THE METAPHYSICS OF ATTENTION

A very interesting exchange today between Scott Karp and Nick Carr on the value of attention. They both are writing in response to Esther Dyson's ideas about the "attention economy" (first theorized by Michael Goldhaber) in this weekend's online WSJ.

Karp imagines a media world in which "no one will pay for content." Calling Dyson's piece "a blazing, head-spinning insight," he compares the moneyless economics of 21st century blogging with the moneyless economics of 20th century poetry. Both blogging and poetry, Karp tells us, have symbolic, metaphysical value -- but neither can be concretely monetized.

Carr collapses economics and philosophy in the critical fashion of an early Marx. He is disgusted by the way in which the attention economy results in the commodification of the self:

"I fear that to view the attention economy as "more than just a subset of the financial economy" is to misread it, to project on it a yearning for an escape (if only a temporary one) from the consumer culture. There's no such escape online. When we communicate to promote ourselves, to gain attention, all we are doing is turning ourselves into goods and our communications into advertising. We become salesmen of ourselves, hucksters of the "I." In peddling our interests, moreover, we also peddle the commodities that give those interests form: songs, videos, and other saleable products. And in tying our interests to our identities, we give marketers the information they need to control those interests and, in the end, those identities."

So what, exactly, does the "attention economy" mean? I went back to the source, to Michael Goldhager's seminal December 1997 Wired magazine article "Attention Shoppers!". Here, Goldhaber seems to be saying that the attention economy will come to replace the financial economy:

"To thrive in the coming century, you will have to look beyond money in any form and build a stock of attention for yourself as best you can. This will not be an easy current to swim in. But don't be distracted. The most gorgeous castles of capitalism, the most colorful ceremonies of payment and receivables, the most elaborate rituals around money and investments are now at their height, just as the era of the money economy expires. For better or worse, the attention economy will prevail."

What I don't understand, however, is who pays for attention in this digital future? And if there is no cash transaction, then how can we describe it as an "economy"? Is this "capitalism" or is it a return to a medieval world of symbolic exchange -- where value can't be quantified in financial terms?

It would seem that the "realities" of the so-called attention economy are metaphysical. Perhaps we would be better off (re)naming the whole thing the "metaphysics of attention."