The Attention Economy
Imagine that you wake up tomorrow in a parallel universe. Everything in this universe is the same except for one big difference: money has been replaced by attention. All citizens have little meters attached to their heads, right between the eyes, that show where they’ve been spending their limited daily supply of attention.
Let’s say, in this universe, a minute of your attention is worth a dollar. This means when you sit down and enjoy a couple of hours of TV, you’re paying $120 for the privilege. Spending a few minutes (and you really are “spending” a few minutes) catching up with friends will cost you $10. When you drive down the interstate, you’re leaking pennies and nickels whenever a billboard catches your eye.
When your mind obsesses over some difficult relationship or unfortunate event, you pay $15 or $30 at a time. Over the course of a week, this adds up; you might spend a significant portion of your monthly attention on anxiety and guilt. In this universe, most citizens have no idea where all their attention goes; it just seems to get used up, and there’s never enough to go around. Everyone, it seems, has attention deficit disorder.
This is because there are hidden “attention taxes” everywhere you look: all kinds of messages, alerts, and interruptions that slowly drain your focus. Someone sends you a text message, and you pay a quarter for the ensuing conversation. You spend hundreds of dollars a year sifting through unwanted email. You happily spend thousands of dollars watching advertisements on TV. Your attention is constantly being depleted without your knowledge.
In this universe, instead of hiring a financial advisor, you hire an attention advisor. Looking at your forehead meter, he shows you how to stop the attention leaks and how to reduce your attention tax. Then he teaches you an incredibly valuable trick. When you focus your attention on attention itself, it’s like putting money in a savings account with compounding interest. He cites the old proverb “It takes attention to make attention,” showing you how to invest attention to create even more of it.
Now for the twist: except for the forehead meter, you’re in that universe right now.
The idea of an “attention economy,” named by Babson College professor and management consultant Thomas H. Davenport, states that human attention, not money, is the scarce and valuable commodity. All those Super Bowl advertisers are paying for all that human attention. Times Square is such valuable real estate because it attracts so much attention. A tech company with millions of users can be worth billions of dollars, even if it doesn’t make a dime in profit, because of its attention-generating power.
Time is money. And your time—in the form of your attention—is your most valuable resource.