |     |     |   Like 4  |   Tweet 5
Michael Erard Michael Erard is the author of Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Free Press). His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Wired, Slate and many other publications. His book about what we say (but wish we didn’t), Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, came out in 2007 (Pantheon).

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Comments [46]
"cognitive investment"

BRAVO !

great read , thank you.
Alicia
08.13.09
11:44

This is all lovely. I certainly read many, many books for every one I write, and I function quite well in the gift economy. But the tough question for all of us is how we are to cover the expenses of life for which we cannot exchange attention. Even my latest gift project--this event http://www.deepglamour.net/deep_glamour/2009/08/party-with-deepglamour-on-august-20.html -- could not be put together 100% with donations of time and materials.

Once upon a time, creative work was done mostly by landed aristocrats with a stream of income from their wealth. Is that the future as well as the past (except that the wealth will be not in land but from other investments)? I find it hard to avoid that conclusion.
Virginia Postrel
08.13.09
12:49

"I imagine attention festivals:" yes. This is Burning Man! :) And there are more of us every year who are actively and consciously trying to bring that type of attention (and activities worthy of it) out into the "default world."
Peggy
08.13.09
04:07

Please make the article shorter. :)
maxCohen
08.13.09
04:57

and how does the government get their share? 5% ART (Attention Resource Tax?

You don't get to run for politics unless you vote, can't vote unless you have served your community...
Marty
08.13.09
05:37

Very nice.

With a kid on the way I think a lot about attention span and the pleasures that are lost with our ADHD info consumption.

I really like Attention Festival. Gonna ponder on that for a while.
Mack
08.13.09
07:48

There's no such thing as a “short manifesto,” btw. Especially as it applies to our culture's dwindling attention span.

I image a world where relationships—of every kind—will have to be redefined. Too many people + too much information = vast seas of inch-deep wisdom. Everything and everyone will become a momentary commodity.

Unless we all actually direct our attention towards something we're passionate about. With more general knowledge, we'll either find ways to reinvent ourselves, or find gross dissatisfaction.

An attention-tester on my iPhone would be cool, too, though...

What were we talking about???
ruthlessmind
08.13.09
08:56

Hmm. Reading this felt like looking at the old promotional flyer announcing my Great Grandmother's "reading" performances on the traveling circuit around the turn of the 20th century. Quaint. Charming. Real? Dunno. Maybe. Just as Twitter is more like the Fuller Brush Man model than the broadcast TV model. Fascinating times as we become increasingly intimate in a global way.
scottRcrawford
08.13.09
10:20

I had a little trouble with this piece when I first read it this morning before breakfast. But tonight I went to a classical music concert with a program of “Song of the Volga Boatmen”, Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, and a ballet by Stravinski. Oddly, the house was only two-thirds full.

The concerto was a wonderful showcase for a fiery pianist who improvised his way in and out of Beethoven’s score almost effortlessly before suddenly assaulting the keys like a gorging predator. Had he not stopped coming back onstage the ovations would have gone far beyond three.

But all I wanted to do during the ballet was leave. I stayed only to avoid waking the woman next to me, clearly in her eighties, who was also so bored she could barely stay awake. I know why the house was two-thirds full now—the entire concert series is programmed like this, and people aren’t going to pay for a good concerto and a LOT of boredom.
James Puckett
08.13.09
11:47

Fantastic!

As a consumer, my first awareness of an attention-themed festival was the Short Attention Span Film & Video Festival (founded 1991 in San Francisco). Watching as our modern culture barreled forward, fads such as 12 second videos & films with single-frame sponsorship have seemed to contrast beautifully with longer-range mindsets like of the Slow Food movement and the Long Now Foundation.

The economics of attention surely deserve more deliberation. Thank you for this manifesto.


ps: Mmmmm....Attention Pie!

