The economics of attention vs the sociology of attention

The Attention Economy and the Net is a remarkably prescient piece, widely seen to have coined the eponymous term and containing insights which are still relevant two decades later. The framing of the economy unsurprisingly shapes the approach he adopts and it creates a focus on exchange which I find problematic in some respects. This isn’t because there aren’t questions to be asked about the exchange of attention. There are many and this paper raises them in powerful ways. But exchange isn’t always the same thing and the ‘economy’ metaphor* flattens out these differences:

  1. He observes on pg 2 that attention “is an intrinsically scarce resource”. However it doesn’t follow from that we “have a certain stock of attention at [our] disposal” which can be allocated in different ways. This imputes a voluntarism to our capacity to attend which is phenomenologically, neurophysiologically and ontologically untenable. It helps draw attention to the role of competition in shaping what we attend to but it suggests we can simply exchange our attention qua commodity in relation to changing circumstances. But I don’t think this is the case. When a fire alarm goes off I can be said to reallocate attention from the task at hand but this fails to grasp the involuntary character of the apparent exchange. From the perspective of someone interested in distraction, thinking about allocation helps make sense of sources of distraction but obscures the question of how, why and to what degree these things distract us by leaving us describing these outcomes as reallocations of a uniform and fungible commodity. It loses the quality of attention in its focus on the quantity and how it is distributed.
  2. It’s hard to make sense of the lasting effects of attention if we see it as a matter of exchange. He writes on pg 6 that attentional wealth accrues through the enduring effects of past attention, creating mental traces which can be reactived at a later late. This is an important point about how the cumulative influence which can be achieved through attention but it speaks to the involuntary character of our allocation. It suggests over the life course people carry an increasing quantity of traces of past attending which can be activated at a later date, insightfully pointing to biographical dynamics which I can’t see how it’s possible to explain unless we dispense with the metaphor of allocation. The same is true of his point about the capacity to attention to enable us to exercise power over an audience.
  3. His point about money flowing with attention but not vice versa on pg 7 is an important one which speaks to current debates about organic vs paid advertising. But this further underscores the non-vountaristic nature of what we attend to because it highlights how attention has to be won, in a manner which prods the subject into expanding their energy, it can’t simply be stimulated in a mechanical fashion. It could be argued that I’m taking the notion of allocation too literally here but the point of a metaphor is that it opens up and closes down its object. I’m suggesting we lose an important part of the picture if we see it in these terms.

*It’s not literally an economy, as much as a way of highlighting the increasing salience of attention as an economic factor and how this reflects an economic transformation. There is a literal aspect to this framing but it smuggles in a metaphorical aspect which I think is more dubious. It makes the transformation seem more epochal, drawing sharper boundaries than would otherwise be the case, as it becomes a matter of transitioning between the ‘old economy’ and the ‘new economy’. He acknowledges the problem with what Mike Savage calls epochal theorising at the start of the article but doesn’t really avoid the pitfalls associated with it.

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