The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information

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Overview

Richard A. Lanham here traces our epochal move from an economy of things and objects to an economy of attention. According to Lanham, the central commodity in our new age of information is not stuff but style, for style is what competes for our attention amid the din and deluge of new media. In such a world, intellectual property will become more central to the economy than real property, while the arts and letters will grow to be more crucial than engineering, the physical sciences, and indeed economics as conventionally practiced. For Lanham, the arts and letters are the disciplines that study how human attention is allocated and how cultural capital is created and traded. In an economy of attention, style and substance change places. The new attention economy, therefore, will anoint a new set of moguls in the business world - not the CEOs or fund managers of yesteryear, but new masters of attention with a grounding in the humanities and liberal arts.
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Editorial Reviews

The Independent
It's refreshing to read a deeply literary mind who embraces the information age, and wants to focus on its civilizing possibilities rather than flee from the screens in horror.”

— Pat Kane

PopMatters
The Economics of Attention ahould be considered 'important' for its ability to continue the discourse of what social and cultural conditions have changed as the world of communication changes. . . . Overall this is a balanced look at actual communicative development. Instead of trying to force the idea of total paradigm shift, Lanham instead embraces the possibilities of paradigm oscillation. If social and communicative theory is of any interest to you, then you should pay close attention to The Economics of Attention.

— Patrick Schabe

Phi Beta Kappa Reporter
Lanham's own prose is a pleasure to read: the substance is learned, yet hip and eclectic. . . . To read Lanham is rather like watching close-up as a sleeveless magician performs card tricks. . . . If you are willing to be dizzied, The Economics of Attention offers an exhilarating ride.

— Rick Eden

Philadelphia Inquirer
 I personally find this head-smackingly insightful. Of course! Money may make the world go ‘round, but it’s attention that we increasingly sell, hoard, compete for and fuss over. . . . The real news is that just about all of us—whether we participate in the market as producers or consumers—live increasingly in the attention economy as well.”

— Andrew Cassel

Journal of Cultural Economics
The economy of attention finds its seminal theorist and chronicler in Richard Lanham's new and notable The Economics of Attention. . . . This book offers something new, and it should be read. It is worthy of your attention, and we all understand that today that phrase means more than ever before.

— Tyler Cowen

Technology and Culture
Lanham brings a very substantial fund of good sense to his inquiries. In reminding us of the virtues of a classical training in rhetoric . . . he notes Kenneth Burke's claim that good criticism involves the use of all available resources and tools. This is the model that Lanham holds in mind.

— Norris Pope

JAC
The Economics of Attention will be regarded by those who pick it up as a notable contribution to studies in rhetoric and information technology. . . . [It] primes a provocative conversation with certain relevance for composition and rhetoric scholars interested in understanding the changes brought about as digital communication technologies refigure studies in rhetoric and writing.

— Derek Mueller

The Independent - Pat Kane

“It's refreshing to read a deeply literary mind who embraces the information age, and wants to focus on its civilizing possibilities rather than flee from the screens in horror.”

PopMatters - Patrick Schabe

"The Economics of Attention ahould be considered 'important' for its ability to continue the discourse of what social and cultural conditions have changed as the world of communication changes. . . . Overall this is a balanced look at actual communicative development. Instead of trying to force the idea of total paradigm shift, Lanham instead embraces the possibilities of paradigm oscillation. If social and communicative theory is of any interest to you, then you should pay close attention to The Economics of Attention."

Phi Beta Kappa Reporter - Rick Eden

"Lanham's own prose is a pleasure to read: the substance is learned, yet hip and eclectic. . . . To read Lanham is rather like watching close-up as a sleeveless magician performs card tricks. . . . If you are willing to be dizzied, The Economics of Attention offers an exhilarating ride."

