From Economics of Information to Economics of Attention

Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information is a wonderful read, a terrific example of the very rhetorical strategies of attention management the book describes. Two sections particularly wowed me:

1) Building on Herbert Simon’s seminal recognition of information overload, Lanham contests our tendency to commodify information as valuable per se. In a world where a quarter gigabyte of data is produced per person, per year, what appears of far more value (than sheer information) are the filters and maps we need to make sense of this deluge. As Lanham says, the “new scarcity” is not that of information in general, but of “human attention needed to make sense of information” (7).

Simone Weil memorably esteemed (unmixed) attention as prayer. Lanham suggests the “sacred” dimension of a shift from considering information as scarce, to considering attention as scarce. So long as we do the former, we can imagine that information policy should aim to maximize the amount of information produced…the more, the better. But when we start to think of attention as scarce, the focus of information and cultural policy becomes much more personal. As Lanham playfully notes, “we have never had so many entertaining distractions, or–if you dislike them–distracting entertainments” (21) (a reality harshly experienced by any professor with a wireless classroom!).

2) Speaking of law teaching…in the chapter “What’s Next for Text,” Lanham demonstrates an excellent “teaching tool” for anyone faced with navigating a statute. He presents a wordy California statute on plant preservation as an epic poem, with the main argument in Gothic font, and various qualifications presented as choruses (and other adversions as refrains). “The marmoreal prose melts into poetry” (92). As Lanham hopefully asks, “might we find, in this new pattern of attention, an increase in efficiency in how knowledge is communicated?”

I hope so. And kudos to McKenzie Wark and the Institute for the Future of the Book for presenting a new book, GAM3R 7H30RY, in this fascinatingly interactive format. As this superb Jeffrey Young article suggests, this may well be Book 2.0.

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