The attention economy: curation by duration

Paul Raven @ 22-08-2009

This Short Manifesto on the Future of Attention by Michael Erard pushed a lot of my buttons, and I reckon it’ll be of some considerable interest to other art creators and consumers (writers and readers, for example, which is most of you lot):

I imagine attention festivals: week-long multimedia, cross-industry carnivals of readings, installations, and performances, where you go from a tent with 30-second films, guitar solos, 10-minute video games, and haiku to the tent with only Andy Warhol movies, to a myriad of venues with other media forms and activities requiring other attention lengths. In the Nano Tent, you can hear ringtones and read tweets. A festival organized not by the forms of the commodities themselves but of the experience of interacting with them. Not organized by time elapsed, but by cognitive investment: a pop song, which goes by quickly, can resonate for days; a poem, which can go by more quickly, sticks through a season. A festival in which you can see images of your brain on knitting and on Twitter.

I imagine a retail sector for cultural products that’s organized around the attention span: not around “books” or “music” but around short stories and pop songs in one aisle, poems and arias in the other. In the long store: 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzles, big novels, beer brewing equipment, DVDs of The Wire. Clerks could suggest and build attentional menus. We would develop attentional connoisseurship: the right pairings of the short and long.

Has a hint of the science fictional about it, but doesn’t seem implausible by any means given the way the web is mutating creation and commerce. But this bit deserves special attention:

I imagine an attention tax that aspiring cultural producers must pay. A barrier to entry. If you want people to read your book, then you have to read books; if you want people to buy your book, then you buy books. Give your attention to the industry of your choice. Like indie musicians have done for decades, conceive of the scene as an attention economy, in which those who pay in (e.g., I go to your shows) get to take out (e.g., come to my show). It would also mitigate one oft-claimed peril of the rise of the amateur, which is that they don’t know from quality: consuming many other examples from a variety of sources, even amateur producers would generate a sense of what’s good and what’s bad: in other words, in their community they’d evolve a set of standards. This might frustrate the elitists, who want to impose their standards. But standards would, given enough time, emerge.

This sounds very much like the online short fiction scene to me, albeit a more highly evolved version thereof, and the pparallel with the indie music scenes, especially at a local level, is palpable. I’d be tempted to make “economy” and “ecosystem” interchangeable, though. What do you think – will curation of niche artforms become a form of crowdsourced consensus of attention?

(This is yet another link from Joanne McNeil of Tomorrow Museum, who I’ll stop linking to just as soon as she stops posting really interesting stuff… which hopefully won’t be any time soon.)

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One Response to “The attention economy: curation by duration”

  1. Evil Rocks says:

    As long as the dominant trend towards roboticizing manual labor continues, we’re going to have an increasing amount of attention to pay to these things (side note: is it not mildly amusing how the language of capitalism has infected descriptions of how humans use the slice of time we’re each granted? we “spend time” “waste time”, quantify it colloquially [“time is money”] but the one thing we cannot do with time is *earn more* – barring personal wealth and longevity investments/philanthropy).

    However, under a strictly capitalist economic regime all the freshly-unemployed skill-less will have probably zero paper dollars to dump into any ‘attentional economy’.

    Interesting problem: a whole bunch of people with lots of time to occupy and no money (traditionally this ends in drugs and social chaos: witness the urban transition and Europe’s collective gin binge at the dawn of automation in textile factories). This author sees a new attentional economy revolving around:
    “Things requiring longer attention spans [being] cheaper — they might even be free, and the higher fixed costs of producing them would be covered by the higher sales of the short attention span products.”
    From my perspective, this is criminally and Communistically bass-ackwards. Why on earth would any industry sell its most cheaply-produced commodities at higher prices than its vastly more capital-intensive products? The atoms analogy would be subsidizing your cars by charing outrageous prices for scooters.

