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Beyond investing attention in attention economics

Investing Attention Essential to Viable Growth (Part #2)

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Attention economy: The argument in subsequent sections is remarkably well framed by current preoccupation with the emerging attention economy -- beyond that of knowledge and information (T. H. Davenport and J. C. Beck, The Attention Economy: understanding the new currency of business, 2001; Michael H. Goldhaber, The Attention Economy and the Net. Telepolis, 27 November 1997).

For Davenport: Understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success. For Goldhaber: The currency of the New Economy won't be money, but attention. As described by Wikipedia: attention economics is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity, and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems. In the extensive review of issues relating to the Attention economy by the P2P Foundation, it is recognized as an economy driven by the exchange of attention with the implicit goal of tightly intertwining everyone at the level of mind.

This economic preoccupation with the commodification of attention is not the concern here, but the associated literature makes fruitful distinctions of value to recognition of radical possibilities with respect to attention.

The current debate is usefully summarized by several authors. It has been the subject of a special journal issue on Paying Attention (Culture Machine, 13, 2012). In their editorial introduction to the freely accessible contents, Patrick Crogan and Samuel Kinsley indicate:

In this introduction we identify four particular, yet related, ways of thinking about how attention is commodified, quantified and trained. First, the attention economy has been theorised as the inversion of the 'information economy', in which information is plentiful and attention is the scarce resource. Second, post-Marxist critics have identified 'cognitive capitalism', the enrolment of human cognitive capacities as 'immaterial labour' par excellence, as the foundation for an attention economy. Third, several continental philosophers have identified the cerebral and neural as an object or site of politics, with a neural conception of attention becoming, particularly for Stiegler, a key issue. Finally, the internet, as a mediator of contemporary intellectual and social activities, has been identified by popular commentators as a threat to our mental capacities, devaluing them, and thus posing a risk to our ability to contribute to society. They are by no means exhaustive, but it is betwixt and between these various understandings of an attention economy that the discussions within this issue are accordingly positioned. (Paying Attention: Towards a Critique of the Attention Economy. Culture Machine, 13, 2012).

From a philosophical perspective, the debate is fruitfully summarized by Jörg Bernardy as follows:

In general there are four main fields in which attention plays a more or less important role and where it is [the] object of theoretical works: (1) cognitive sciences and psychology, (2) cultural studies and literature (Frank Kermode, Aleida and Jan Assmann), the field of (3) economics which is the most problematic field because it is not only rooted in economics but seems to be rather an interdisciplinary approach of psychological, sociological, philosophical and economic thinking within the paradigm of media culture and communication (Herbert Simon, Georg Franck, Michael Goldhaber, David N. Lanham). Finally attention appears in the discourse of (4) phenomenology which is, regarding the phenomenon of attention, represented primarily by Edmund Husserl, Paul Valéry and Bernhard Waldenfels in philosophy (Attention as Bounded Resource and Medium in Cultural Memory: a phenomenological or economic approach? Empedocles: European Journal for the Philosophy of Communication, 2011)

Implications of the attention economy: A sense of the implications of the attention economy is perhaps most eloquently offered by Georg Franck (The Economy of Attention. Telepolis, 7 December 1999). He notably develops his argument with respect to the communication processes of science as one primarily preoccupied with gaining attention, and acquiring prominence thereby (Scientific communication - a vanity fair? Science, 286, 1999)

Attention by other people is the most irresistible of drugs. To receive it outshines receiving any other kind of income. This is why glory surpasses power and why wealth is overshadowed by prominence. This is also why it is becoming popular in our affluent society to rank income in attention above money income....

Attentiveness as such is more than, and of ontologically higher order than, anything appearing to or in it. Dedicated attentiveness imparts dignity to the person receiving the attention. This alone makes receiving somebody's benevolent attention a most highly valued good for creatures who are attentive themselves. Receiving alert attentiveness means becoming part of another world. No attentive being has direct access to the world of another being's attention. By receiving another being's attention, however, the receiving one becomes represented in that other being's world.

Is the economy of attention thus an already practically experienced preliminary stage of future ecologically non-harmful lifestyles? Could the transformation of economic competition into a sharper battle for attention ultimately be the "cunning of reason" which will save us? Are we perhaps - unknowingly and without wanting it - on the right track? We should not take looking for answers to these questions too lightly.

Mental capitalism: Franck reframes this argument in terms of Mental Capitalism (2005):

What we have is mental capitalism. To all appearances, there exists a nearly perfect reflection of the material base in our mental superstructure. It is a great pity that the old reflection theory is so completely dead that it can no longer enjoy this fact. However, imagine how the old warriors would rub their eyes if they saw what has happened to the old relationship between basis and superstructure! According to materialist doctrine, the mental superstructure is only a dependent reflex of the material production conditions. This doctrine claimed to have put the idealist world view, which had been standing on its head, back on its feet. But what are those conditions doing now? They are standing on their head out of their own accord. Idea-economy has taken the lead. However, the production conditions were indeed what brought about the reversal. Not at all just by volume of attention turnover are the media big industry....

It would, therefore, be completely wrong to think that the capitalisation of attention is limited to the phenomenon of prominence. This view would be as erroneous as thinking that only received attention is scarce and expensive. This is the case, but it is also true of one's own self-generated attentive energy. That energy can be accumulated through investment in oneself. A higher income attained through education may also be considered as a kind of dividend. But in this case it is the investment of one's attention in oneself which is the important aspect. However, education is also a kind of capitalisation of other persons' attention, if one thinks of the teachers' contributions....

A sense of the dynamics of the core debate is provided by a review by Michael H. Goldhaber (How (Not) to Study the Attention Economy: a review of The Economics of Attention: style and substance in the Age of Information. First Monday, 11, 2006; John Hagel, Goldhaber and Attention Economy, June 2005).

Economic commodification of attention: The enthusiasm for recognition of the attention economy follows from the pattern of seeking ever more invasive ways of deriving tangible financial benefits from both natural resources and virtual resources -- through their progressive commodification. In this case it follows from recognition that attention is indeed an increasingly scarce resource, as noted by Ursula Georgy (The Theory of Attention and the Economy of Understanding as a New Price Model in the Information Economy? 2008):

Most prices in the information economy (scientific information) are based on length of information, duration of online time, actuality etc., but most of these price concepts give little satisfaction to the customer because they are irrational and not comprehensible. Till today there exist no price concepts in the information economy considering the attention or understanding of information. Therefore the theory of Georg Franck (1999, 2002) will be an interesting attempt for new price models.

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