One of the more fascinating books I’ve read over the past few years regarding the subject of new media is The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information by Richard Lanham. An emeritis professor of English literature, Lanham looks at today’s evolving media environment not through the lens of technological development but rather at the ever-valued, and ever-depleting, of commodities: our attention. Here is a description of the book, which came out in 2006, from Barnes and Noble.
“If economics is about the allocation of resources, then what is the most precious resource in our new information economy? Certainly not information, for we are drowning in it. No, what we are short of is the attention to make sense of that information. With all the verve and erudition that have established his earlier books as classics, Richard A. Lanham here traces our epochal move from an economy of things and objects to an economy of attention. According to Lanham, the central commodity in our new age of information is not stuff but style, for style is what competes for our attention amidst the din and deluge of new media. In such a world, intellectual property will become more central to the economy than real property, while the arts and letters will grow to be more crucial than engineering, the physical sciences, and indeed economics as conventionally practiced. The new attention economy, therefore, will anoint a new set of moguls in the business worldâ€”not the CEOs or fund managers of yesteryear, but new masters of attention with a grounding in the humanities and liberal arts.”
I recently came across this interview with Prof. Lanham from the California Literary Review. Prof. Lanham, from the interview: “The common assumption runs deep. What is really important, really real, is the physical stuff of the world. Commodities. Substance. We dug and grew it in the Agricultural Age, and we built it in the Industrial Age. The allocation of such stuff, after all, is what classical Adam-Smith economics came on the scene to explain. The rest is just â€œFluff,â€ style not substance, â€œrhetoricâ€ instead of â€œreality.â€ But now we are in a third age, the Age of Information. Now weâ€™re stuck, it seems, with the â€œeverything else.â€ With the â€œfluff.â€ And the fluff sometimes seems to be more important than the stuff.
“The driver of the change, the earthquake that has caused the tsunami, is how we have come to think of physical nature itself, as information, information â€œas an active agent, something that does not just sit there passively, but informs the material world, much as the messages of the genes instruct the machinery of the cell to build an organism.â€ (Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language, and Life, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1982.)