Maestros of the Attention Economy

obeyg300Could it be that artists — those struggling musicians, actors, dancers, sculptors, grafitti artists and painters who move to New York or Los Angeles to get their big break — will be the big winners in the rising “attention economy?” I’m tempted to think so after reading The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art & Music Drive New York City. It is tough to create a formal analysis of something as ephemeral as “creative culture,” but that’s precisely what USC Professor Elizabeth Currid has done in her new book. As one might suspect, she built her analysis on the shoulders of previous scholars also eager to explain the importance and the dynamics of “businesses of taste,” where quality is, for the most part, radically subjective, and where “products” don’t necessarily have to perform any function (though fashion is an odd hybrid, because it’s considered too functional to deserve copyright protection ). No doubt most people recognize that these unnecessary aesthetic objects are worth something, they have monetary value, and most people would be willing to say that value is deserved — whether we’re talking about the performance of a song or a piece of sculpture. But the economy within which the value of those objects is determined is exceedingly mysterious.

Currid argues that this is partly due to the fact that it is determined in an informal way, often in explicitly social contexts, among tastemakers, gatekeepers, reviewers, and peers, many of whom are not working within the same disciplines or industries. As Currid argues, New York has earned the reputation as the place to be if you want to be a successful artist. Since success depends upon the credibility conferred upon your work by the cultural arbiters who live, work and play there, you must rub shoulders with them, earn their respect, and convert that respect into commercial opportunity. And, as you’re awaiting your chance to bump into Marc Jacobs at a party, you can pay your rent by working as a graphic designer in an ad agency.

Michael Goldhaber’s approach to and definition of the attention economy buttresses The Warhol Economy argument in some very compelling and sometimes counter-intuitive ways. Goldhaber believes that the world’s monetary economy will be taken over by the economy of cyberspace, which is quickly moving towards what he calls a “pure Attention Economy.” he describes it like this:
What explains the huge burgeoning of “information technologies” and their importance in our lives is that we have passed beyond an economy chiefly governed by material scarcities to one governed by the scarcity of attention. We produce expressions and performances of various sorts in order to compete for the scarce attention of other human beings. That means that older forms of wealth become passé compared with holding a place in the minds of one’s audience.
Although Goldhaber describes coming to this conclusion by observing the digital technology revolution, it seems to me, he could have come to the same conclusion by taking a close look at the dynamics of the creative economy in New York. The parallels between the attention economy and the creative economy are fascinating and ironic:

  • Since the focus is not on the physical product, necessarily, or the physical site of production, these activities could be conducted in virtual spaces that mimic physical ones, such as Second Life.
  • The “currency,” so to speak, in both economies is being seen, rubbing shoulders, attracting eyeballs. So much so that placing a price on exposure is virtually impossible, but essential to the possibility of commercial viability. Both New York’s creative economy and the dot com attention economy demonstrate that both types of entrepreneurs realize that money, at least at first, is secondary to the accumulation of attention.

In fact, the radical conclusion of Goldhaber’s argument is that
. . . if attention gets you what you want, money is an increasingly unnecessary supplement. If you don’t have attention, you can’t get money anyway. If you do have attention you don’t need money. So why advertise as a means to push product, so as to end up with cash? Why not just advertise yourself, to get attention?
Of course these two worlds — the online world and the particular geography of the cultural economy of New York — have already criss-crossed: Gawker is, perhaps, the most visible intermediary. But I suspect that the cross-pollination will intensify and create a radically new environment for creative economies that are simultaneously embedded in a very real physical environment, and yet increasingly using the tools of virtual environments and virtual economies to ply their trade and to leverage a larger share of attention in the attention economy. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that virtual environments — especially those that mimic physical ones — will increasingly use the tools that artists have honed for decades on the gritty streets of New York. Perhaps we will discover that artists — usually the losers in the money-industrial economy — will have a strategic and tactical advantage in the attention economy.

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