Is paying attention to something a form of consumption, production or both? Depending on how you cut it, attention is both a form of consumption and it is productive in the same sense that iron ore has value. Actually creating new value in the information flow requires more energy, albeit human energy, than paying with attention for something. And a lot less energy than producing a Volvo.
Influence, which I described last week, is how to measure the value added in small drips and drabs by some and, rarely, huge dollops by successful influencers, in the conversational marketplace.
I've been reading The Economics of Attention, by Richard A. Lanham, professor emeritus of English at UCLA. Almost everyone who ever reads this column Charging up of information with meaning is the work of influencers.will never read this book. Yet it will have some influence on your thinking, through its impact on my writing this posting and on other bloggers and publications. Even though it will be two or three steps away from you in almost all the situations where you encounter its ideas, Lanham's book will exert some force on you. It is right now, or did in that last sentence; it's doing it even now, as I flip the focus of this sentence back to its inspiration.
I'd wager that almost no one who reads this column ever read Lanham's The Electric Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts. Nevertheless, it helped shape ideas that have been bandied about by tech writers and social commentators, most of whom probably cribbed something from it unconsciously at a conference.
Influence works that way. It forges value that reaches out across networks formed by people in discussion—in text, voice, video, on stage, in art and performance—it changes the conversation and the people talking. It shapes action, including buying decisions and political preferences by changing the flow of information and its meaning by placing it in front of audiences that will perceive it in particular ways.
Attention is what people produce (as in "hand over the money" or "look at this ad") in exchange for information and experience. As Lanham writes in The Economics of Attention, the most successful artists and companies are the ones that grab attention and shape it, in other words, that exercise influence. With so much information, simply paying attention is the equivalent of consuming a meal or a tube of toothpaste.
Using the energy we have to add to what we attended to, to pass it along, comment on or argue with it, that's the creative and additive force in the Lanham's attention economy. We preserve the idea for another or add our ideas and, thus, change the information when we create value in this day and age. This has created an economy in which hundreds or thousands, even millions, of people can add value in any product lifecycle.
Open source software, where coders add their interpretations of existing source code, making something new of existing products, is the most industrial example of this. In media markets, influence can be added to almost any message, for the benefit of the sender or to tear the sender's meaning to shreds.
According to Lanham, what we attend to is charged with something else, beyond the attention we give it: "...clean information [that is, simple fact with no adornment] is not the destiny of humankind. Clean information is unnatural and unuseful. Information always comes charged with emotion of some kind, full of purpose. That is why we have acquired it. The only way to make it useful is to filter it."
I'd add that the filtering, the charging up of information with meaning, is the work of influencers. More soon....
[The standard disclosure: The author is cofounder of BuzzLogic, a company developing influence metrics and measurement/visualization services. He may be delusional, based on his deep economic conflicts with regards this subject, but suspects that this time he is right.]