3.30.2014

From the archives, my first post on the attention economy

// I was digging through the SomethingAwful archives and found my first essay on the attention economy, written on April 5th, 2011. At the time, Bitcoin had yet to experience it's first bubble and was still trading below a dollar, and Occupy Wall Street was still five months in the future. If you don't have access to the archives, the thread which prompted this first write up was titled "No More Bitchin: Let's actually create solutions to society's problems!" Despite my reputation on that forum, I'm not interested in pop speculative futurism or idle technoidealism. I don't think there's an easy technological fix for our many difficult problems. But I do think that our technological circumstances have a dramatic impact on our social, political, and economic organizations, and that we can design technologies to cultivate human communities that are healthy, stable, and cooperative. The political and economic infrastructure we have for managing collective human action was developed at a time when individual rational agency formed the basis of all political theory, and in a networked digital age we can do much better. An attention economy doesn't solve all the problems, but it provides tools for addressing problems that simply aren't available with the infrastructure we have available today. My discussion of the attention economy was aimed at discussing social organization at this level of abstraction, with the hopes that taking this networked perspective on social action would reveal some of the tools necessary for addressing our problems. .

In the three years and multiple threads since that initial post, I've done research into the dynamics and organization of complex systems and taught myself some of the math and theory necessary for making the idea explicit and communicable. And in that time the field of data science has grown astronomically, making a variety of tools and theoretical resources available for modelling and predicting the dynamics of complex networks. In general, the public discourse has become much more comfortable thinking about attention and network dynamics and its implications. Some of that discussion is gross hype and misrepresentation, but some of it is really giving us unprecedented pictures of our collective behavior at large scales. And for this reason, more people have been articulating proposals that look quite a lot like the attention economy I've been describing. I'm not saying this vindicates my theory, but it suggests a possible convergence in in the direction I've been pointing. So it's interesting to go back through my work to see where these ideas began.

I'm reprinting the original 2011 post here for archival purposes. The view has obviously developed a lot in the time since, but the basic theory is all right there.



... unless an alternative is presented that is so compelling, useful, stable, and beneficial that people flock to it in droves regardless of the modes of control and oppression that prevent this kind of change.

There is precedent for such change. This wont come as a surprise to anyone that I'm going to make this argument, but the clearest analog of such change is the mass movement to adopt the internet. The internet is so useful, compelling, stable, and beneficial, and it literally forces, from the bottom up, a massive restructuring of entrenched powers. Internet users, following their own interests, literally brought down the publishing industry, one of the most powerful and entrenched industries around. That doesn't mean the industry completely disappeared, but it was forced to adapt to the will of the people. This is an important lesson we have yet to fully learn: we can bring about major changes to the power structure. Revolution can happen. We are not condemned to the existing order.

So let me offer a proposal. This is a wild-eyed idealistic proposal that I doubt will ever be realized, so I've been hesitant to advocate for it in other threads because it is, for lack of a better word, completely insane. But I also believe that it offers a legitimate alternative to the existing order, one that can be stable, beneficial, and sustainable, and given that the existing order is entirely unsustainable, it is something that we should at least take seriously enough to entertain its possibility.
The alternative I propose is an alternative economic model, and one that exists outside the spectrum of capitalism and communism. It is the model of an attention economy. There is a lot of discussion of attention economy in web development circles as ways of managing attention in the face of overwhelming information overload, but I want to propose the basic idea as a more fundamental way of restructuring economic relations between individuals. In fact, I propose that attention economy is an alternative to capital itself. In other words, a move towards an attention economy is a move away from using money. That's right, I'm proposing that we can get rid of money. Yes, this is insane. But given the options on the table, we shouldn't be so hesitant to at least think about insane alternatives.

Herbert Simon articulates the attention economy as follows:

quote:
"...in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it"

That gives you the basic idea, but let me add a little more theoretical weight. This will obviously be much more complicated than I can lay out here, but I'd at least like to throw the idea out there so we can chew on it for a bit. A slightly more detailed analysis can be found here, although this is such unproven ground that there are really no good sources for solid theory.
In both capitalist and communist systems, and indeed any economic model in the age of agriculture and industry, the fundamental value of the individual is his or herlabor. It is through the exercise of labor that an individual produces wealth and value. The problem is that labor is, by its very nature, specialized. For any social system to work there must be a division of labor, and a single person can only spend his limited labor on certain specific projects: I can plow this field, or build this widget, or whatever. This is where capital becomes important. Capital is used normalize the labor of individuals. I spend my labor to make a widget, and that widget has a market value of $5, so I can trade that wage in order to buy a $5 sandwich, which someone else spent their labor producing. In other words, capital functions as a middle man through which we can assess the relative value of different specialized labor activities. This is obviously ridiculously simplified, but the basic point is this: capital is a way of abstracting from the value of an individual's labor to provide a way of comparing their relative value.

