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.”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.
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.”
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.