Thursday, February 4, 2021

Michael Goldhaber and the Attention Economy

Sometime in the 1980s, physicist Michael Goldhaber had a revelation: in an age of ever increasing information, with a glut of entertainment options, attention is the most valuable commodity. The future would see an ever intensifying competition for that attention, and great wealth and power would flow to those who can command it. Alongside this we would completely lose our ability to focus on anything less captivating than the most exciting shiny objects. To describe this world he used a then obscure term coined by psychologist Herbert Simon: “the attention economy.” Charlie Warzel:

The idea changed the way Goldhaber saw the entire world, and it unsettled him deeply. “I kept thinking that attention is highly desirable and that those who want it tend to want as much as they can possibly get,” he told me. He couldn’t shake the idea that this would cause a deepening inequality. “When you have attention, you have power, and some people will try and succeed in getting huge amounts of attention, and they would not use it in equal or positive ways.” In 1997, he helped popularize the term “attention economy” with an essay in Wired magazine predicting that the internet would upend the advertising industry and create a “star system” in which “whoever you are, however you express yourself, you can now have a crack at the global audience.” He outlined the demands of living in an attention economy, describing an ennui that didn’t yet exist but now feels familiar to anyone who makes a living online. “The Net also ups the ante, increasing the relentless pressure to get some fraction of this limited resource,” he wrote. “At the same time, it generates ever greater demands on each of us to pay what scarce attention we can to others.”

In subsequent obscure journal articles, Mr. Goldhaber warned of the attention economy’s destabilizing effects, including how it has disproportionate benefits for the most shameless among us. “Our abilities to pay attention are limited. Not so our abilities to receive it,” he wrote in the journal First Monday. “The value of true modesty or humility is hard to sustain in an attention economy.” . . .

In June 2006, Mr. Goldhaber predicted the grueling personal effects of a life mediated by technologies that feed on our attention and reward those best able to command it. “In an attention economy, one is never not on, at least when one is awake, since one is nearly always paying, getting or seeking attention.”
Goldhaber was one of many who predicted this outcome: on the internet, attention would flow to the most outrageous, the most extreme, the most shocking. Almost as a matter of course, power would flow away from the boring center toward the extremes, toward those people who can best capture our attention. Being right would matter lest than being interesting, and often the best way to be interesting is to be outrageously wrong.

Viewed in this light, recent American history makes a lot more sense. Donald Trump was the perfect politician to take advantage of this new dynamic, since nobody in American political life has ever been able to draw attention like he has. And why QAnon? Because for many it is just a lot more interesting, and a lot more gratifying, than the messy and complicated truth.

The long-term effects of this remain to be seen. I hope we will see a sort of backlash, and people will turn away from attention-grabbing extremism toward something that feels safer and more real. I think many people will cut back on their online activity, seeing it more as a source of anxiety than of happiness. As I and many of my friends have already done. But I think it is within the bounds of the possible that as older voters die off and those raised on the internet take over we will see ever more extremism of emotion and belief, feeding off each other and spiraling ever upward, until the world catches fire. What that would mean I do not know, but I feel deeply that a society without a sane, boring, middling mass to keep it stable is in for a very rough time.


David said...

I apologize for playing gotcha, but I can't help myself. It seems to me Goldhaber is simply saying something you've denounced in other posts: that the internet is exacerbating our current divisions, and even making our current divisions different in important ways from those in the past. None of these thinkers are saying that the internet is causing our current divisions, in the sense that our divisions wouldn't exist or they wouldn't be bitter without it. These thinkers are suggesting that the internet is making our divisions different in important ways, quite possibly worse, and certainly harder to predict in their course, than they might otherwise be.

It's true that Goldhaber seems a more attractively humble type of figure, and Warzel is a more appealing writer, than at least some of those involved in the other articles you've commented on. There's value in trying to tame the grandiose style that people too often use in statements about the internet. But I think the substance of what he's saying isn't significantly different from what the others are.

Shadow said...

Donald Trump was the perfect politician to take advantage of this new dynamic . . ."

So perhaps we should stop calling people like Trump and Marjorie Taylor Green politicians and start calling them what they are, Internet personalities, or to be more accurate, Internet trolls. I'm all for clarity.

G. Verloren said...


The thing is, he was literally the host of a reality television series for over a decade prior to running for office.

Trump didn't need the internet to make him an "attention economics" contender - his entire career has been about inflating his brand (and ego) by doing anything and everything possible to get eyes on him and his name. He was a literal attention whore from the very start, and it kept him in business despite all his flaws.

And it's not as if politicians haven't leverged media to gain outsized influence before the internet either! Look at Reagan, the epitome of a television president. Look at JFK and FDR, who relied on radio to garner outsized influence and maintain cults of personality. Look at all the presidents who won office by getting on more trains and delivering more stump speeches in more places than the other guy.

The narrative has ALWAYS been dominated by the parties that can get the most eyes on themselves and fill the most ears with their message. All the internet has done is make it easier to reach people more quickly, with fewer restrictions on what can be said. Before the internet, a potential president needed the cooperation of television and newspaper companies to get their message out - but now, all they need is the negligence and spinelessness of social media platforms like Twitter, allowing him to break all of their rules and facing no consequences for doing so.

Shadow said...


It's too late to do with Trump, but I'd love to tune into, let's say, Good Morning, America -- that's a morning quasi-news show, right? -- and while eating my Cheereos listen to the host say, "In the news this morning Internet Troll and congresswoman MTG has tweeted that she has on good authority that President Biden has been kidnapped and replaced by a zombie lookalike and that she wants all her fans to know she's still looking for the plane that crashed into the Pentagon."

G. Verloren said...


You can achieve similar results with web browser plugins which automatically substitute certain words in news articles with other more entertaining variants.

On the fly voice replacement will be at least another decade or so, probably.