This system has tons of benefits and just as many (if not more) drawbacks. The drawbacks are obvious: anyone unable to provide labor are simultaneously unable to participate within the economic model. This is the case both for those who are physically unable to labor (the infirmed), and those whose labor is not valued by the market (for instance, homemakers). So for the system to work properly, you need to tinker with the markets in such a way as to artificially inflate or deflate the way that labor is valued.

The benefits are equally obvious: you can accumulate capital in a way that you can't accumulate labor, and this provides an important amount of security and stability. If i have a job like farming, which is not productive in the winter, I can store capital made during productive months to sustain me through the unproductive months. This would not be possible if value was tied directly to labor itself; you need an abstraction in order to make this kind of seasonal labor possible. Insofar as such seasonal labor is necessary for society (that is, we need farmers), then we must find some way of making it possible, and capital works well enough.

This is grossly, irresponsibly simplified, but hopefully none of it is much of a surprise. From this perspective, the 'debate' between capitalism and communism is essentially a debate over how to value labor. In a communist system, labor is of primary importance, so capital is distributed in direct proportion to the labor produced. In a capitalist system, ownership is valued over labor, and so owners are entrusted to distribute capital to laborers, presumably in response to a fluctuating market, but in any case is only indirectly tied to labor. There are lots of problems with both systems, but that's the basic set up.

Ok, still with me? An attention economy is an alternative to both systems. In an attention economy, value is not tied, either directly or indirectly, to labor. Instead, value is tied to attention. It might help to think of 'attention' as the information-age analog of labor, but there are some important differences. Like labor, attention is a limited resource (you can only attend to so many things as a time), and one that humans produce naturally. Unlike labor, though, attention is not specialized, but is perfectly general: an individual's 'attention capacity' can be directed at any number of things.

I claim that an attention economy obviates the need for an abstracted middle man like capital to mediate the transactions between individuals. Instead, value can be tied directly to attention itself. The eventual claim I want to make is that tying value to attention instead of labor has the potential to systematically dismantle existing powers that derive their power from accumulated capital, and instead redirect that power towards what people actually attend to and (presumably) care about. But I need to explain how this all works before I can even start to make such an argument.

---
So follow me down crazy alley for a bit so I can tell you a story. Imagine, for a moment, that all human beings are equipped with a little device they wear on their foreheads. What this device does is shoot out tiny invisible marbles in a continuous stream directly at whatever the person happens to be looking at. Each marble in this stream is an 'attention unit', and it is constantly produced at some determined rate. The things to which this stream of marbles is directed 'absorbs' the marbles, registering that they have been the focus of at least some attention. Nevermind the technical details for a second, imagine that everyone is equipped in this way.

So here's the trick: in this system you don't accumulate marbles. There is never a reserve of attention units that is analogous to the reserve of capital. You can't 'horde' attention. All you can do is attract it. When you attract attention, you have a greater influx of marbles directed at you from all the attention-givers. What this does, in turn, is increase the rate at which you produce marbles. In other words, the rate at which marbles fly out of your forehead is a function of the rate at which you are absorbing marbles from other attention-givers, plus some baseline rate of attention that all humans naturally produce simply by being conscious. What you get by attracting attention is not an abstract reserve of capital, but instead you get more influence over the whole system.
Let's take a concrete example. Ideally, the road that is used most often is the road that should have the most maintenance. Under a capital-based system, you have to entrust a bureaucracy that manages a reserve of capital to allocate some of that capital to that road, and that the capital allocated is a fair measure of the usefulness of that road. This system, of course, might fail in any number of ways, but the point is that capital here is used as a way of approximating the usefulness of the road.
Under the system I am proposing, the road itself will keep track of how many users it has, and this fact alone will inform the resources allocated to it, free from any abstracted mediating capital or inaccurate approximation. So for instance, say every person who drives on a certain mile of the road is producing 10 marbles per minute. But let's say their attention is divided in a number of ways: on the road, but also on their car, and on the radio station, and on the kids in the back seat, and on the text messages they are sending while driving, or whatever. For the sake of argument, let's say that their attention is divided evenly among 10 different things every minute, so the road absorbs only 1 of those marbles from each person as they drive along that mile of road. In other words, the people driving on the road are "paying" one attention unit per minute. They don't have to actually do anything to engage in this transaction; the marbles are flying out of their forehead at a constant rate whether or not they want them to, and the road absorbs one of those marbles automatically. The only actual 'transaction' here is the driving on the road itself, which after all is what actually matters in assessing its usefulness.

