Attention Economy 11: Systems of organization

The #attentioneconomy is a unified model of social organization. In the previous post, I explained a simple thought experiment for thinking about your role as an attender in the network. In this post, I will explain how attention economies fit into a larger schema of organizational strategies. This is the post where I make good on the claim to a "unified model".


(1) Enlightenment strategies

Organizational structure is a fundamental question for any social creature; the history of human society is a history of different organizing strategies. In what follows, I will be giving a very general analysis of a certain class of organizational strategies. I'll be painting with broad strokes that will be vague in the details in order to get the theory on the table, so please have patience with what is undoubtedly a inadequate historical analysis.

In particular, much of what I will say will involve a caricature of what I call "Enlightenment" organizational strategies. By the Enlightenment, I'm referring to a wide range of philosophical and theoretical developments in the 17th and 18th centuries that, coupled with tremendous advances in the sciences, set the stage for the massive changes in human social organization that played out in the centuries that followed. On my telling, the Enlightenment culminates in the series of revolutions that characterize the age, including the French and American political revolutions and the economic and technological changes identified with the Industrial Revolution. These organizational revolutions served as the backdrop on which the drama of the 19th and 20th centuries unfolded.

The Enlightenment is a conversation between many thinkers across many different social and historical contexts, so any remark on its lessons will inevitably involve a gross simplification. On my particular simplification, the Enlightenment involves a recognition and respect for the freedom of individuals. Individuals are the atoms of Enlightenment theory; they are the basic unit of conceptual analysis. For thinkers like Kant, individuals are autonomous, rational agents--or at least we ought to treat them as if they are, as a basic show of respect for their personhood. Treating individuals as rational agents means respecting their autonomy and their rights to pursue their own conception of the good. Most Enlightenment thinkers recognized that those individual rights have limits when they conflict with public goods, and much of Enlightenment political theory revolves around organizing a sovereign (usually, the State) as a unified entity to act on behalf of the public good when it conflicts with individual freedom. This gives rise to the basic dialectical balance of power between the public and private spheres that is characteristic of Enlightenment thinking.

This is a gross oversimplification, but I'm not saying anything radically controversial or challenging to the traditional interpretation, I'm just being sloppy in the details. This Enlightenment revolutions, and its conceptual focus on the individual, gives rise to our current political discourse and the general tensions and debates it evokes. Specifically, it gives rise to the traditional political spectrum, whereby the more "classically liberal" views are on the left end of the spectrum and prefer organizational strategies with more individual freedom, and in opposition the "classically conservative" views are on the right end and tend to prefer strategies with a stronger sovereign authority in the State. This one-dimensional analysis was enough to conceptually distinguish many of the early Enlightenment political thinkers, with Hobbes on the far right and Rousseau on the far left, and John Locke somewhere in between. The political spectrum has been inverted and twisted in strange ways in contemporary American politics, but the axes are still basically the same and are still grounded on an analysis of the individual's relative freedom. 20th century libertarians were clever enough to separate out two dimensions of organizational analysis: economic and civic. Conveniently, the rhetorical appeal of "freedom" means that on this analysis people tend to view themselves as libertarian when using this measure. Still, the dimensions of analysis on the libertarian political spectrum are grounded in the same basic Enlightenment conceptual framework, taking individual freedom and autonomy as the fundamental measure of organizational success.

My claim is that the Enlightenment views sketched above are responsible for much of the conceptual groundwork on which we design our current social organizational strategies. Of course, between the Enlightenment and the Digital Age there were two very important centuries in the history of thought, each of which has had tremendous influence on the present day, particularly Hegel and Marx in the 19th century and Foucault in the 20th. On my simplification here, these centuries were largely devoted to working out the dreadful implications of the Enlightenment and the social revolutions it ushered in. But not until the Digital Age were we prepared to offer genuinely new solutions to the organizational foundations of the Enlightenment itself. That's all I'm going to say here; we can talk about Marx and Foucault in the comments :)

We are currently entering the Digital Age; we are about thirty or so years into it, depending on how you are counting. The Digital Revolution, like the industrial revolution on the heels of of the Enlightenment, brought with it radical and sweeping changes to the daily lives and habits of huge numbers of people. This is as true for our recent digital migration as it was for the urbanization that characterized the industrial age. We have another thirty years or so before the norms of the Digital Age will have fully settled into our collective understanding. This isn't a futurist prediction so much as a fact about collective human memory; in about thirty years, the pre-digital age will have mostly fallen out of living memory, and its influence will necessarily stand only on the crumbling infrastructure it has left in its wake. I claim that the Digital Age is the proper historical successor to the Enlightenment organizational strategies. There is no doubt that Digital Age technologies have fundamentally disrupted the once sacred lines between the public and private spheres, and as a result of these technologies the human race is crying out in one global voice for a new organizational approach. Moreover, we are practicing these new organizational strategies on the Internet everyday in ways that fundamentally defy Enlightenment-style frameworks of government regulation or market commodification.

