The Attention Economy

April 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves. –Albert Einstein

The attention economy, what is it? To summarise Herbert Simon, it is an inverse relationship between information and attention(Boyd, 2010). Technically we always have the same level of attention, if such a thing were quantifiable, however the growing amounts of information mean we have to allocate our attention more carefully and by doing so increase its value. Essentially it is a reverse of basic supply & demand theory. Content demands our attention and as the amount of content increases our supply of attention becomes more scarce and therefore more valuable.

The concept is similar to themes explored in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
Please check out this short comic  (McMillen, 2009) – Its too large for the blog

Now that we have got that out of the way: Are we really seeing a poverty of attention as Simon would have us believe? A Stanford university study highlighted in an (2010)  article explores the so called ‘dangers’ of  information overload where “heavy multimedia users have trouble filtering out irrelevant information — and trouble focusing on tasks.” Or are we merely seeing “the most recent spin on an ancient theme” as Stowe Boyd (2009) states in his article.
Consider, for a moment, the music industry. It is currently in a crisis where p2p software is destroying many components of the industry.

“I foresee a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestations”

This quote was written in by John Philip Sousa in 1906 in a book titled “The Menace of Mechanical Music” (Sousa, 1906). It was written in protest to the Phonograph –  he believed it would be detrimental to the music industry. While this example does not relate to the attention economy directly, it illustrates that often, new technologies are met apprehensively by society and this concern is often considered comically backward as society progresses beyond the point of adaption for said technology.

I like to imagine when man first invented fire – three cavemen sitting around the campfire questioning whether it is worth their time and attention to cook their food and make sure it doesn’t burn or whether they should just eat it raw.


Boyd, Stowe (2010) The False Question of Attention Economics [online] Available at. [Accessed 19th April 2011]

McMillen, Stuart (2009) Amusing Ourselves to Death [Photograph] Available at [Accessed 19th April 2011]

National Public Radio (2010) The Price of putting ‘your brain on computers’ [Online] Available at: [Accessed 19th April 2011]

Sousa, John Phillip (1906) The Menace of Mechanical Music [Online] Available at: [Accessed 19th April 2011]


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