Philadelphia Inquirer - Andrew Cassel

 I personally find this head-smackingly insightful. Of course! Money may make the world go ‘round, but it’s attention that we increasingly sell, hoard, compete for and fuss over. . . . The real news is that just about all of us—whether we participate in the market as producers or consumers—live increasingly in the attention economy as well.”

Journal of Cultural Economics - Tyler Cowen

"The economy of attention finds its seminal theorist and chronicler in Richard Lanham's new and notable The Economics of Attention. . . . This book offers something new, and it should be read. It is worthy of your attention, and we all understand that today that phrase means more than ever before."

Technology and Culture - Norris Pope

"Lanham brings a very substantial fund of good sense to his inquiries. In reminding us of the virtues of a classical training in rhetoric . . . he notes Kenneth Burke's claim that good criticism involves the use of all available resources and tools. This is the model that Lanham holds in mind."

JAC - Derek Mueller

"The Economics of Attention will be regarded by those who pick it up as a notable contribution to studies in rhetoric and information technology. . . . [It] primes a provocative conversation with certain relevance for composition and rhetoric scholars interested in understanding the changes brought about as digital communication technologies refigure studies in rhetoric and writing."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226468822
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2006
  • Series: Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology Ser.
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard A. Lanham is professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, and president of Rhetorica, Inc., a consulting and editorial services company. He is the author of numerous books, including The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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Read an Excerpt

The Economics of Attention

Style and Substance in the Age of Information
By Richard A. Lanham

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-46882-8


Chapter One

ECONOMISTS OF ATTENTION

In the spontaneous unfoldings of history, the imaginative expression of a trend precedes its conceptual-critical counterpart. -Kenneth Burke

Our recently ended twentieth century overflows with monuments to artistic outrageousness. Never have so many artists flung so many paint pots and puzzles in the face of so many publics: urinals turned upside down and exhibited as art, Rube Goldberg machines that do abstract drawings, canvases that are all white or all black, paintings of Campbell's soup cans, sculptures of the boxes the soup came in, trenches dug in the desert where nobody can see them, the Pont Neuf in Paris wrapped up in gold cloth for a few days and then unwrapped again. One strand of this outrageousness isn't outrageous at all, once we see the lesson it teaches: During the twentieth century, art was undergoing the same reversal from stuff to attention described in chapter 1. Art's center of gravity henceforth would lie not in objects that artists create but in the attention that the beholder brings to them. Some examples.

In 1917, the French artist Marcel Duchamp got together with two friends, the painterJoseph Stella and the connoisseur Walter Arensberg, to play a joke on the Independents' art exhibition. They bought from the J. L. Mott Iron Works a urinal on which Duchamp, after turning it upside down, painted the nom de plume R. Mutt. They then sent it into the show under Mutt's name, with the $6 registration fee. Since, under the rules of the show, any artist could submit any piece of work, it had to be shown. Some joke. None has become more famous or engendered more comment than this Fountain. [Offsite link: See a photo from Wikipedia.] In 1989, an entire museum show and book were built around it. The usual explanation of the joke has been that it illustrated the premise of the show: art was what an artist decided it was. This ipse dixit definition of art, though, however much it may elevate the artistic ego to godlike stature, doesn't help much unless you take it a step further. Art is whatever the artist wishes to call to our attention. Art is an act of attention the artist wishes to invoke in the beholder.

Duchamp had developed this theme a few years earlier with his "Readymades." The first, apparently, was a bicycle wheel mounted on a kitchen stool. [Offsite link: See an image from the Museum of Modern Art.] You could spin it around when you felt like it. Early "interactivity." Later came an inverted kitchen bottle rack, less user interactive but equally stimulating to serious interpretation. [Offsite link: See an image from the Norton Simon Museum.] You could say, for example, that there was a great deal of beauty hidden in a bicycle wheel, but so long as it was attached to the bicycle, its utility obscured its beauty. Likewise with the bottle rack. From such efforts descended the long list of "found objects" littering the museums of the last century. The lesson was simple and, once learned, tedious. Art is not stuff made out of stuff taken from the earth's crust. Art is the attention that makes that stuff meaningful. The more commonplace and physical the objects teaching the lesson, the more they taught the final insignificance of physical objects.

