Michael Goldhaber on the Real Nature of the Attention Economy (ETech 2006)


Michael Goldhaber is speaking on the real nature of the attention economy. Michael's been working on a book about attention on this subject since the 1990's. He thinks that this conference has its feet in two paradigms: the attention economy and the old economy. "You all don't know what world you're in. You're like butterflies that think your caterpillars." Attention is a different way of being.

Michael sees attention as a new level in the massively multiplayer game known as western culture. The economy is a single level game, but economic history is a multilevel game. The first level was the feudal economy (800-1200). The economy ran on winnings through fighting, by becoming a vassal of some other Lord, and marriage.

The second level emerged out of feudalism. This was the market-money-industrial (MMI) system that ran from 1650-1980. That gap was the transition period.

Michael views the next level as the attention economy. This is a completely new level; a new kind of system. You can't describe the stock market in terms of feudal society. Neither can you describe the attention economy in terms of MMI.

Each level has new rules, roles, goals, and moves. New levels emerge from basic human proclivities and a whole list of other things that I couldn't type in fast enough.

Going from feudal to MMI happened because Western Europe was secure. The openings for the change were ungoverned cityspaces, safe travel, and mostly no slavery. The feudal system lacked material goods.

Going from MI to Attention can happen because of material abundance. The openings were large high schools, broadcasting, publishing, and the Internet.

The goals have changed from loyalty to material goods to attention The roles have changed from knights to owners to stars and fans.

What is attention? Attention is scarce and always will be. It is very desirable. Paying attention is a complex thing and includes a broad range from hearing to obeying, to remembering. Paying attention means you allow someone else to shape how your mind works.

Attention isn't just about time. There's an intensity component. If you pay attention to someone, that person owns part of your attention and will continue with you until you go senile.

We can think of owning a little piece of property in the minds of people who have paid attention to you. Finding meaning in life comes from sharing meanings with others. This can only happen if you get some of their attention.

Being productive means being able to increase the amount of attention one gets.