Alicia Renee
08.14.09
02:15

tremendous read. thanks for attacking this issue with such clarity... and fair play for positing several phrases as handles for future conversations: attentional health wins it for me.
cole
08.14.09
03:06

Oh, the bitter race for attention. I wonder is there any way we can benefit from it in the long run...

Good article though, thanks!
Zsolt
08.14.09
06:33

I completely LOVED this article. It would be awesome, the Attention Festival, I'd be up for that!
Daniel Vazquez
08.15.09
03:34

very interesting, and i like the new look for the site
johnsteinkamp
08.17.09
12:16

Paying more for short attention foods. I love it.
John Mindiola III
08.19.09
03:20

Great posting! thanks for attacking this issue with such clarity... and fair play for positing several phrases as handles for future conversations: attentional health wins it for me.
Acai Berries
08.21.09
12:30

I completely LOVED this article. It would be awesome, the Attention Festival, I'd be up for that!
Colon Cleanse
08.21.09
12:38

When I spent a few months in Washington DC I saw that many people already live in an attention economy, and plenty who keep track of who or what they spend their attention on (and whether it gets paid back) more closely than their bank account.

I'm especially interested in your observation about the difference between a pop song and a poem - I think this dimension is way more important than the length of time one spends. Imagine the difference between looking into the eyes of an intense, passionate person - a yogi perhaps, or an artist - for just a moment while passing on the street, versus the minutes (or even hours) you might spend with someone at their day job getting the print right or trying to figure out which model you need while they're just thinking about going home, going out tonight, or being anywhere but here.

If we could develop a way to consistently measure and encourage that, we'd be on the way.
daniel erwin
08.21.09
08:41

Brilliant idea. The measurement component specifically – we can't learn to maximize or, for that matter, monetize attention and its byproducts until we learn to measure it. And whoever comes up with the solution – my money's on MIT Media Lab – will really have a game-changer on their hands.

But it doesn't seem like anyone is anywhere near it yet. Heck, Nielsen have been butchering something as simple as measuring how much attention people pay to TV, consistently equating engaging in an activity with attending to it. Which is preposterous proposition. So, how do we measure the real stuff, this cognitive gold, and cash it in?

One thing's for sure, it won't be just the journalists or just the cognitive scientists or just the technologists who figure it out – it will be the cross-pollination of ideas, which should be the foundation of whatever business model for attention we end up with.

Maria Popova
08.24.09
08:26

I'd like to see someone apply an attention metric to teaching and learning. After all, there's no easy way to distinguish between a state of learning and a state of paying attention. Maybe this could lead to re-thinking how we present material in the classroom. I think there is a taxonomy of attention, and perhaps we should structure classes around varied attention modules.
David Noah
08.24.09
03:18

I have written a great deal about the attention economy (see goldhaber.org and further references there) and I believe I originated the term in the 1980's. Your suggestion is quite inventive, though I don't see that it has much chance of success. As I discuss at some length here -
http://goldhaber.org/blog/wpcontent/uploads/2007/Chap_3_3.19.07.pdf people who get attention can generally get their needs met, with or without the intervention of money. Thus the attention economy can be a separate, fully functioning economy that may well come to replace the money economy. Also, figuring out the net attention taken up by a haiku, say, relative to a novel would be difficult, because a sufficiently interesting or deep haiku might be one that a reader will continue to ponder for years. Apparent length is no indicator of depth.
Michael Goldhaber
08.25.09
09:49

Intriguing stuff, Michael, as always. It also reminds me that I need to look at the copy of Richard Lanham's _The Economics of Attention_ (2006) that's been sitting on my shelf for a few months. But I haven't had the attention resources to allocate to it for a while, since it's a long nonfiction book and all...
David Barndollar
08.26.09
10:42

Gaudi, architect of the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, was once asked why his project (still unfinished) was taking such an inordinately long time. His reply: 'My client isn't in a hurry.' What kind of price could any of us put on that?
Julian Dobson
08.26.09
01:44

YES!!!
Thank you so much for thinking along these lines and expressing yourself...we need more conversations with people like you.

