the attention economy, part 1

NYT article

An article in the New York Times a couple of months ago is still lodged in my brain. Prompted by the protests of fast food workers over their minimum wage, it amounted to a deeper consideration of what wealth still gets you, in an age of cheap technology.

As the article’s opening question put it, “Is a family with a car in the driveway, a flat-screen television and a computer with an Internet connection poor?”

It echoes something Ken Follett wrote in the afterward of his historical novel The Pillars of the Earth. In researching the middle ages, he was struck by the way standards of living evolve, and observed that today’s incarcerated felon enjoys a higher quality of life, better health care and more security than the wealthiest nobility of the 14th century.

So say, hypothetically speaking, we want to address the widening gap between the rich and the poor. What exactly are we filling in, if everyone already has all their teeth and a smart phone?

The NYT article would argue human services: good health care, access to education, a lawyer when you need one. This makes sense to me, because it lines up with other long-term trends of comparative value. A thousand years ago, the cheapest way to copy a book was to hire a monk for a year. Today it’s a Kindle download equivalent to about an hour at minimum wage, or, if the book is old enough, free.

In other words, what’s expensive today isn’t the book but the monk.

That growth in the relative premium on human attention is accelerating, as we race each other to make everything else cheaper. I first encountered this idea around ten years ago, in a book called The Attention Economy. By now its examples and arguments are dated – the only edition was published in 2002 – but the conclusions are surprisingly fresh. The businesses that thrive will be those that value uniquely human input, that attend to attention.


This has a few implications for us in higher education:

1. The higher standard of living we peddle to newcomers is for services, not stuff. See the New York Times article for this. We have always chafed somewhat at the crassest motive for college learning, to earn more money. Yet that incremental income is looking less materialistic all the time, and more like the means to the kind of full life that we’re more comfortable promoting.

2. The most valuable proficiencies we develop may be interpersonal. Engineering faculty around the CSU are especially vocal advocates of general education, understanding that cross-cultural competence, clear communication, and persuasion are some of their graduates’ most marketable skills. That is, in an attention economy, the spoils go not only to those who make what people want, but also who can understand, anticipate, and responsibly lead the focus of others.

3. The most important dispositional learning may be executive function. I think of this third one as the flipside of the second: just as we want our graduates able to steer the attention of others, they will need increasingly to protect their own. And so far, as near as we can tell, they’re not only bad at it but getting worse.

nass.cliffordLast October I was among the presenters at a CSU Northridge event on the future of the CSU, and appearing with me was Clifford Nass of Stanford University. His remarks on the erosion of our students’ executive function, their multi-tasker’s vulnerability to distraction from all quarters, was chilling.

He went through detailed testing results on the different ways we manage attention:

     maintain focus in an appropriate area

     ignore irrelevant information

     manage working memory

     switch between tasks

In every case, students categorized as “high multi-taskers” – the vast majority of subjects, and a growing share – scored measurably worse. Yet, these are looking like the same skills they’ll rely on most after they graduate – both in what they purchase with that higher standard of living afforded by a college degree, and in what they sell as their contribution to the workforce.

That alone should tell us something urgent about what to emphasize with our curriculum.

But for those of us working in higher education, there’s another, bigger consequence of this shift in valuation, and it plays out not for individuals but collectively.

But it’s too surprising for me to write about yet.  Maybe in another post or two.


5 thoughts on “the attention economy, part 1

  1. Looking forward to part 2 of this post. Question: are you sure that “everybody has all their teeth”? Seriously. Recommended reading:

    Oldfield, Kenneth. “Humble and Hopeful: Welcoming First-Generation Poor and Working-Class Students to College.” About Campus (January-February 2007): 2-12.

    A powerfully written first-person account that ought to be a classic

  2. Cheryl, that article is great. Thank you for recommending it, and let me immediately re-recommend it to readers here. A little like the book whose title I took for this post, the article impresses me for being so ahead of its time, not only when it was written, but today, too.
    Institutional researchers around the CSU have suggested that our emphasis on student success gaps by race and ethnicity is overdue for some revision, or at least more nuance, to take into account socio-economic status. A few even wonder quietly if in the CSU race isn’t essentially a proxy for the class divide described by this article.
    However entangled the variables, these six lessons (#3 is about dental health) and four recommendations are very convincing.

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