Richard Lanham. The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 271pp.
Richard Lanham is one of the finest scholars of new media who approaches the topic through the lens of rhetorical theory. His previous book, The Electronic Word
, really opened my eyes to the possibility of using classic rhetorical figures such as ekphrasis
to analyze digital media, concluding with a spirited defense of the centrality of rhetorical education in the contemporary age. In this work, he develops a distinction between looking at a work and looking through a work that proves enormously useful for articulating the ways that our proliferating interfaces function and for discussing the remediation of art and texts by digital media.
This at and through distinction gains a more extensive treatment in The Economics of Attention
. Lanham argues that the Information economy is better depicted as an attention economy. Since there is no scarcity of information (more like a flood), and because economics is concerned with the allocation of scarce resources, calling our economy an information one is a misnomer. What is really scarce, and hence what constitutes the most prized resource of the day, is attention. In a flood of information, people must choose how to allocate their attention, and companies seek to capture attention since it is the renting of eyeballs that creates capital.
Here is where the at-through distinction comes into play. Looking at and looking through entail two different forms of attention-giving along a continuum. People can pay attention to the interface, to the mediation, to the form (look at) or they can seek the content contained therein (look through). The distinction is similar to Bolter and Grusin's notion of immediacy and hypermediacy. These two forms of attention map onto the distinction between style and substance, or what Lanham calls stuff and fluff. In an industrial economy, the major concern is stuff -- making more cars, houses, appliances, etc. In an attention economy, the major concern is fluff. Style is the art of grabbing attention, and since attention is the most sought after resource, style triumphs over substance. The iPhone's undeniable success, for instance, has less to do with what is under the cover (the stuff of its microchips and capacitors and other technical capabilities) since if we look through it, we might realize that other companies make a more powerful smart phone. Yet the sleek and fun-to-play-with style of the iPhone has made it the best seller. People are looking at the iPhone, not through it. This is my example, but Lanham also offers many throughout the book.
The triumph of style over substance means that economists and professionals must reorient their ways of thinking and doing business. Fortunately for them, there is a discipline that has studied the economics of attention and the dynamics of style for millenia: rhetoric. "It has traditionally been defined as the art of persuasion. It might as well, though, have been called the economics of attention. I argue here that, in a society where information and stuff have changed places, it proves useful to think of rhetoric precisely as such, as a new economics. How could it be otherwise? If information is now our basic 'stuff,' must not our thinking about human communication become economic thinking?" (p. 21).
The richness of Lanham's work comes from his defense of this major thesis. Through numerous examples, Lanham illustrates that artists throughout the 20th century have been calling attention to style and form and, in so doing, developing an economics of attention. The laundry list includes the Futurists, Dada, surrealism, Warhol, Christo, and Duchamp. Yet I found myself wanting less of the explication of the major thesis (perhaps because I readily accepted it) and more demonstration of how rhetorical theory can provide insights into the dynamics of attention and how digital media are changing those dynamics. Chapter Three "What's Next for Text," is one of the best in this vein, where Lanham ably illustrates how text is changing due to the --abilities of the screen. Text now moves, calls attention to its form, becomes animated, becomes more iconic. This is not just the same old words (content) in a new wrapper. The wrapper opens possibilities of expression either brand new, long forgotten or extremely limited due to the technologies of manuscript transcription and the printing press. One particularly interesting example is called "Pad Multiscale Interface." This interface is simply a two-dimensional page but one that can be infinitely zoomed in and out. This allows someone to put all sorts of information right next to a word or image. When you look at the word or image in the normal scale, you cannot see the extra information. But when you zoom in, it is all there. It offers amazing possibilities for footnoting, commentary, and other background information. (I can imagine having a text that behind any difficult word lies its definition, ready for the viewer to zoom in, or behind any proper noun lies background information about that person, place, or event, maybe like its wikipedia page). Pad can be compared to a digital version of the kaballah's texts, with all of the paranthetical commentaries around the main text. The possibilities for scholars seem ripe. Lanham also illustrates how the ease of changing typeface and size can allow digital versions of legal documents to be read more quickly and with less frustration by the public. See the electronic version of this chapter here
This reader really desired more such chapters and felt like the book fell short because of their absence. When Lanham tries to develop a matrix for understanding attention in Chapter Five, in particular, his model does not seem particularly useful. He shows that the at-through continuum can be applied to the signal, the perceiver, the motive, and the reality or life to which all messages refer. His emphasis on the oscillation between at and through (in the message, the motive, and by the perceiver) is a useful point, but I found myself wanting more depictions of particular modes of encoding and decoding along these continuums. This work remains to be done, but Lanham paves the way by justifying the direction and giving us some basic matrices through which to plot particular rhetorical modes and how they direct the scarce resource of attention.