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The Economics of Attention

Style and Substance in the Age of Information

If economics is about the allocation of resources, then what is the most precious resource in our new information economy? Certainly not information, for we are drowning in it. No, what we are short of is the attention to make sense of that information. 

With all the verve and erudition that have established his earlier books as classics, 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 amidst 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. 

Lanham’s The Electronic Word was one of the earliest and most influential books on new electronic culture. The Economics of Attention builds on the best insights of that seminal book to map the new frontier that information technologies have created.

Read an excerpt and an interview with the author.

326 pages | 27 halftones, 4 diagrams | 6 x 9 | © 2006

Computer Science

Culture Studies

Economics and Business: Economics--General Theory and Principles

Education: Education--General Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Rhetoric and Communication


“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 | The Independent

"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 | PopMatters

"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 | Phi Beta Kappa Reporter

 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 | Philadelphia Inquirer

"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 | Journal of Cultural Economics

"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 | Technology and Culture

"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 | JAC

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Stuff and Fluff
2. Economists of Attention
3. What’s Next for Text?
4. An Alphabet That Thinks
5. Style/Substance Matrix
6. Barbie and the Teacher of Righteousness
7. The Audit of Virtuality
8. Revisionist Thinking
Works Cited


Media Ecology Association: Erving Goffman Award

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