    This proposal reeks of a utopian so indoctrinated in the rhetoric of the many-tentacled, all-controlling liberal government they think economies run based on say-so (“we’ll charge more for brain candy ringtones and misc. ephemera, and use that money to subsidize novels and operatic television dramas to educate and improve the poor people!”), rather than the profit motive.

    Who, pray tell, will ensure that producers keep prices high on ringtones? The government?

    The idea is charming, but I think that the author looks a little far into the future without questioning enough preconceptions about modern life. I offer an alternative. Back to robots!

    I opine frequently that everyone (okay, 80% of everyone) involved in dumb labor will be unemployed over the next forty years. Those people will need something to do with their time. Ignoring the (rather significant, in my estimation) possibility of the entire underclass degenerating into drug abuse and crime, these people will need something to do with their time. Some fraction will be devoted to food production, another fraction to sex and miscellaneous social activities. I hope that the remaining fraction will be used to *make things*. A return to craftsmanship as a social glue, if you will (my formal atomwork training is in bespoke furniture). There are little bits of evidence that support this trend developing over the next twenty years (see: Shop Class as Soulcraft http://www.amazon.com/Shop-Class-Soulcraft-Inquiry-Value/dp/1594202230). Craftsmanship in an exchange economy mind you, as all cash dollars will be tied up in the wallets of the corporations, their engineer/scientists and assorted PR folks and the prostitutes as what service said elites.

    The author continues with their big-government view of “attentional allocation”:

    I imagine software, a smartphone app, perhaps, you can use to audit your attentional expenditures. So that before you embark on trying to write a book, you will be able to see how much time you spent reading books over the last month or year… [snip] …This will show you that you’re a savvy allocator of your attentional resources — and so is everybody else.

    I draw your attention to the liberal Cthulu raising his soul-shattering head again: be a good attentional allocator, or be reviled by your peers.

    I propose instead: an alternative trust-based currency, based on a public-private key signature system. Carry an RFID around with you at all times with a few megs of storage and your key on it. Ask anyone who finds the services you render useful to sign your key and store the signature hash in the storage space on aforementioned arphid. The signature expires after a certain period of time: append to the signed key (as hashed by the signer’s key) a couple hundred characters stored in a p2p network, calculated to degrade after a certain period of time (http://www2.computer.org/portal/web/csdl/doi/10.1109/NSWCTC.2009.98) – this makes your signature’s validity as a source of ‘trust’ degrade over time as the appended data is less and less verifiable.

    In general, I support monetary systems for governments, taxes, large corporations and storing energy for later use. If we want to design robust alternatives to liberal democracy’s tendency to crush alternative networks of remuneration and exchange in favor of the free market, we need to think *past* monetary patches along the lines described above (artificially inflating prices for things a committee thinks are ‘brain kandy’ to subsidize what they think is good for you) and look at less mainstream solutions. I suggest Cory Doctorow’s Whuffie system as a reasonable introduction to the topic.

    I close with a bit of polemic against people who think they can decide what’s best for everyone. This author wants to make the ‘bad stuff’ more expensive in order to subsidize the ‘good stuff’. Beyond interfering in free market pricefinding mechanisms (which I have a fair degree of faith in, barring excessive government twiddling throwing the whole system into chaos). This translates into “I smart educated college kid! I tell you what good reading musics and wideo! Consume what I say good, avoid what I say bad!” I dig for these splinters a little too aggressively, perhaps. Regardless, liberal democracy has a long tradition of rich white people running campaigns that boil down to “I know what’s good for the poor” (prostitution, temperance, DARE, and every single welfare program ever).

    Instead, lets try to think about alternatives to the community-crushing monetary system. Should we not push for a culture of amateurs? Do we really need an industry based around entertainment? Good counterculture design intimates that we need to feed and beer our bands if only for the music they supply at our gangster-ass parties. Is it not possible for every consumer of culture to also be a creator? Is it possible to undermine the curatorial impulse? Will it ever be possible for our society to make art and culture as an endogenous process? Check out Burning Man, and tell me what you think.