the attention economy, part 2

114907678A couple of posts ago I described indications that our economy increasingly prizes attention. These days, rich people and poor people both have many of the same gadgets, but the poor have less access to human-delivered services like education, health care, and legal help.  That’s the consumer’s perspective, the attention we buy.

At the same time, our students are graduating into a world where the main thing they will sell is their attention: their ability to focus, to empathize, to make connections.  The producer’s perspective.

Both of these signs of an ascendant “attention economy” affect higher education.

On the consuming or buying side, higher ed’s function as a driver of upward mobility gets harder to demonstrate, as some consumption gets less conspicuous.

On the producing or selling side, the common curriculum of all bachelor’s degrees – that is, general education – could anticipate the new valuations by foregrounding attention-related intellectual proficiencies, like cross-cultural competence, executive function, and the ability to argue in ways that are interesting as well as persuasive.

As I was writing that post, it occurred to me that its perspective was all microeconomic, following the incentives and actions of individual decision-makers.

Other likely upshots of the attention economy are macroeconomic, on a collective and social scale.  But the implications on that front struck me as too weird for plausibility, so I stopped writing.

Now that it’s a few weeks later I think they’re still weird, but more plausible.

First, a word about wealth, not just for individual people but for the planet.

Every once in a while it surprises me to remember that everything we use, touch, and consume started as stuff in the ground. The fax machine, the pepperoni Hot Pocket, and the Mona Lisa all owe their origins, ultimately, to mining and agriculture. Everything else that brought them about came from us.

27274-gnsAnd as production gets more clever and efficient, the same finite raw material ends up as more and better finished goods, and wealth increases. Over the millennia those advantages have added up, to things like space ships and keyless cars and shampoo + conditioner in one.

When you put these next to each other they’re surprisingly stark:

origins of wealth growers of wealth
mining creativity
agriculture productivity

That’s it. And for the first column, the Earth is carrying pretty much the same net nutritional and mineral value as it did when the comets stopped pelting us.   That humans are far better off today than when we first dropped from the trees is owing entirely to the second column.

Now, in an attention economy, innovations and efficiencies arise not from tinkering with the assembly line, but from improving human cognition. The more developed each person’s intellectual capacity, the more high-quality attention there is to go around, and the more of it we have to divvy up.  That is, you grow large-scale wealth with social work, corrections (in those rare cases of rehabilitation) and — most of all — with education.

That’s always been true, but it’s truer in an attention economy.  Now the extra smarts aren’t just the means to a faster, say, assembly line; they are the end themselves.  My colleagues and I may be the new miners and farmers.


A recent Frontline story looked at the city of Baton Rouge, and efforts by a group of affluent suburbs to break off and form a separate city of their own. This would considerably impoverish those left behind. According to the story, this is happening in cities across the south, where decades of mandated desegregation mixed good schools with bad. Now that’s unraveling.  Even the liberals among the rich white parents support the drive to separate, to make sure their own children are well educated no matter what. It’s hard to fault them.

But watching the piece, I was most disappointed in the arguments on the other side. Advocates of city unity, and so tacitly also of racial integration, did a poor job defending their positions.

Some of them said staying together was the right thing to do on moral and altruistic grounds (in my experience, never a potent defense for public education). Others merely squirmed.

What I didn’t hear was the argument that strikes me as truest and most compelling: we want even our poorest neighbors to be well educated, because it makes us all richer.

I don’t mean in an abstract, humanitarian, road-to-Damascus sense, I mean it literally brings us more of the goods and services we want, raising standards of living, even in the neighborhoods that were already well off.

Because when wealth is measured by the ability to provide and command high-quality human attention, the production of more and better attention, education becomes the main source of material abundance.

I’m 90% sure.


4 thoughts on “the attention economy, part 2

  1. Ken,

    Right on target as 90+% as always. When is your book on the wisdom of our investing in Educational Futures, instead of corn or pork bellies, going to come out? Wishful thinking on my part? Or an eventuality?

    One of my favorite quotes from Simone Weil would fit this article well, “Absolute attention is absolute prayer.” Pray on, my friend.


  2. Well put! Over the past several decades, industry has discouraged in their employees the ability to shift, customize and adapt to a variety of situations, and has built structures that siloize and isolate those whose job it is to shepherd consumers through increasingly complex processes (my recent experience with seven different “customer service” workers at Best Buy comes to mind).

    Better that industry empower their people to make low and high level decisions for the benefit of the consumer, rather than constantly kicking problems and issues up the chain to the “de-escalation division”. It will take lots of higher order thinking on the part of the employee to make this effective, so that highly-prized attention goes hand in hand with empathy and the ability to actually fix problems.

    We’re not there yet. We need to improve K-16 education for _everyone_ so that the next time I buy a dishwasher, it won’t have to involve five phone calls and seven different employees.

    1. This is great. It took me a second to get the connection between an attention economy and empowered front-line workers, but I really see it on rereading your comment, and the implications go all the way down to kindergarten. Really thought-provoking.

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