GOLDSTEIN: Like David Letterman. I don’t know who’s going to be on the show, but I’m going to turn it on for an hour because I respect the host’s choice of guests.
GOLDHABER: Exactly. That’s what happens with Bill Maher or any of those hosts. That’s still a very common thing that you would trust someone to redirect your attention. And in effect you’re giving them your attention to begin with so they can redirect it. And it’s true that you don’t end up with a profound knowledge of the mind of Ed Sullivan, or David Letterman; but this editor at the New York Times, I only know of his mind indirectly by some very subtle things about the kinds of choices made. I have a sense that interesting letters will appear there that will give me a new angle on things. And that will also reinforce certain prejudices that I have that I want to have reinforced because it makes me feel like I’m significant.
GOLDSTEIN: So what do you call these people?
GOLDHABER: I guess you could call them impresarios.
GOLDSTEIN: In economic terms, what is their role?
GOLDHABER: Well, if you like broker…
GOLDSTEIN: Agent, broker, proxy, curator…
GOLDHABER: Take for example the recent auction of Jackie Onassis materials. Look at this inkwell that comes from her and suddenly she’s evoked even though nobody knows what her relationship to the inkwell was. Nobody really knows if she ever used it, but it was found at her house. So, there it is.
GOLDSTEIN: She paid attention to it, and therefore it has some value above and beyond its functionality.
GOLDHABER: Yeah, you imagine her presence somehow. The functionality is pretty minimal, but somebody might pay $3,000 for it. Why do they pay so much? Not because it’s an inkwell, but because it’s Jackie’s inkwell.
GOLDSTEIN: It’s a container for her attention.
GOLDHABER: It’s a container for her attention and for our attention to her. We imagine that she looked at this. What people say about paying attention is that they were “enthralled.” Now, enthralled means enslaved and what that connotes is that…
GOLDSTEIN: Agreed, but you can override people’s attention choices if what you’re doing is so compelling, so attention grabbing, like a terrorist.
GOLDHABER: It’s compelling. Compelling is like compulsion.
GOLDSTEIN: You can override whatever choices there are.
GOLDHABER: And people find themselves feeling compelled…
GOLDSTEIN: It’s a hostile takeover.
GOLDHABER: Yeah, kind of partially hostile, partially – but it doesn’t feel hostile necessarily. I mean someone sends an email, and that person’s Ray Ozzie. Whoever it is, anybody who is in the software world and knows who he is, will open the email. And it may just say: “I want you to buy this new Microsoft product” in which case you will feel you’ve been had. Or it may say: “Hey, I have this great idea, let’s talk about it” in which case you would feel that you’re worth a lot of attention. So in other words, what I’m saying is that you respond on the basis of prior attention that you’ve paid. I mean you know who Ray Ozzie is. If you didn’t know who he is, it would not be interesting.
GOLDSTEIN: So what technology does-- in the case of email, or the case of instant message, or the case of whatever electronic communication, is confront you with choices that force you to rank and rate your attention.
GOLDHABER: Everybody does that. For example, Bruce Sterling and his very evocative, entertaining, strange talk showed us a lot of books. So I thought, well I’m going to read The Laws of Cool for example. So, one of his functions, which he is constantly doing, is telling you to read somebody else. He’s redirecting your attention. He has to have your attention to redirect it.
GOLDSTEIN: I mean, last time I sat here you said: read George Lakoff. So I went to a bookstore, to buy Metaphors We Live By.
GOLDHABER: Yeah and then there’s Philosophy in the Flesh.
GOLDSTEIN: I haven’t picked that one up.
GOLDHABER: Or even to some extent Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, an old book by him. There’s interesting stuff in all that.
GOLDSTEIN: Who do you read for economics?
GOLDHABER: I don’t know any economics really. I sort of make it up as I go along. I guess that’s a little unfair, I mean, I have a friend who’s an economist.
GOLDSTEIN: You don’t teach anymore?
GOLDHABER: Not right now, I’m not teaching.
GOLDSTEIN: Did you teach at Berkeley?
GOLDHABER: I used to teach physics at Berkeley, but the academic world is set up by what you have your PhD in, and it’s very hard to teach something you don’t have your PhD in. I haven’t wanted to teach physics, so I haven’t…
GOLDSTEIN: There’s no graduate seminar on the physics of attention? What about the biology of physics?
GOLDHABER: Well, I don’t know that I’m interested in the biophysics. It’d probably be very boring.
GOLDSTEIN: Mirror neurons. What would that be considered?
GOLDHABER: Yeah, that would be neuroscience. I’m interested in them only in their broader applications. I mean, to me they’re so interesting because all of a sudden biologists have to admit the relationship that exists between people. That we’re not sort of, whatever the term is, monads.
GOLDSTEIN: That’s profound; that there are physiological networks that aren’t physically apparent.
GOLDHABER: Right. The fact that we’re all part of a social system and we’re not just computers having data fed in…
GOLDHABER: Yeah, data is important. We’re very interactive, very, very interconnected.
GOLDSTEIN: So, it’s not accidental. It’s not anonymous. It’s actually permanent. I learned from you that people continue to receive attention even if they are no longer alive. People don’t naturally think that way. They think attention is about who I am paying attention to now. As opposed to the fact that I’m always paying attention on different levels to different people and accross different eras, and that all of these people accrue attention even if they’re gone. That is the spime that Bruce Sterling was talking about. I guess that the social interactions we have leave residues that we take with us, even when the other person is gone.
(thread 11, the end of a conversation in oakland between seth goldstein and michael goldhaber after oreilly's march 06 attention economy conference)