Richard Lanham – The Economics of Attention


Lanham’s main thesis in this book is that we are living not in an information economy (a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ as it is often called in business circles), but rather in an attention economy. That is, the resource that is most scare in today’s society is attention, for, attention is the resource needed to sift through the mind-boggling exabytes of readily available information. Not only that, but attention is the resource needed to shape otherwise raw data into useful and usable information . For Lanham, the shift from an information economy—characterized by “stuff” or substance—to an attention economy—characterized by “fluff” or style—means that stuff and fluff have undergone a “figure/ground shift” (6). This means that style is now a more important commodity than substance. To be clear, both are necessary ingredients for communication in any media; however, it is now the case that style (read: aesthetics) is now more needed than ever in order to capture people’s attention.

Practically, the book is partially devoted to carving a space for multimodal composition in the academy. Lanham believes any theory of electronic composition will necessarily merge the two ways of living and of communicating (the rhetorical and the substantial) so that we are taught to read for style and substance—so that we look at texts and through them—so that meaning is multiplied and attention maximized. Unfortunately, the book does not provide any practical techniques that might help composition teachers realize this end. Like Greg Ulmer’s Teletheory, parts of Lanham’s book (particularly the chapter called “Barbie and the Teacher of Righteousness”) perform its own edicts, but provide no tips for how that performance might be replicated.

My Question

Richard Lanham argues that we are living in an “attention economy.” This essentially means that it is now more difficult than ever to capture people’s attention amidst the mind-boggling amount of information that is so easily accessible thanks to the Internet. Web designers can readily relate to this thesis insomuch as they are familiar with the competition for “eyeballs” that characterizes the field. In fact, Lanham’s thesis has verifiable resonance across disciplines; without a shift from information to attention as commodity to be vied for, it is perhaps true that usability alone would still be enough. Yet, the popularity and “stickiness” of movements such as Emotional Design and User-Experience Design prove that there is more to information than the utility (substance) of it. However, since there has not really been a consideration of the movement from usability to UXD, there is the potential for the implications of this shift to be taken for granted – i.e. Emotional Design might come to be seen as a “phase” rather than a common requisite for designing in the Conceptual Age.

Synthesizing across as many readings as possible, explain in detail why usability alone is no longer enough. For example, you might begin by considering the relationships between attention-getting, aesthetics (and aesthetic capital), and style.


~ by ahatter on September 23, 2009.

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