Thesis #17

In an age of digital abundance, attention is the really scarce resource

In 1971, Herbert Simon, an eminent economist who later won Nobel prize, wrote this:

“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

This demonstrates Simon’s extraordinary prescience. When he wrote that, the Arpanet – the military precursor to the Internet – was operational but had not yet been completed. The first mobile phone was two years away. The first digital camera using a charge-coupled sensor did not appear until 1975. And the Internet (in the sense of the TCP/IP-based network that we use today) was fully 12 years away. So the full import of the digital abundance that we now experience must have been hard to imagine at the beginning of the 1970s. And the same goes for the extent to which attention would become such a scarce resource.

Yet it has come to pass. Ever since the advent of mass media, advertising has been a prime mover of commerce, and advertising is fundamentally about capturing people’s attention with the aim of influencing their behaviour or attitudes. In that sense we now live in an ‘attention economy’.

The transition from a world where information was scarce to one in which it is super-abundant is one of the signal achievements of digital network technology. And it is — to use a programming metaphor — both celebrated as a feature and deprecated as a bug . In actual fact it is both, and as such has defined the marketplace in which Google and Facebook operate. It may also come to be the reason why these companies will need new business models (Thesis 14) in the medium term.

Further reading

H.A. Simon, 1971, “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World”, in Martin Greenberger (ed), Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.

Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants :The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, Knopf, 2016. Amazon UK:

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