Attention Economy

by Nick Land
Attention Economy

rkhs put up a link to this (on Twitter). I suspect it will irritate almost everyone reading this, but it’s worth pushing past that. Even the irritation has significance. The world it introduces, of Internet-era marketing culture, is of self-evident importance to anyone seeking to understand our times — and what they’re tilting into.

Attention Economics is a thing. Wikipedia is (of course) itself a remarkable node in the new economy of attention, packaging information in a way that adapts it to a continuous current of distraction. Its indispensable specialism is low-concentration research resources. Whatever its failings, it’s already all-but impossible to imagine the world working without it.


On Attention Economics, Wikipedia quotes a precursor essay by Herbert A. Simon (1971): “…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” Attention is the social reciprocal of information, and arguably merits an equally-intense investigative engagement. Insofar as information has become a dominating socio-historical category, attention has also been (at least implicitly) foregrounded.

Attention Economics is inescapably practical, or micro-pragmatic. Anyone reading this is already dealing with it. The information explosion is an invasion of attention. Those hunting for zones of crisis can easily find them here, cutting to the quick of their own lives.

A few appropriately unstrung notes:

(1) No less than those described by Malthus or Marx, the modern Attention Economy is afflicted by a tendency to over-production crisis. Information (as measured by server workloads) is expanding exponentially, with a doubling time of roughly two years, while aggregate human attention capacity cannot be rising much above the rate of population increase. This is the ‘economic base’ upon which the specifics of ‘information overload’ rest. Relatively speaking, the scarcity of attention is rapidly increasing, driving up its economic value, and thus incentivizing ever-more determined assaults designed to impact or capture it.

(2) Attention is heterogeneous. Sophisticated differentiation (discrimination) is encouraged as the aggregate value of attention rises. As capturing attention (in general) becomes more expensive, it becomes increasingly important to target it selectively.

(3) The limits of Attention Economics are not easily drawn. Is there any kind of work that is not essentially attentive (or affected by problems of distraction)? In particular, any sector of economic activity susceptible to information revolution falls in principle within the scope of an attention-oriented analysis.

(4) Education and politics are inseparable from demands for attention. (Religion, art, pageantry, and circuses carry these back into the depths of historical tradition.)

(5) A psychological orientation to Attention Economics is scarcely less compelling than a sociological one. ‘Attention-seeking’ is a trait so general as to amount almost to a basic impulse, tightly bound to the most fundamental survival goals, with their clamor for nurture, sex, reputation, and power, and then reinforced by formalized micro-economic motivations. The opposite of attention is neglect. Attention-seeking achieves hypertrophic expression in Narcissistic personality disorders, often conceived as the emblematic pathology of advanced modernity. Digital hooks for attention-seeking are evidenced by the reliance upon ‘likes’, ‘favorites’, and ‘shares’ — motivational fuel for the attachment to social media.

(6) The celebrity economy — in academia, journalism, and business no less than in entertainment — is a component of the attention economy. Celebrity is valued for its ability to command attention. Drawing on the structures of evolved human psychology, it lends special prominence to the face.

(7) Mathematical description of the attention economy has been hugely facilitated by the existence of an atomic economic unit — the click. (David Shing, in the video linked at the start, suggests that the age of the ‘click’ is past, or fading. Perhaps.)

Any strategic insights — whether for action or inaction — which do not square themselves with a realistic comprehension of the attention economy and its development cannot be expected to work. NRx, for example, engages a series of practical questions that include the husbanding and effective deployment of its internal attention resources (“what should it focus upon?”), interventions into the wider culture (an attention system), complex relations with media and — to a lesser extent — education, and finally, enveloping the latter, an ‘object’ of antagonism “the Cathedral” which functions as a contemporary State Church — i.e. an attention control apparatus. There is really no choice but to pay attention.

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5 responses to “Attention Economy

  1. Both Thomas Malthus and Karl Marx were WRONG.

    J. B. Say refuted the idea of “over production” (and so on) a very long time ago.

  2. Marx was interestingly wrong. Malthus, even more interestingly so (and on a less than crude reading, right enough to inspire the basic Darwinian insight). If ‘information overload’ theories are also wrong, an argument to that effect would be worth making.

  3. I do not agree that Marx was interestingly wrong (I think he was just wrong). However, I have more sympathy with what you say about Malthus.

  4. Lurker on the threshold

    NR-x comes to LA-B. Marks and Land connect. This could have interesting memetic consequences if it continues.

  5. We’ll see what happens after the schism Nick Land is predicting comes to pass. At the moment, too many followers of NR-x are crypto-socialist/tribalist trash who are openly hostile to libertarianism.