An interview with
Richard A. Lanham
author of The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information
Question: The information economy is saturated with it: there's something like 80 million websites, 500 TV channels, countless online newspapers constantly updated, a gazillion blogs, podcasts, mp3s, video downloads, etc., etc. And worldwide there are about 1 million new books published each year. Economics is about the allocation of scarce resources. What are the scarce resources in the information economy?
Richard A. Lanham: The scare resource is the human attention needed to make sense of the enormous flow of information, to learn, as it were, how to drink out of the firehose.
Question: So, is the goal in the attention economy is to get eyeballs first, and the money will follow? Is that how to make sense of the enormous flow of free information that is at our fingertips? If so, who can help maximize the number of those eyeballs? Software engineers? Designers? Celebrities? Artists?
Lanham: You are asking three questions at once. First, yes, in an attention economy, you have to get the eyeballs first. But the money, as many found out with internet stocks, does not automatically follow the eyeballs.
Second, how to "make sense of the enormous flow of free information" is another question altogether, at least if I understand you. If you mean, "how do we explain the explosion of free information provided by the internet?," then there are a lot of answers to that, some beyond the traditional purview of economics. People put up information on the web often for the pure pleasure of sharing what they know-the pleasure of teaching. They don't expect money to follow. They are being paid in a different coin, the pleasure of teaching, which includes of course the attention your readers/viewers/students pay to you. One of the great surprises, at least to me, about the internet-based information explosion is the extraordinary human generosity which it has revealed. People want to share their information, their enthusiasms, their way of looking at the world and now they have a new and infinitely more effective way to do it. It may be what they know about Barbie dolls, or about digital cameras, or the specifications of sewer pipe for your house-the range is infinite. It is far more surprising, at least to me, how often people want to give this information away than how they want to be paid for it. So, how to explain the "enormous flow of free information"? Emphatically, not just in the expectation of future profit. Quite the opposite. This generosity of spirit has not been so remarked as it ought to have been.
Third, "who can help maximize the number of those eyeballs?" Ah, well, everyone is trying to figure that one out. To condense into simplicity, "all the information designers." And these people are various, working in words, images, and sounds, and the new mixtures of these three signal sources which are continually emerging.
"Software engineers"? No, I think they are usually a different breed from the information designers; they show how the design can be implemented.
"Celebrities"? Well, of course, especially if we are willing to expand the meaning from movie stars and rock stars to the objects of intense centripetal gaze which we are now creating. Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook, in their The Winner-Take-All Society, talk about this phenomenon. Take, for example, the enormous attention structures that have been built on The DaVinci Code. I read in the newspaper today that there are whole tours being organized to visit the sites mentioned in the book, pilgrimages to shrines, though often pilgrims of a sort the proprietors of the shrines (starting with the Louvre) are not always comfortable with.
Everyone is trying to hit the lottery of attention. In one way, of course, we have to do here with an old search indeed, the search for fame. There have not been so many Achilles figures, after all. But it is fame on steroids, stronger than Achilles, or so it seems to us now. What can explain it? One way might be to argue that such an intense central focus brings together groups of people who otherwise would not share the same stage, and so is a good thing. Another way, as I mention in the book, is to think of centripetal gaze as the way some primates organize and direct their group behavior. But these are not anything like full explanations, and they do nothing to assuage the desperate longing of the would-be actors and screenwriters who haunt Hollywood, hoping against hope that they'll hit the attention lottery.
"Artists"? Of course, they have always instructed us in how to pay attention to the world. I spend most of Chapter 2 on two of them, Andy Warhol and Christo.
Question: The famous English typographer Beatrice Warde once compared printed text to a crystal wine goblet: it should be transparent and offer no impediment to appreciating the substance it conveys. In the attention economy is that the solution? Or is that part of the problem? What should text be? What should it do if it is to hold the eye?
Lanham: Whoa! Big question. I answer it in the book, indeed in different ways in each chapter. Chapter 5 provides the most detailed discussion. I argue that there are two ways to look at a text: AT it, that is to say accepting its style, its verbal surface, as its way to make meaning; and THROUGH it, that is to say looking for a "content" beneath the verbal surface and independent of it. We usually think of communication as a THROUGH affair; cut to the chase, get to the substance. But in an attention economy, the substance is the style. That is the whole argument of Chapter 1. In such an economy, AT vision is as important as THROUGH vision. The essential skill, as much for an economist as for a cultural critic, is to know how to toggle from one to the other as circumstances dictate. I argue in the last chapter that this skill in toggling has stood at the center of rhetorical training since the Greeks invented formal rhetoric. So, "what should text be?" It is going to be, as it has always been, a combination of style and substance; the trick in an attention economy is to see that style and substance, and our expectations for them, have changed places.
