Everywhere people handle ever more information as if it didn’t cost anything. Yet as information becomes plentiful, attention becomes scarce. The result is no longer an information economy, but an attention economy.Bought and sold by websites, hoarded by overlords, and stolen by clever thieves, attention has become the coin of the realm. Alas, that’s a truth that is easy to know but difficult to remember. So it is worth reciting the famous remark from visionary Herb Simon:
“…[I]n an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention…”**
That is from 1971, right about the same time that sociologist Alvin Toffler coined the term future shock—long before smartphones, long before billions of flat-panel displays, and long before advertising analytics began to use face-recognition software to measure how many people were looking. Today, in an age of ambient information, the shock of the new and its costs to attention have diversified considerably. There is more to attention than where you are looking. There are also surroundings.
Herbert Simon, “Designing organizations for an information-rich world.” In Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest. Martin Greenberger, ed. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1971.