Can Capitalism Continue? (Part 3) “You Can’t Pay Attention to Everything”

This is part three of a multi-part series that seeks to answer the question: what resources will remain scarce in the future? Since economic activity is based on scarcity, by answering this question, we may be able to locate future areas of employment, if they exist… 


There’s only so much time in the day, and all of us have limited attention to spend. Unless we figure out a way to freeze time, attention is going to remain a scarce resource for the foreseeable future.

A robust attention economy already exists in the form of advertising and public relations. Media outlets of all kinds harvest the attention of their audiences and then resell that attention to advertisers.

In fact a great deal of the digital abundance we enjoy is paid for by attention. Google’s suite of useful software products, from Search to Maps, is a prime example.

Naturally a lot of advertising results in a physical product or service changing hands. Suppose I search for “used cars” on Google. A sponsored link for Autotrader appears. Autotrader pays Google for that preferential listing and a bit extra when I click on the link. Once on the Autotrader website, I am shown another ad, for State Farm auto-insurance. State Farm has in turn paid Autotrader for the right to that ad space. Moreover, various local car dealers have paid Autotrader to make sure their vehicles are preferentially listed in the used car database. All of this buying and selling of my attention is justified because at some point I may purchase a scarce physical product: a car.

If you remove the car from the equation because, let’s say, I begin telecommuting to work, then suddenly the whole attention market built on top of that car collapses.

I make this point to show how attention is often coupled with other resources. However, I do think attention has value on its own, which is why it will continue to be valuable even if parts of the consumer economy vanish.

For example, the other day while using Facebook, I was shown a sponsored link, not for a product or business, but for a local punk band. (Not very punk, right?) Unless this band is delusional (okay, so that’s possible), I’m pretty sure they’re not making a business investment. Instead they are probably buying attention because they want it. Attention is nice. We all want to be paid attention to, especially if we have a project to share, be it a band or something else.

Even in a utopia where all of our basic needs were met, we would still compete for scarce attention. Attention is its own reward.

So how many participants are there in the attention economy? Possibly a huge number. As human beings, we are all potentially both advertisers and advertisements. I want people to know about this blog, which makes me a potential advertiser. If I could pay a reasonably small fee to get my link placed in a few well targeted places I might do so. And if I could make that money back by hosting an advertisement for your punk band, why not? While it needs improvement, the groundwork for a micro-scale attention economy is already being laid by Google, Facebook, Klout and others. (Of course, what would empower people the most is an open platform that cuts out the middle man.)

Interestingly, attention may be growing more scarce with time. Every day there is more entertainment and information competing for our eyes and ears. Thus we might expect the value of attention to go up accordingly, spurring new business models and innovation.

In addition, generating attention requires something worth paying attention to, such as a stylish website, a funny video, or an exciting release party. Until the day we have robot film makers and artificially intelligent party planners there should be a fair amount of action in this space. Remember, it only takes one wealthy person’s vanity project to employ a whole team of people. Though admittedly the number of humans needed on those teams may diminish over time.

Next Up: Creative Potential

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