Our attention is indeed a most powerful tool...is free...and makes people, situations, even plants and animals thrive when we use it appropriately, consciously and with joy!!!
Alice
08.28.09
01:42

Right on - attention is the new currency and there's so much more to spend it on these days. Attention gifting seems very democratic as one could not rise to huge prominence unless they had infinite attention of their own to give out, but I do think some people deserve more attention that others (even though the Nielsen ratings on TV seem to be inversely proportional to attention deserved at times!).

Becoming aware of attention and what it takes and how its used is the next challenge of the information age.

And thank you for not mentioned information overload, e-mail overload, or any of that. Your angle is much more sound.
Craig Roth
08.29.09
07:10

I get this. But really, it's mental masturbation. One way to overcome the glut of information is to say one true thing, and let it go at that. Hemingway once summed it up nicely:“Develop a built-in bullshit detector.”
Jon P
08.30.09
12:32

Fantastic post. I was saving quite a big piece of attention pie but I just spent some of it on this. Great value too. Thank you.
Tony.
08.30.09
04:42

This has got me thinking:
'"Free" attracts attention. Making things brief is an allocation strategy as well. The problem is that free isn't sustainable, and that brief is underpriced. '

I've been thinking of cancelling two free weekly subscriptions that I would never have maintained if I had to pay for them. Less, but better quality, would make me happier; my attention would be better invested.

Like Mark Twain said "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." Although length does not equal amount of attention, the quality is the real issue.

I'll cancel those subscriptions tonight. Thanks!
Reinko
09.01.09
12:05

This article resonates throughout my life, people I am associated with, and it seems like people n general are attention mongers, but have the attention span of a 3 year old.
captainwinslow
09.02.09
10:31

I like this last comment -- it's that fundamental imbalance between our own attentional deficits (hey look over there!) and our presumption about other people's attention surplus (here, I'll just throw another email/blog post/song/whatever out there) that I tried to get at in my essay.

michael erard
09.02.09
02:53

I guess this could be construed as proselytizing (?), but honestly, maybe you would be interested in reading Wake Up To Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path to Attention, by Ken McLeod. It's very secular and western, and save for one "Buddhism in a Nutshell" chapter very free of religious mumbo jumbo. He spends an entire chapter on describing how to pay attention. Did you know it's like riding a bicycle? You have to balance not letting your thoughts get carried away (focus) with being aware of the entire situation (clarity). I guess you could say the practice of paying attention is the core of the entire spritual tradition.

How does this relate to your post / essay? Well, my experience is that truly paying attention to what it is that you're doing is important, and that doing so already is the basis of a gift economy, rewarding both the giver and the recipient at once. You can think of attention as the tool that destroys negative patterns. If you don't pay attention, your life will be consumed by Facebook news feeds, Twitter, and up-to-the-minute breaking news stories. Your life will be consumed by your consumption: of clothes, food, conversation, energy, time, money. Paying attention frees you from the need to consume voraciously, and does something for both you and whoever it is that suffers from your lack of attention---and somebody always suffers, even if it's "just you". Or perhaps alternatively, paying attention creates order, not paying attention creates chaos.
Chris Pickett
10.16.09
11:11

Got to say this article resonates throughout my life, people I am associated with, and it seems like people in general are attention mongers, but have the attention span of a toddler.
Norton 360
10.31.09
07:53

Interesting, but why any time want to reduce the time ?
Today, time has become precious, why do not spent time to see long movie, hear long & slow song, spend a long time to do nothing.
Spend time.
appartement
12.17.09
07:13

I imagine attention festivals: week-long multimedia, cross-industry carnivals of readings, installations, and performances, where you go from a tent with 30-second films, guitar solos, 10-minute video games.
Jonny
12.18.09
03:09

. You can think of attention as the tool that destroys negative patterns. If you don't pay attention, your life will be consumed by Facebook news feeds, Twitter, and up-to-the-minute breaking news stories. Your life will be consumed by your consumption: of clothes, food, conversation, energy, time, money.
acai berry
12.27.09
12:06

You saved my alot of time thank you so much for sharing your experience.
Matthew blog
01.10.10
11:56

I thought about this concept very interesting.
Kaye blog
01.11.10
03:06

Very interesting!!
dump trailers
01.14.10
08:12

"I imagine an attention tax that aspiring cultural producers must pay."