The Digital Age is an ontological reworking of Enlightenment theory; the fundamental unit of conceptual analysis in the Digital Age is the network as an emergent eusocial organism. The move from the individual to the network has a series of cascading consequences for the general philosophy and theory that frames the discussion of organization in the digital age. I try to sketch a bit of this paradigm shift below, in the spirit of Haraway's much more complete (though slightly dated) list:


  • Individual
  • Consumer
  • Decision theory
  • Labor
  • Agreement
  • Contracts
  • Democracy

  • Network
  • User
  • Behavioral Economics
  • Attention
  • Consensus
  • Clusters
  • Architectures of participation

There is much to say about the details of this transition, but the focus of this post is on the organizational opportunities that Digital Age presents. With this backdrop in mind, I want to propose a new "spectrum" of organizational strategies that will hopefully reframe the Enlightenment discussion in a way that will help overcome its limitations. 

(2) Digital Strategies

Digital theory takes the fundamental unit of analysis to be the network itself. That's not to say that individual's don't exist. As I've described in the previous posts, it's just to say that human social organizations are complex and can be analyzed from many different levels, and for our purposes it will help to think about overt properties of the network independent of the precise details of the individuals themselves. For precisely this reason, our organizational spectrum will need a network-oriented grounding. Let's consider the following dimensions of analysis:

  • Degree of centralization: networks are more centralized as a smaller set of node clusters have more influence over the flow of power in the network. A network without centralized clusters of authority, or where that authority is weak, is said to be decentralized.
  • Center of organization: networks are said to be increasingly self-organized as their organizational structure is the product of the actions of each individual node constituting the network. A network organized by some other structural agent independent of nodes in the network is said to be other-organized
  • Degree of order: networks are said to be high order as individual nodes in the network share an increasing degree of regularity or similarity between the nodes. Networks where nodes are relevantly dissimilar and diverse are said to be low order.

There are some important details I'll be skipping over for the moment to make these dimensions explicit. I'll need to demonstrate that these dimensions are actually independent measures of the network, which is crucial for the analysis below to make sense. But I will first lay out the structure of the overall theory, which will help a great deal in motivating the detailed analysis of the particulars. So let's accept, for the moment, that these are independent measures of the network, and that their meaning is more or less intuitively compelling. Importantly, these measures are properties of the network as such, and not of any of the individual agents within the network. These are not measures of the "degrees of freedom" of the agents within the network, they are identifying properties of the overall organizational behavior of the network itself. To demonstrate this, we might draw a table labeling two of the independent dimensions as follows:

To be clear, both the X (centralization) and Y (organization) dimensions of this table admits of degree; on my loose definitions, a network can be more or less self-organized or centralized, so there will be degrees of granularity that are not captured in the table above. However, even at a coarse level of analysis these two dimensions expose four quadrants on which we might impose the traditional political spectrum.

Specifically, on this analysis there are two distinct and opposing ways in which a system might be "more free" from the perspective of the individual. It might be less centralized, moving rightward on the X axis, or it might more more self-organized, moving downward on the Y axis. The traditional one-dimensional analysis is mostly blind to this distinction, and hence why a strong central State is often seen as the contrary to a lively decentralized "free market". In fact, on this analysis we can see how "free market" decentralized solutions are an orthogonal response to state-based, democratic solutions. The basic target of my criticism is that Enlightenment theories, because of their focus on individual agency, fails to properly understand the nature of organization, which is fundamentally a network phenomenon. This failure is understandable and completely excusable; the Enlightenment is all pre-Darwin, and the basic mathematics for understanding the dynamical complexities of networks weren't fully developed until the middle of the 20th century. Still, the failure to properly understand the nature of organization resulted in two incomensurable sets of organizational strategies that, on their surface, seem diametrically opposed to one another. Indeed, the balance between public (state) regulation and private (economic) freedoms remains a fundamental tension in contemporary political discourse. On this analysis we can see both goods as independent responses to the same fundamental problem. 

