10.29.2013

Three rules for organizing under an attention economy

A rant inspired by:

These Men Are Now Charging People to Look at Banksy's Latest Stencil (Gawker)
These men, heroes that they are, have elevated the original work, turning it into a performance piece about the commodification and hipster-fication of people's homes. If you're going to treat a neighborhood like an art museum, why shouldn't the residents of that neighborhood charge admission like an art museum, particularly when many New Yorkers would never come to that patch of the city but to take a picture of a stencil painting of a beaver?

1) Every recording has value. Every copier is a value-producer.

The conventional wisdom is that copies are cheap, implying that they have little value. They have little monetary value, true, but that's only because their value isn't coded well in monetary transactions. It doesn't need to be. The value is recorded in the economy of attention.

People are willing to pay money to some dude with a sign in order to make a copy of an image that was already well-documented and freely available on the artist's own site. The copy nevertheless becomes an extension of the artwork and appreciates the whole enterprise. The draw of the attention makes the financial transaction an afterthought.

2) Money is memory

Money is a tool for recording and upkeeping a set of facts about the state of the economy. It doesn't record all the facts; in fact, it misses so many important aspects of the way the economy behaves and causes so many problems in the process that you'd think we'd have realized that an agricultural-age technology is probably not the best method for managing a global digital population. But I digress.

The acquiring of money by these enterprising gentlemen is a way of recording the attention being paid to this artwork in the finances of the neighborhood, which is presumably where the money will eventually be spent and distributed. This is an example of a very common situation where the social dynamics that generate a shift in the flow of attention is not accompanied by the shift in economic power and resources that attention demands. Taking money from the tourists is one way to rectify it, but it is a crude implementation for any museum, streetwise or other.

3) Follow the attention

An attention economy might be better understood as an "attention-oriented economy", in the sense that it is designed and structured primarily to handle exactly these cases of mismatched economy values. An attention-oriented economy is efficient at moving resources and economic influence to align with the ebb and flow of social attention. Money doesn't do this well, but it can be used as a kludge if necessary. A slightly more elegant system would work like this:

Imagine if each city block contained a heat camera and a counter. Every time it senses the heat signature of a human being, it increments the counter. It doesn't need to record any personal or identifying information about anyone, so no worries about privacy invasion. In any case, make a law where neighborhood and city-wide resources (police and medical services, street cleaning, etc) are to be distributed block-by-block  on the basis of these counters.

Essentially, neighborhood residents would be assured that this sudden influx of public attention would be directly correlated with a comparable community-wide influx of economic and civic power. In that case, there's be no need to go capitalize on the copiers directly, because the system itself ensures indirect benefits merely from the dynamics of attention itself.