The Economics of Attention – Richard Lanham (2006)

Economics of Attention

Richard Lanham’s new book, The Economics of Attention, is perhaps simply an elaboration of his 1994 book The Electronic Word, but it’s still good stuff. The title refers to the concept that the true scarcity at this point is people’s attention, not any material good (we’ll see if that continues indefinitely…). Lanham was long an English prof, and this is not a standard economics book by any means. Much of it deals with ideas coming from the currently mis-trusted field of rhetoric.

The concepts that I found most intriguing though had to do with what he terms the bi-stable oscillations that have been part of Western culture back to the days of Plato. One can find many ways of describing the polarities: style vs. substance; looking at vs. looking through; bottom up vs. top down; competition vs. play; etc. He sees the ‘philosophical’ viewpoint as looking for some ideal point in the middle of these polarities, while the ‘rhetorical’ view is more about oscillations between the poles, and investigation of the different approaches from each side.

Lanham portrays these polarities as lines, like the top figure:

But I think they are better represented as near circles, with the ends nearly touching (with the possibility of jumping the gap). The idea is that a pure interest in style makes style the substance, and vice versa (just as we might say about love and hate not being so far apart). For instance, if you are car designer, then your substance is in fact the stylistic aspects of the car, not the engine specs. Yet the engineers who profess to really caring about the efficiency of the drive shaft have their own stylistic concerns.

Another way of putting it is what Lanham calls ‘revisionist thinking’ – that initial you write something, try to get the idea down, then you go back and revise it, try to see whether you’ve communicated as you intended. There’s a shift back and forth from what you’re writing to how you’re writing it. He exposes the idea that somehow there is completely transparent, style-less writing as hogwash.

Bottom line is that Lanham sees a current shift back to an oscillating rhetorical view that can see style as just as important as substance, and that has big ramifications for education among other areas. Lots of work to do on ‘intellectual property’ along with old-style property. Good references to other works in many areas.

Here’s an interview with Lanham to get a taste of his approach.

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