Edited by David Rooney, Greg Hearn and Tim Kastelle
Chapter 6: The Economics of Attention: Economic Doctrines, Social Structures, Political Systems
Richard A. Lanham When the world’s most precious resource is immaterial, the economic doctrines, social structures, and political systems that evolved in a world devoted to the service of matter become rapidly ill suited to cope with the new situation. (Walter B. Wriston, former Chairman of Citicorp, 1992, pp. 19–20) Economic doctrines, social structures, political systems: let’s consider them in that order and ponder some templates of thought, past and present, we might use to guide our thinking about them when the most precious resource turns out to be immaterial – human attention. The basic argument here is simple enough. We’re told that we live in an information economy. Remembering from Economics101 that economics studies ‘the allocation of scarce commodities which have alternative uses,’ we then think of information as the commodity in short supply. But information is not in short supply; we’re drowning in it. What is in short supply is the attention needed to make sense of all this information. To the extent that we live in an information economy, then, we really live in an attention economy, one in which the precious resource is indeed immaterial. What does such an economy look like? What questions does it pose? What lessons does it hold for people engaged in the businesses of ordinary life? We might begin by asking how this attention economy emerged. To address this question, I’m fond of a short quotation which appeared several years ago in The Wall Street Journal (2000). A young businessman...
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