A lot of current conversations regarding the information economy are too focused on data, and not focused enough on attention.
True, data is extremely valuable. And we are recording, storing, and exchanging data in larger volumes than ever before. But data does not make a great commodity.
For a commodity to have a price in the marketplace it must be scarce. To ensure your data is unique and therefore scarce, you must fight two uphill battles.
First, you must possess data no one else has. Unfortunately, the tools for creating, collecting, and storing data keep getting cheaper and more accessible. And since data is not rivalrous, there is no reason why data on your computer can’t just as easily exist on someone else’s.
Second, you need to ensure the data is not copied without your consent. Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to limit copying in today’s environment.
This does not mean that proprietary pockets of data won’t periodically exist. But it does mean that those pockets are extremely vulnerable to the ongoing process of technological disruption.
So if your proposed business or utopian vision is based on buying and selling data, you might pause and consider the inherent difficulties of such a model.
Attention, on the other hand, is irreducibly scarce. Attention is constrained by the physical property of time, as well as by the limits of the human mind. People only have so much attention to give. And attention, unlike data, is rivalrous. Paying attention to one thing most likely means not paying attention to another. Attention, because of its scarcity, makes a great natural commodity.
Attention is most often monetized through advertising. Businesses routinely take the attention of consumers, repackage it, and sell it to advertisers.
When analyzing new business models, such as those employed by companies like Google or Facebook, what is important is not so much the data, but the attention. The attention is what is generating the revenue.
Yes, Google and Facebook collect our data. And that data is valuable to them, just as it is valuable to our friends. But what Google and Facebook really want—what they really need—is our attention. They are in the attention business.
Consider how data plays a supporting role to attention. Data helps businesses determine our preferences, so they can more effectively sell our attention to advertisers. Alternately, data powers algorithms whose goal is to attract our attention in the first place.
The fundamental transaction is people trading their attention for services. True, data is thrown in on the deal. But this should be no surprise. All of life is just a continuous data exchange, between you and your environment and you and other people.
Over time the supply of recorded data will continue to grow, which should create downward pressure on the price. Meanwhile, wiith so much access to data and so little time, people could have an increasingly difficult time answering the question, “What do I pay attention to?” Competition for people’s attention could become increasingly fierce, implying that attention may actually go up in price as data proliferates.
However, some words of caution: Much of the attention market now is based upon a type of speculation, where the advertiser speculates that your attention today will lead to a consumer purchase tomorrow. If the link between attention and spending grows weak, which could happen for a variety of reasons, then the bottom might fall out of the attention market. In this way, the health of the attention market, in its current form, is very much tied to the health of the consumer market. A problem with the latter may lead to trouble with the former.