Remember, I have yet to sufficiently demonstrate that these dimensions are independent measures of a network. Assuming independence for the moment, however, yields the following completed, three dimensional chart. The first chart contains the four "low order" quadrants, the second contains the four "high order" quadrants. I've labeled each quadrant with what I take to be that quadrant's paradigm organizational strategy. These labels are intentionally provocative and vague and sloppy in the details so I can get the theory on the table in an intuitive way so we can start talking about its implications and seriously consider the details. The rest of this post will largely be discussing the two tables below. 

Using these charts, I can tell my (deliberately oversimplified) story of the Enlightenment more directly. Here's how it goes.

The Enlightenment involves two fundamental changes from its previous order. The first is an explicit recognition and respect for the freedom and rational autonomy of individuals. On the charts above, this involves a move away from centralized, other-organized systems of organization: in other words, a move away from the upper left quadrant labeled "Feudalism" on the charts above. The second is the scientific and technical advances that give rise to the industrial revolution. On the charts above, this involves a move from low-order systems to high-order systems, a move from the first to the second chart above. As we can see, there are two basic organizational strategies that might account for this move. 

First, consider the move from a low order, other-organized, centralized system to a high order, other-organized, decentralized system. On the chart above, this is the move from Feudalism to what I've labeled "Money Economies". In this latter quadrant, you can think of Adam Smith and the laissez-faire ideal typical of Enlightenment era economic theory. The more extreme to the right on the chart you go, the more this quadrant sounds like staunch libertarian defenders of a deregulated "free market". I claim that money economies are an organizational strategy that are characterized by favoring decentralized over centralized solutions to organizational questions. Let's be systematic about the analysis. First, and most obviously, money economies are high-order systems. Contrasted with the low order analog I've labeled "barter systems" where each individual is bringing possibly diverse goods to a market, any system that uses standardized commodity money will be ordered to some extent or other. Order is measure by which individuals in the network are similar in some relevant way; in money economies, each individual is similar in the explicit sense that the same currency is used to organize all individual behavior in the network. To the extent that Ancient Rome used a unified currency throughout the empire that system was somewhat ordered; late 20th century money economies are additionally globalized and computerized, resulting in the highly technical, highly ordered trading we see in the global financial markets today. Although there are many currencies traded on open markets, these currencies are linked in computationally complex and dynamic ways, which in some sense standardizes all participants in those markets in ways that have been incredibly useful from an organizational perspective. We use financial markets of this sort to make all sorts of social organizing decisions, from incentivizing the production and distribution of goods to managing the division of labor. In some sense, financial markets of this decentralized sort are the fundamental organizational strategy of the Industrial Age, and are the dominate organizing strategy still today at the dawn of the Digital Age.

More controversially, from the charts above I am claiming that Money Economies are not self-organized. One of the fundamental failures of the Enlightenment discussion is to conflate organization and centralization. Even today, we have trouble drawing this distinction clearly; Adam Curtis' All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is in some sense an extended study of this very mistake. Money economies are decentralized to the extent that there is not one single authority determining the state of the market. On the free market ideal, the market is a lively competition between a variety of diverse competitors, and monopolization tends to destroy the dynamism of a genuinely free market. However, I claim that this preference for decentralization is independent of its degree of self-organization. A network is self-organized when the state of the network is determined by the activity of the nodes in the network; in the case of money economies, the participants are the consumers who use the money to buy goods. In fact, money economies are generally not organized by consumer behavior as much as they are by the behavior of property owners who produce the goods being consumed, which is usually a restricted (though not centralized) class of nodes distinct from the general participants in the network. While everyone uses money to organize, only a subset of those users (the property owning capitalists, what Marx called the Bourgeoisie) have influence on how the money organizes our behavior. The more that some elite class of individuals influence the shape the the market, the higher on the Y axis of this chart you are. Again, this is independent of whether this elite class has any centralized authority over regulating the market; often times they don't. The radical disparity in wealth today is a sure sign that our financial systems are not self-organized. Instead, they are highly other-organized by the very, very few capitalist elites that have disproportionate influence over the dynamics of the market, even while they have no (or limited) centralized authority regulating that activity. 

If your reaction to the analysis thus far is to protest that an other-organized market isn't genuinely "free" in the Adam Smith sense of the word, that's a good response to have! That means this framework is actually useful in explaining the difficulties of the Enlightenment discourse. Recognition that other-organization is bad for freedom is in some sense the orthogonal response that instigates the move to democracy, and I'll discuss that in a bit below. But I want to point out for the moment that this framework gives some resources for drawing out this criticism of the market without having to directly appeal to a strong centralized state as the only alternative organizational strategy. An unregulated market where the network is not organized by node behavior is in some sense significantly "unfree", even absent any centralized authority dictating it be so. This is important to recognize even if you think state regulation isn't the solution, and even if you think it is the problem!