Now say that 100 people drive along this road during that minute, and thus that the road absorbs 100 marbles during that minute. Again, the rate at which marbles are produced is a function of the rate at which marbles are absorbed. So say this results in that stretch of road, for some specified amount of time, producing its own marbles at a rate of 100 per minute. That is, say the function in this case is 1 to 1, just to make the math easy.

That's a powerful stream of marbles!
Now say I am some regular person who happens to have some knowledge of road maintenance. I'd sure like a piece of that 100 marble stream for myself; in other words, I'd sure like that road to pay attention to me. Why? Because if I am absorbing marbles from the road, that will in turn make my stream more powerful. Say me and 49 other workers all get together to do some road maintenance, and thus that 100 marble/minute stream produced by the road is divided up between all 50 of us. This makes my stream produce 2 additional marbles per minute, so I and my coworkers are now producing 12 marbles per minute compared to everyone else's 10.

Say another stretch of road in a less populated area is only producing marbles at a rate of 50 per minute. If me and my 49 buddies went to work on this word, we'd only get 1 additional marble per minute boost to our stream, so we are more likely to work on the more popular road. Bam! The road that is used more often gets more maintenance, as a natural function of people looking to spend and attract attention, without any bureaucracy needing to allocate a reserve of funds.

Wait a second. Who cares how many marbles I am producing? How does this benefit me? Not by giving me a reserve of capital to trade on an open market! Instead, what it does is make my attention stream stronger, which in turn provides incentive for others still to work harder to attract my attention, since it is more valuable than others. Attracting my attention is more valuable since I have the capacity to increase their streams more than my peers, and thus it matters a lot where I choose to spend my attention. In other words, what I get is not abstracted capital, but direct and concrete influence over the system. The roads that I travel on will be better maintained the more I use them, etc. And surely that's exactly what I want to see happen.
Hopefully you are starting to get a sense of the idea. This post is already too long for anyone to read and I haven't even started with the real work of laying the theory out, but hopefully this will stimulate some discussion. A quick bullet point list of issues worth acknowledging:
- This does not require 'equal distribution of wealth' or anything like that. As you can see from the example, this will result in variations in streams, and genuine competition for attention from different people, and so you get the productive and dynamic activity of a capitalist market, just without the capital.
- The fundamental idea here is that in an information-saturated world, attention has intrinsic value, and that it is constantly being produced, and that attaching economic significance to the distribution of attention is a far more accurate measure of actual social value than money. A good example of this are homemakers, who spends their time giving and receiving attention that is incredibly valuable and serves a vital social role, but is completely undervalued in a capitalist market. Tying value directly to attention is meant to correct for this injustice. Another good example is the homeless guy who makes a youtube video with 20 million views. In the existing system, we have to trust the established capital reserves to direct their accumulated wealth towards this person who clearly has some social value. In other words, we have to trust that existing power will grace us with some of that power. We know this does not work. This system is, again, meant to correct this injustice.

- This does not require any techno-mystic dreams of a post-scarcity society. In fact, it rests on exactly the opposite assumption: that attention is preciously scarce, and that attracting and maintaining attention is itself intrinsically valuable. But there is one analog to post-scarcity, which is that the individual is constantly producing attention, as long as they are conscious. So from the perspective of the individual, they are always generating value.

- I don't expect anyone to actually affix a device to their foreheads, or to shoot out marbles. That is just by means of explaining how the system would work. I won't go into details of how to actually implement such a system except to say that the internet and digital technologies have made it possible to actually track the flow of attention, and that it is actually the management of attention that accounts for every single success in the digital world.

- I also don't expect a transition to such a system to be easy. I think the right way to initiate a transition like this, though, is to go to some capital deprived area (say, some small village in Africa), and provide everyone there with the means for tracking attention exchanges, and see what comes of it. I think if you give people the means of tracking and attracting attention, they will start to reorganize their social lives around this new ability.

Bah, this is all insanity. I'm hitting submit anyway.