The following is an excerpt from a conversation with Michael Goldhaber in March 2006, directly following OReilly's Etech conference entitled The Attention Economy, where both Michael and I spoke. I will release the full interview transcript in bite-size nuggets in the coming week/s.
Thread 1: Attention and Productivity
MG: ...In an attention economy, everyone’s trying to get more attention, but the net amount really isn’t going to change very much. It’s just moved around. The individual may feel they’re being more productive in the sense that they are doing things that ultimately get more attention, but you’re not really changing the sum total. So, why you’re doing things is much more because, whether it’s your software or somebody else’s software, you want attention from a Web site or whatever. And if people feel that that’s going to help them get attention in some way – I’m generalizing obviously – they will then go for that. They may be wrong; but there is the sense that they can get more
SG: I think the productivity argument is derivative of attention. Meaning, I think that understanding the exchange of attention potentially allows you to save time. So, if I’m able to understand whom I am paying attention to – if I’m able to understand the people I’m influenced by – what they’re paying attention to – Seamlessly – then maybe I can waste less time on things that I’m really not interested in. So, the byproduct of that is productivity. Right? I think that’s the real, pure filtration.
MG: Yeah, I suspect that’s true, but what does wasting less time mean? Wasting less time means in some sense being more effective in the allocation of your attention and in the sense of getting more attention than you’re giving.
SG: But is that related to productivity, if you get more attention? I don’t see the connection.
MG: I would define productivity in a zero sum world, a world of attention scarcity, that getting more attention is the closest you can come to being more productive. A society as a whole does not get more productive, because how do you define productivity? We now define it in terms of money, but if I’m right, money is something that to a large extent, not completely at this point, but to a large extent, tracks attention. And it will track more and more attention. In other words, the more attention you get, the more productive you are. Personally, the more attention you save, the more productive you are. So, the more you can get attention, while paying the least attention, I would say maximizes your personal productivity.
SG: Why productivity? I think of it as influence, being influential. Why are you being more productive? Is productivity a required variable in an economic framework?
MG: Productivity is an old term from the old economy in a way, but what I urge you to understand in effect is that what productivity increasingly means is, you’re more productive if what you do gets more attention. That’s why a janitor gets paid a lot less than a movie star. And we measure productivity in money terms and basically money goes largely, increasingly, to people who have attention. So, the more attention you have, in effect you are counted economically as more productive.
SG: For the technology world, productivity is more like: I can get more shit done; I can get more tasks done. It’s like calendar management - time.
MG: Right. But for that to be economic productivity, it has to affect some output. And that output ends up being essentially attention. Anyways, that’s just one thought. That’s a small thought in a way, but significant.
SG: I don’t think anybody is as evolved in their thinking about the attention economy as you are, but you see it’s like the stages of evolution that people go through mentally to kind of get to the attention perspective. At first it’s like they’re a kid and they’re just throwing around words without any rigor, and then I think you start to see a little bit more care, and then a little bit more and more. We’re used to using the word attention in a very un-rigorous way. When you look at attention as a physics, as a substance, then you take it more seriously.