Question: Way back when the information economy was just getting its growth spurt, in 1993, we published your book The Electronic Word. At the same time, you convinced us to release the book in electronic form. On the whole though, electronic books have not really—at least not yet—taken off as a form of publication: almost all books are still published and read in traditional print form. Why do you think that is the case and would you prefer it otherwise?
Lanham: Why haven't electronic books taken off? I spend the best part of Chapter 4 answering this question. Partly, it is because screen resolution has not yet equalled that of print; Sony's new Ebook reader has come close to solving that problem. Partly it is because we read in all kinds of places and postures in which even laptops don't fit. Maybe iPods and cell phones will solve that. Partly, it is because creating an electronic text, especially a mixed-media one, costs a lot more than publishing a printed text. But the production technologies are getting cheaper by the day. Partly it is because of how Ebooks have been marketed. They have been hard, and sometimes illegal, to transport from one computer to another. It is as if you bought a book but were told that you could read it only in the living room. For the bedroom, you had to buy another copy. Idiotic.
The dedicated devices sold to read electronic books on have been expensive and incompatible with other such devices. The devices should be given away to sell the books, as Kodak did with camera and film. Partly, it is because people have not seen what new mixtures of word, sound, and image digital expression makes possible. These possibilities are being illustrated on the web, by video games, and by some—a few—educational products. Partly, it is because there is no established sales structure to market electronic books. They have to piggyback on a printed book, as happened with my Electronic Word. None of these obstacles is insuperable, though. Just look at the internet. Lots of people read lots of words there. And lots of students read their assignments on a screen Most scholarly communication has migrated onto the screen, too. The journal is an archive, not a vehicle for breaking news. That happens on the blog. I can't see either of these directions going into reverse.
Do I wish it otherwise? No, because, also for reasons that I explain in the book, I think electronic expression better suits an economics of attention than pure print does. And it opens up genuinely new forms of human expression, and I rejoice in such possibilities. But do I think books will go out of style? Of course not. They have proved to be an extraordinary vehicle of expression and will continue to be. I rejoice in this too. I'm a creature of books. My house is lined with them. When I finally made enough money so that I could afford any new book I wanted, I felt nirvana had arrived. I never loose my wonder at their longevity. Last week my wife and I were at the Humanist Library in Selestat, in France. It has two volumes from the 7th century; my wife and I could make out what they were saying. How's that for miracles?
What is happening—you can see it in the courses in "the history of the book" which have popped up everywhere—is that we are coming to understand the book as an expressive vehicle in new ways because we finally have something else to compare it to. All to the good. And one more cheer for books. They are, dollar for dollar, phenomenal entertainment value. And if you reckon in the second-hand buys available through Amazon and ABE, the bargains are even greater. Electronic expression drives book-reading and book-buying. Who'd have thought it? And, as a final observation on the life of the book, we ought to note how audio books have given print a voice. This is an enormous change, and one which gives renewed life and vigor to the book. But, of course, it also makes the book into something else, a performance. The media continue to mutate.
Question: Universities are in the forefront of the purveyors of information. Somewhat like book publishing, some of the practices of higher education has been transformed in the information economy, but most undergraduate education still takes place in classrooms, over a four-year span, with a faculty person who is a specialist in some field, and who has—or wants—a guaranteed lifetime job. Do the practices of the university make sense in the attention economy?
Lanham: Not to me, they don't. I spend the whole of Chapter 7 ("The Audit of Virtuality") saying why. The four-year span, the classroom and the lectures in it, the idea of a university as a campus, all these are going to change, indeed are changing. So will the circumstances of employment for the professoriat—the "winner-take-all" logic is already beginning to apply to it. The pressure will come from costs, and from the need to democratize access, and these are being addressed right now by internet courses and by private educational establishments like Phoenix University, and by the enormous educational programs offered by industry and the military. No one can predict what the new mixtures will be but you can get an idea by the online courses now being offered, as economy measures, to students resident on campus.
I might add one change which I don't discuss much in the book, the changes in departmental structure brought about by the need to teach how to create, and attend to, multi-media expression. As I argue at more than one place in the book, the whole balance between the sciences and the arts and letters will change and, probably later than sooner, university structures will have to change accordingly.