But Duchamp himself repudiated this interpretation. He said he did not think his Readymades had any hidden beauties to reveal. Furthermore, as he said on more than one occasion, he despised the high seriousness the beholder brought to art. Art, he thought, was a worse religion even than God. He made his feelings clear when he annotated a postcard of the Mona Lisa by drawing a mustache on it. [Offsite link: See an image from Wikipedia.] Art not only was a way of paying attention to the physical world, it was a pompous and overblown one as well. This disillusionment with art led him, in 1923, to stop creating it. His oeuvre since then, indeed over his lifetime, is slender. Yet his recent biographer Calvin Tompkins argues that he is the most important artist of the twentieth century. How could this be?

Duchamp said that he wanted to deflate the seriousness of art. He wanted to make a game out of it, a game with the beholder. We might, thus, consider his career as fabricating a series of attention games with the art-loving public. Consider the famous urinal. It illustrated the premise of the Independents' Exhibition and so constituted a serious statement. It mocked the premise of the Independents' Exhibition ("See, art is a real pisser, isn't it?") and so mocked the serious statement, and the conception of the artistic ego that the exhibition stood for. The art historians and interpreters have fallen into this ironic bear trap every time they've walked over it.

Inquiry of all sorts has to be serious. That is its organizing premise. But if you subtract the object of that seriousness by putting a urinal in its place, that seriousness is turned into a game. To understand it, you must then write a serious treatise on games and play, wondering all the while what you are about. The critic, like a bull bemused by the toreador's flashing cape, starts pawing the ground, angry and confused. Such confusion has made Duchamp famous. The urinal proved to be an extraordinarily efficient generator of fame because other people-the critics and historians-did all of Duchamp's work for him.

Likewise with the Readymades. Duchamp said he made the first one, the bicycle wheel, just because it was fun to spin the wheel around. But when you exhibit it, when you put it into an attention field called "art," it becomes a catalyst. You must look at it differently. Yes, we should indeed pay more attention to the utilitarian world, savor its beauty as beauty. But when you find yourself gazing at it worshipfully, Duchamp turns around and says, "It's just a bicycle wheel, you silly jerk." The final result is to make us oscillate back and forth between the physical world, stuff, and how we think about stuff. It makes us look at our own patterns of attention and the varieties of "seriousness" we construct atop them.

That oscillation constitutes a serious lesson about seriousness. But it does not constitute great art, if we think of art as composed of stuff shaped into beauty, as forming part of a goods economy. In this industrial framework, Duchamp is the charlatan some have taken him for. But if you are willing to put him into an attention economy rather than a goods economy, let him work in attention, not in stuff, then things look different. Duchamp, as few before him, knew how to catalyze human attention in the most economical way possible. The disproportion between his oeuvre, the physical stuff he left behind, and his reputation can be explained in no other way. If we are looking for economists of attention, he provides a good place to start, an excellent lesson in efficiency.

When we consider the twentieth century from this point of view, we are reminded that futurists not only ushered us out of it but into it as well. These first futurists were led, and often financed, by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a wealthy Italian intellectual who wanted to catapult Italy into the future, or at least into the sophisticated present of Paris, where Marinetti lived in spirit and often in the flesh. He announced his utopian vision in an advertisement, a "Futurist Manifesto," that appeared on the front page of the Parisian journal Le Figaro on 20 February 1909. [Offsite link: English translation of the text from Wikipedia.] Marinetti would have made a stupendous ad man in our time but, more remarkably, he already was one in his own, before blitz ad campaigns had been invented. He was, above all, an economist of attention. "Italian Futurism was the first cultural movement of the twentieth century to aim directly and deliberately at a mass audience." He ran his intellectual campaign at the beginning of the century exactly as spin doctors would conduct political campaigns at its end. To reach this audience, Marinetti generated a torrent of manifestos and position statements. And, like an Internet company trying to buy "eyeballs" by giving away its product, he gave his products away to purchase attention: "It is believed that two thirds of the books, magazines and broadsheets that the futurists published were distributed free of charge as 'propaganda' material."

