Tuesday, December 19, 2006

'How human attention
is created and allocated'

I read Richard Lanham's book The Electronic Word more than 10 years ago, when I was working on McClatchy's first strategic plan for internet publishing. It's not easy reading; at some points, it reminded me of Mark Twain's observation that "maybe I could read Jane Austen on a salary."

But though it's a bit academic in tone, the ideas are profound. I was reminded by something else that came up today of this particular section, which I flagged years ago and have referred to many gtimes since. I thought some of you might appreciate this notion, as well:

In a society based on information, the chief scarce commodity would presumably be information, not goods. But we are drowning in information, not suffering a dearth of it. Dealing with this superabundant flow is sometimes compared to drinking from a firehose. In such a society, the scarcest commodity turns out to be not information but the human attention needed to cope with it.

Intelligenda longa, vita brevis should be a motto of the information age – life is short, but long indeed the list of things to be know in it.

We have in the West a venerable tradition of studying how human attention is created and allocated: the “art of persuasion” which the Greeks called rhetoric. A better definition of rhetoric, in fact, might be “the economics of human attention-structures,” for whenever we “persuade” someone, we do so by getting that person to “look at things from our point of view,” share out attention-structure. It is in the nature of human life that attention should be in short supply, but in an information economy it becomes the crucial scarce commodity. Just as economics has been the study of how we allocate scarce resources in a goods economy, we now will use a variety of rhetoric as the “economics” of human attention-structures. Whatever we choose to call it – and almost certainly our name will not be the now-discredited “rhetoric” – the construction and allocation of attention-structures will be a vital activity in our information society.

It is not as if we haven’t had warning that this new economics has supervened. Was not Pop Art all about the replacement of goods by information as the main scarce commodity in an information society? That was Andy Warhol’s message, however various his medium. So his infatuation with movie stars, and especially with “personalities,” people famous for being famous. So, too, the infatuation with signage that James Rosenquist carried to epic dimension: his immense canvases take the scaling of attention-structures as their great subject. “Target” paintings, preoccupied with central focus, and alphabet paintings, depicting letters as opaque objects rather than transparent symbols, both “imitate” the “information” in an information society. Robert Irwin’s minimalist paintings and environments are all calculated to bring human visual attention to acute self-consciousness. “Happenings” were contrived yet spontaneous and participatory attention-structures. The shift of emphasis from object to beholder in contemporary art and letters bespeaks the same sensitivity to a new scarcity. Indeed, much of the strangeness and “experimentality” of twentieth-century experimental art comes from the relative difficulty of “imitating” human attention as against the objects we attend to.

In this experimental world, a training in rhetoric turns out to be of real use, and an intellectual framework frankly rhetorical condign to describe the society as a whole. In an information society, then, the arts and letters, the “humanities,” move from background to foreground, become essential rather than ornamental, and the “Q” question poses itself with a new urgency.
The Electronic Word
Operating Systems, Attention Structures, & the Edge of Chaos
Excerpts from pages 227-228

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