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.
Originally published in Design Observer
12 August 2009