The platform of this campaign for Italian cultural leadership, the famous "Manifesto," might have come right out of the sixties. Here's a sample: "It is from Italy that we are launching throughout the world this manifesto, charged with overwhelming incendiary violence. We are founding Futurism here today because we want to free this land from its foul gangrene of professors, archaeologists, guides and antiquarians. For too long Italy has been a market-place for second-hand dealers. We mean to free her from the innumerable museums that cover her like so many graveyards." Get rid of everyone over thirty, especially those gangrenous professors. Forget the past. Fearlessly mount the Star Trek holodeck. Marinetti's friendship with Mussolini and his association with Italian Fascism and its glorification of war have brought futurism into well-deserved discredit. But in a later manifesto, from 1913, he points to a less horrific future, one that Marshall McLuhan was to describe later at greater length: "Futurism is grounded in the complete renewal of human sensibility brought about by the great discoveries of science. People today make use of the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the train, the bicycle, the motorcycle, the automobile, the ocean liner, the dirigible, the aeroplane, the cinema, the great newspaper (synthesis of a day in the world's life) without realizing that these various forms of communication, transformation, and information have a decisive effect on their psyches." Later on he speaks of an earth shrunk by speed and of the global awareness thus engendered. Like futurists today, Marinetti had no use for the past but rather tried to glimpse the operating system of the global village to come: "The earth shrunk by speed. New sense of the world. To be precise: one after the other, man gained the sense of his home, of the district where he lived, of his region, and finally of his continent. Today he is aware of the whole world. He hardly needs to know what his ancestors did, but he has a constant need to know what his contemporaries are doing all over the world."

We're not so far here, in the preceding, from the Internet-based paradise of perfect information prophesied by digital seers like George Gilder. And not far, either, from Peter Drucker's conviction that information is the new property, the new stuff. Marinetti's cultural campaign, in fact, makes sense only if we assume that such a world already exists. Assume that, in an information economy, the real scarce commodity will always be human attention and that attracting that attention will be the necessary precondition of social change. And the real source of wealth. Marinetti's conviction that attention was the vital stuff ran so deep that it went without saying. Everything he did implied it.

Look at how this worked out on a small scale, in his declaration of war on conventional typography. One favorite battleground of this war was the journal Lacerba, a revolutionary Italian journal published between 1913 and 1915. A page from it can be seen in figure 2.1.

Why would anyone want to construct such a ransom-note pastiche? The usual explanation-conventional typography symbolizes bourgeois convention, which the avant garde exists to épater-works well enough here. That's what the journal was all about, after all, and what Marinetti certainly yearned to do. He called it "spitting on the altar of art." But might there be another lesson lurking here? Who, or what, is actually getting spat upon?

It helps if you don't know Italian and look only at the visual pattern. Conventional printed typography aims to create a particular economy of attention, but, since this economy is so ubiquitous, the basic reality of reading, we have long ago ceased to notice it. Print wants us to concentrate on the content, to enhance and protect conceptual thought. It does this by filtering out all the signals that might interfere with such thinking. By nature a silent medium and, for people of my generation at least, best read in a silent environment, print filters out any auditory signal. It also filters out color, prints only black on white. By choosing a single font and a single size, it filters out visual distraction as well. Typographical design aims not to be seen or more accurately, since true invisibility is hard to read, to seem not to be seen, not to be noticed. We don't notice the verbal surface at all, plunge without typographical self-consciousness right into the meaning.

