TCS Daily

Are You Paying Attention?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Last week's column about time, scarcities, and the Internet produced some interesting reader email - enough to generate a whole new column, as a matter of fact. First, reader Yuval Levin wrote:

Could it be that the way to frame the problem is not so much around the scarcity of time, but the scarcity of attention? We have always been short on time: the day is too short, the semester is too short, our lives are too short. But in a certain sense what is different about the web, as a medium of communication, is that it offers an enormous array of new voices clamoring for our attention. The trouble with these voices is that so many of them are so damned interesting and have such useful things to say that we feel compelled to listen, and so we must divide our (finite) attention among an ever-growing number of sources of ideas, which makes our attention very scarce (and, incidentally, therefore very valuable.) . . .

In cyberspace, almost everything is fantastically abundant, but human attention is terribly scarce. And in the age of the Internet and constant omnipresent communication in general, human attention is terribly scarce. One very significant result of this is that the value, and therefore the price, of attention goes up dramatically. This has serious consequences - consider for instance the fact that political campaign funds are spent almost entirely on purchasing human attention, through ads and the like. This seems to suggest that rather than bringing down the price of politics, and alleviating the "money problem" (a name I detest, since it isn't really a problem) in politics, as some people have suggested, the information age is actually likely to make more expensive the commodity which all that money goes to buy, and therefore to make more money necessary.

This makes sense to me. In fact, reading this I wondered why economists haven't paid more attention to the issue, only to discover that, of course, they have. Reader Patrick Brown, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario, emailed:

In connection with your comments on attention, you might be interested to know that a number of people in disparate areas have been thinking about attention economics for some years. provides this definition:"attention economics, noun. An economic model based on the expanding amount of available information and the static amount of attention consumers can devote to that information."

And sure enough, I followed some other links that he sent me, and did some additional poking around on my own, and discovered quite a bit of writing on the subject. Here is an interesting and fairly accessible paper on the subject from a peer-reviewed journal, and here is a column by Esther Dyson. Just search "attention economics" on Google for more.

But there remains a problem, and it's well-illustrated by Prof. Brown's email, to wit: if this stuff is so smart, why am I not rich? As he writes:

The basic issues are (a) what do we do if, as some people claim, bandwidth expands but human attention capacity stays the same? As a cognitive psychologist whose major field is attention, I would say that our attention capacity does not stay the same, so no worries. (b) along the same lines, is attention becoming more valuable? If you can command and direct people's attention, for example, by being a law professor with a successful blog, should you be making big dollars in the attention economy? Apparently, you should, and you will. Cheerful thought.

It is a cheerful thought, but unfortunately, the armored car seems to have gotten lost on the way to my door. But I think if you look around you can already see evidence that people in the real world are, well, paying attention to the subject of attention.

Television commercials used to take advantage of the fact that you were paying attention to, well, the show. When that ceased to be enough, they started trying to make the commercials good enough that you'd pay attention to them in their own right. When that quit working, people started using "product placements" to get you to notice the merchandise while you watched the show. Now, in the latest step in the arms race, they're integrating the commercials right into the program by returning to the old days of loudly sponsored variety TV. As the New York Times reports,

A television producer and two major advertisers have joined forces to present a live variety show with no commercial interruptions. Instead, the advertising messages will be incorporated into the show.

The advertisers, which so far include Pepsi and Nokia phones, are buying six hours of air time to create what the program's producer, Michael Davies, called "a contemporary, hip Ed Sullivan show" for the youth-oriented WB Network, part of AOL Time Warner. The hour-long program, to be broadcast for six weeks this summer, will try to highlight the companies' products in various ways, like putting singers on a set dominated by a logo or building comedy routines around a product.

In essence - as an expert quoted in the story states explicitly - viewers are being paid for their attention. And perhaps that's the wave of the future in all sorts of areas. I get a lot of email, for example. I try to pay attention to all of it, but there's so much that I have to sort. Right now, I try to do it based on the subject headings (which, sadly, can be faked - though the ones promising live teen girls or penis enlargement are pretty easy to figure out), or on who the email is from: people who have sent me interesting email before are more likely to be read first than people I don't know, or people who consistently send me spam. But you could monetize that: pay me a hundred dollars to read an email, and I promise my undivided attention.

That day, sadly, is still in the future. But the subject is certainly worthy of further thought, and I, for one, intend to pay attention to this field as it develops.

NOTE: I may not be getting money, but I'm getting attention (hey, I thought it was scarce!) Along with some other folks, I'll be on a PBS show called "Media Matters" tomorrow (Thursday, the 16th). You can see a video clip here at the Media Matters site.

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