What about the radically different perspective brought to a field by a person that knows nothing of the field? If everyone had to listen to tons of music before they could write a song, the influence of what has came before would be to heavy. An artist finds himself not through the observation of others but rather an honest observation of him/herself.

Some of the greatest art is created by people who do not understand the history or rules of the given field.

Just an Idea,

Joshua
Joshua Badacatt
01.31.10
03:17

i was also wondering if this piece was going to be too long, but it was just the right length in the end.

however, this is an odd equation: "I buy and read books because I want to give the gift of my attention to the attention economy I'm (as a writer) a part of."

Why not read them because you like them, because they are giving something to you, not the other way around, surely? This seems a very egocentric perspective.
toby
03.12.10
04:48

@toby: obviously, yes, I also read books because I like them and gain something from reading them. yet it's not all about the content; i'm trying to express a value here that's close to what people who are trying to eat locally, sustainably, and/or organically are trying to do, which is that the choices ones makes with one's attention matter in a broader economy -- in fact, they help to sustain an economy. so it's exactly the opposite of egocentric.
michael
03.12.10
11:36

Great article - although I'd turn the pricing model on its head and suggest things that require greater attention investment are often more expensive. Usually, I get more OUT OF the things I put more attention INTO. What I focus on, I get more of. It embeds more deeply, gives me more emotion, more creativity, more EXPERIENCE. Surely this deserves a premium, not a discount?
Molly Flatt
03.19.10
06:22

Here is some imagery that takes forever to look at (and requires tremendous attention); http://bit.ly/GgBLW Curiously I haven't ever had to pay anyone to look at them (?)
Raw'n'
rwiild
03.19.10
11:35

Great essay, Dr Erard, loved it. danny in CHIAYI
danny bloom
07.12.10
09:39

buzzkill. its all a blur. Ronald Reagan? inspire? huh. good point. strange metaphors. Like.
Sandy Olson
11.14.10
12:22

I image a world where relationships—of every kind—will have to be redefined. Too many people + too much information = vast seas of inch-deep wisdom. Everything and everyone will become a momentary commodity.

Unless we all actually direct our attention towards something we're passionate about. With more general knowledge, we'll either find ways to reinvent ourselves, or find gross dissatisfaction. The concerto was a wonderful showcase for a fiery pianist who improvised his way in and out of Beethoven’s score almost effortlessly before suddenly assaulting the keys like a gorging predator. Had he not stopped coming back onstage the ovations would have gone far beyond three.

But all I wanted to do during the ballet was leave. I stayed only to avoid waking the woman next to me, clearly in her eighties, who was also so bored she could barely stay awake. I know why the house was two-thirds full now—the entire concert series is programmed like this, and people aren’t going to pay for a good concerto and a LOT of boredom. I'm especially interested in your observation about the difference between a pop song and a poem - I think this dimension is way more important than the length of time one spends. Imagine the difference between looking into the eyes of an intense, passionate person - a yogi perhaps, or an artist - for just a moment while passing on the street, versus the minutes (or even hours) you might spend with someone at their day job getting the print right or trying to figure out which model you need while they're just thinking about going home, going out tonight, or being anywhere but here.
I've been thinking of cancelling two free weekly subscriptions that I would never have maintained if I had to pay for them. Less, but better quality, would make me happier; my attention would be better invested.

Like Mark Twain said "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." Although length does not equal amount of attention, the quality is the real issue.
alexander
12.09.10
01:24



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