Attention Economy?

I like to talk about leveraging the talent on the other side of the Internet, or talent scraping. That talent is only just recently discovered. We are in a kind of gold rush to figure out how to mine it. I’ve called that mining industry talent-scrapping, in part to suggest how it’s like a whale filtering plankton from nutrient rich waters.
Talent is usually considered scarce. But now it’s abundant. But now it is different in form than in the past. More diffuse. We used to concentrate it into locations, universities or cities, but now it’s just out there; on the other side of the net. So most of our intuitions are wrong about how to manage it or accumulate it.

We are in a curious situation where you have a choice between abundant talent v.s. scarce talent – but where we have very refined craft knowledge about how to mange scarce talent (think standardized testing, university diplomas, publication pipelines) v.s. very immature craft knowledge about how to tap diffuse talent pools.

That combo scarce-but-skilled vs. abundant-but-unskilled must be a common situation when a new option space break open. It is notable that their is scarcity on both sides of that equation; but they are of a very different nature. One is a resource scarcity, and the other is a lack of expertise – an information good.
When people talk about the attention economy I’ve tended to presume they were saying that attention is scarce. Certainly my attention is a limited resource. I certainly have a whole bag of tricks for managing that scarce resource.

Clay Shirky takes a run at this problem in a most excellent recent essay where-in he introduces the delightful term “cognitive surplus.” He gets there in a most marvelous way that is just hip slapping funny.

The idea of an attention economy is that there is some gross national product of talent out there. That it’s like the water supply of a big city, a pipe flows into the city of skill, and there is only a certain amount to be had – so you really ought to be careful what you spend it on.

I recall how when back in the 1960s there was a drought around NYC and people started talking about water conservation. We used to get a glass of water automatically when every you sat down in a restaurant and they stopped that. I recall hearing how silly that was since meanwhile the water authority came to discover that rivers of water were leaking from the system; entire pipelines were flowing hundreds of miles only be dumped into the Hudson.

To adopt Clay’s term cognition is the water of the attention economy and his point is that we just maybe we are pouring most of the talent on the planet into the abyss.

Talent isn’t scarce anymore, the real question is where the hell has all the talent been going all these years. Clay has some suggestions, and possibly most interesting to me was the hint that society in the past has struggled with this very same question; it’s “the idle hands – the devils playground” problem. And for God sake don’t miss the punch line at the end of his essay!

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