However, the classic response to this kind of unregulated unfreedom is to appeal to some strong sovereign authority with the legitimate power to adjudicate disputes in the private sphere. On the traditional political spectrum, a strong central state is inversely proportional to individual freedom, but our analysis here gives a more nuanced appreciation for the organizational dynamics. The appeal to a sovereign state does maintain some strong central authority, and from the perspective of money economies looks like a move towards what I've labeled "Fascism" in the extreme upper left quadrant. This goes some way to explaining the traditional fear from free market capitalists over state regulation that we see from contemporary libertarians. However, from the traditional liberal perspective, if the state legitimately expresses what Rousseau called the "General Will" or what Locke called the "consent of the governed", then there is a sense in which that sovereign authority might allow the people to autonomously govern themselves, and can therefore be genuinely free. This ideal of genuine democracy ("rule by the people") is one where individuals are free despite (and in large part because of) the existence of a strong central authority. If a state's authority is derived from the people, then it likewise has the legitimate authority to adjudicate disputes in the private sphere, and has the responsibility as sovereign to ensure that justice is maintained across people's diverse interactions. Thus, a state can enforce contracts, including property rights, in a way that private entities usually do not, including doing things like detaining, arresting, declaring wars, and so on. Ideally, the state evokes these unique powers in order to maintain a balance between individual freedoms and the overall public good, and it can do so in virtue of a self-organized democracy that can embody the consensus of the people. 

At least, that's the Enlightenment story. The libertarian political spectrum we use today mostly ignores this as a possibility, but the classical liberal theory is that a democratic state is instrumental for ensuring the freedom of its people. This is a conception of freedom that is entirely compatible with a strong central authority; on my chart above, that freedom is expressed by the degree to which that authority is self-organized. Thus, the democratic ideal is one where the authoritative representative body is the product of an active democratically engaged populace. The more the governing body reflects the political activity of the governed, the more this network is said to be self-organized. In situations where consensus is highly manufactured by some elite class, that network is increasingly other-organized (and, on this model, "unfree"), even while this tension is over the same centralized authority. 

We are already at a point, I think, where this framework becomes highly illuminating for sorting out the problems of our current system and the discourse we use to describe it. For example, as governments are increasingly used as a tool for "greasing the economic wheels" and making the markets well-behaved, the more that the organizational structure tends towards the upper left quadrant-- exactly the problem that the Enlightenment was designed to solve! The influence of money on the process of government is usually called "corruption" and is treated as a horrible slur even while we know it is rampant and ubiquitous. Money has significant influence on governance in all sorts of ways that are not overtly illegal or corrupt but still tend to cause massive amounts of human suffering. Nevertheless, money and government seem to be the only two organizational strategies that are on the table for facing whatever problems we face, and our moral intuition that the two should remain independent has done little to slow their opportunistic collusion.

Humanity is under no delusions about the nature and scale of the problems we face; we have been aware of the difficulty our future presents for at least a generation. However, for each of these tremendous challenges, the available solutions seem to fall into two rough categories: market solutions and state solutions. Private solutions and public solutions. These were the two basic organizational strategies that came out of the Enlightenment, each of which has clear advantages for certain kinds of tasks and potentially tragic disadvantages for others. The history of human organization over the last few centuries has involved finding a precarious balance between these two strategies. On the traditional model, this balancing act centered around the importance of individual freedom, and played out in the discursive border disputes that continue to rage between the public and the private spheres. The digital age has violently disrupted these delicate attempts at balance, instigating all new turf wars; but all available solutions assume that these lines have to be drawn somewhere around the individual, even while there is less and less clear sense of what such a thing might even be. Since state based or market solutions (and increasingly, some combination of the two) are the only organizational strategies on the table, there is and remains no consensus for how to reconcile these anomalies. Even while it is clear that neither state or market solutions will adequately address the problems we face, we lack any clear sense of what an alternative organizational structure might look like. This is my assessment of our current organizational failure, as clear as I can make it. 

I claim that the attention economy provides a unified organizing model for reconciling these anomalies in a clear and consistent way, as seen in the charts above. Specifically, economies of attention are potentially both self-organized and decentralized, and thus unify the values of both apparently incommensurable organizational strategies we inherit from the Enlightenment. First, we must again forgive the Enlightenment for not recognizing this possibility. Without a clear conception of organization its hard to frame the discourse correctly at all; but this case in particular is especially hard to imagine what high order anarchy might look like. All the early enlightenment political thinkers were enamored with what they called the "State of Nature"; for Locke it was a state of pure anarchy where every individual was entirely free to act as they pleased. In Locke's state of nature, consent was not necessary because others had no political power to take anything from you whatsoever. However, since others might have the physical power to do so regardless of your consent,the state of nature was considered to be dangerous and full of risks and peril. 

