Thursday, December 01, 2005

Attention, please

Here's one of those seminal ideas (can there be more than 12 in a given zeitgeist?). We owe this to Michael Goldhaber and his bravura article in the online journal First Tuesday.

Prop. 1.: Classical economics is about stuff: commodities such as food, housing, air, water, labor--anything that there is only so much of, and that we need. The wanting of things and the striving to get them is the basis of value, classically speaking.

Prop 2.: Economics is the study of how we humans exercise choice under conditions of scarcity.

Prop. 3.: In the emerging information economy, knowledge is the basis of value. But here, a flip-flop occurs. Not only is knowledge unlimited (the "space" of the entire knowledge accessible on the i-net now googles in at about 8 billion pages, and counting ) but the cost of getting to to it, unlike the "stuff" of classic economics, is rapidly approaching zero.

Prop. 4.: The kicker. What is limited in this new economy is attention. We have only so much time, so much bandwidth. This changes the basis of value. Those who get a lot of attention are what we call "stars". They get a lot of money. Politicians and business people who get a lot of attention for their proposals and their ideas acquire power.

This seems pretty self-evident to anyone who ever passed a year in the eighth grade. Before we had cars or cool pads of our own, and everybody's physical wealth was limited to their physical selves and their clothes, attention was the coin of the realm. The popular kids got the most valentines, and ran for class president, and got to be captain of the basketball team.

The great ages of the material; stone, bronze, iron, and steel are rolling away, soon to replaced by hydrogen and then, perhaps pure thought alone. The coming century may redefine the very notion of value, basing it less on consumption of stuff, more on the differences among competing parties ability to exploit the vast amount of knowledge out there and convert it into something others will pay attention to.

Maybe it won't be "...who dies with the most toys wins", but "...who gets the most eyeballs along the way".

We need to be about attention. If we are, the long term odds for profesional communicators will be looking good.

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