Print, that is, constructs a particular economy of attention, an economy of sensory denial. It economizes on most of the things we use to orient ourselves in the world we've evolved in-three-dimensional spatial signals, sounds, colors, movement-in order to spend all our attention on abstract thinking. The "abstraction" can be abstruse philosophy, but it can also be a particolored landscape description. Doesn't matter. They both work within the same economy, one that foregrounds "meaning" in the same way that a goods economy foregrounds stuff you can drop on your foot.

The Lacerba typographical manifesto makes us aware of that "invisible" convention, forces us to notice it as a convention. By breaking all the established rules, it makes us notice them, look at them rather than through them. It makes an economic observation that is an attack not on a particular economic class but on a particular economy of attention. It aims to make us economists of expression.

In conventional typographical text, meaning is created through syntactical and grammatical relationships. In figure 2.1, "meaning," such as it is, is created by visual relationships that pun on the meaning of the words. One example: on the right side, halfway down, "Gravitare" (to gravitate, tend toward) "of perpendicular masses onto the horizontal plane of my little table." But little table gets a big bold font and an even bigger T, which is a letter and a table at the same time. We read the words for meaning-we can't help doing that-but we are made to "read" them for shape as well, and in an uneasy combination. The print economy of attention has been destabilized. It is still there, but it toggles back and forth with a new one.

Marinetti's spiritual successor was Andy Warhol. Warhol the commercial artist, Warhol the painter, Warhol the filmmaker, Warhol the writer, Warhol the collector, Warhol the philosopher, and, superlatively and climactically, Warhol the celebrity: all these roles float on a sea of commentary, nowadays mostly hagiographical. Let's try, as a perspective by incongruity, to describe Andy Warhol as an economist, an economist of attention. And perhaps the perspective would not in fact seem so incongruous to him. Here's what he said about the relation of art to business: "Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist.... Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art ... making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art."

Warhol was an avid collector of stuff. His last house was so stuffed with his collected stuff, from cookie jars to diamonds, that there was no room left for the people. He would have been delighted, had he been able to attend Sotheby's auction of it all after his death, to see it knocked down for nearly $27 million dollars, far more than the pre-auction estimates. And to see his silk-screen painting of Marilyn Monroe Twenty Times (the actress's face, taken from a publicity photo, silk-screened onto canvas twenty times) fetch nearly $4 million. He did not share the conventional liberal intellectual's distaste for stuff and the advertising of stuff. It was his life's work to illustrate the paradoxical relationship of stuff and attention.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Economics of Attention by Richard A. Lanham Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Stuff and fluff 1
2 Economists of attention 42
3 What's next for text? 78
4 An alphabet that thinks 130
5 Style/substance matrix 157
6 Barbie and the teacher of righteousness 191
7 The audit of virtuality 233
8 Revisionist thinking 254
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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    updated, timely reading of the essence of contemporaray Internet

    'Seeing clearly what is happening as the word moves from page to screen seems...to depend on seeing clearly what is happening in the world that expressive field has to express,' the noted, influential rhetorician Lanham remarks in the beginning of his 'Preface.' His metaphor of an economy for this 'expressive world' is literarily, generally, and perceptively apt. It's more than a useful image. In this economy, 'attention is the commodity in short supply.' In this economy, individuals 'budget' their attention and web designers, software engineers, computer makers, marketers, and more and more writers are in competition for the attention of consumers, users, and readers which attention is often leads in one way or another to earnings. Anyone who has used the Internet to find information, buy something, communicate with others, pay bills, and other activities both common and innovative will have a feel for what Lanham proposes and investigates. The terms 'cyperspace' and 'virtual reality' no longer suffice to relevantly denote the substantive place the digital world with its operations and potentials has taken in most persons' lives. Such terms now seem exotic or frivolous considering, as Lanham recognizes, how the considerably arbitrary, yet essential and formulative trait of attention has ineluctably moved to the computer screen.

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