Thus, we sought to avoid anarchy by coming together as communities, giving our consent to govern collectively in self-organized, democratic ways.  One way to organize was to centralize the power, in an institutional body like a a government (in a particular location, like D.C.), who would make laws that would set the organizational structure for everyone in the land. The other way is to make everyone a participant in a completely decentralized system, by giving them money (or little cards that track virtual money). In that system, you need elites to manage the flow of money. No one in the Enlightenment thought it would be possible to construct a decentralized and self-organized system that was still high order enough to avoid the dangers of pure anarchy. Today, however, Internet serves as an existence proof of the resounding success of high order, or digital anarchy. Moreover, the internet is undoubtedly the organizational model on which we are starting to develop our new social organizational structures, so it is important that we understand its organizational features, and the advantages it has over the alternative Enlightenment strategies. 

The internet is highly ordered; every system connected to the network needs to speak IP in a very standardized way, for instance. Given that standardization, however, the network is almost entirely "free" in both senses that mattered to Enlightenment organizational strategies. There are no (or very limited) centralized authorities on Internet, and the behavior is almost entirely the result of the self-organized activity of the nodes. The internet is an existence proof of a functioning attention economy, whose growth and dynamics are almost entirely the product of managing attention behavior, more or less independent of the dynamics of economics or government. Moreover, we can model this attention behavior in ways that are predictively useful for general purposes of social organization.

From Post 1 I claimed:

my view is that using attention models will increasingly be preferred to other kinds of economic models (especially financial models) as the primary tools for social organization. Right now, financial models are responsible for nearly all social organizing decisions: both for the distribution of labor and resources but also for the policy decisions that shape our systems of governance. I will argue later on that attention models are fundamentally a measure of consensus and therefore may function as the legitimate grounds for a self-organized system of governance, while at the same time working as a model for collectively planning the production, distribution, consumption, and recycling of our natural resources. In this sense, an Attention Economy is a complete system for social organization, and therefore may function in the ideal case without either money or centralized political institutions significantly determining the results.
We are now in a better position to assess this claim. My view is that the attention economy is a unified model of social organization, capturing the essential virtues of both divergent Enlightenment strategies in a clear and consistent way. This should hopefully appeal to proponents of both diverse models, and perhaps will work towards productively reconciling their disagreements so we can work together to coordinate new organizations. Attention models are unified models of organization in the following explicit sense: 
  • They allow a measure of the use of social goods, which has direct implications for the production and distributions of resources and the division and management of labor. In other words, attention models serve economic organizational functions traditionally served by money economies and the so-called "free market". 
  • They simultaneously serve as a model of the self-organized behavior of the people. In other words, attention models serve consensus organizational functions traditionally served by representative democracies and other "democratic" forms of government. 

As such, attention models (and modeling the attention economy generally) can, will, and indeed do serve as a unified organizational strategy for resolving many of the fundamental infrastructural disputes raised by the disruption of traditional Enlightenment strategies by the start of the Digital Age. 

This analysis is woefully far from complete. On my count, I need to resolve the following loose ends:

  • Demonstrate rigorously that these dimensions of analysis are independent in a mathematically interesting sense
  • Discuss the explicit relations between self-organization and consensus
  • Demonstrate specific cases where attention models can resolve disputes between traditionally divergent organizational strategies
  • Describe in detail how to implement a working attention economy that might potentially resolve these organizational disputes. 
That's just the beginning of a very long list of details to work out. But I have already covered a significant amount in this essay,  and I'll post it now to get feedback. In the next post, I'll discuss the issue of self-organization and consensus more explicitly. If you find this framework useful for describing the currently political situation, regardless of whether you favor an attention economy as a dominant organizational strategy, I'd love to hear your thoughts! If you'd like to help speculate how any potential answers to the above questions might arise from this general analysis, I'd love to hear those thoughts as well! Especially, if you can help graphically represent any of these ideas in a way that will be easier to understand and educate others, I'd love to see your contributions. I can't work out all the details of this theory myself, its just way too big. So if you appreciate this work, please participate!


The Attention Economy

Part 0
Part 1
Part 10
Part 11

Interlude: a response to questions
Starcraft 2 is Brutally Honest: Lessons for the Attention Economy