Do we have your attention?

New literacies, digital technologies

and the education of adolescents


Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel

 Paper presented at the State of the Art Conference, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

January 26-27, 2001

To appear as: Lankshear, C. and Knobel, M. (2001). Do we have your attention? New literacies, digital technologies and the education of adolescents. In D. Alvermann (Ed.), New Literacies and Digital Technologies: A Focus on Adolescent Learners. New York: Peter Lang (forthcoming).


What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it (Simon 1971: 40-41).


If one is looking for a glimpse of what literacy will look like in the future, the fighter cockpit is a good place to look ... The most interesting conversation I have had about literacy at the end of the twentieth century was with a fellow who designed avionic displays for fighters. He knew all the basic questions and a good many of the answers (Lanham 1994).



This paper is based on the idea that a new kind of economy-an attention economy-is emerging at present, and that it will become increasingly dominant in the future (Goldhaber 1997). We will explore this idea in relation to new literacies and digital technologies from the standpoint of formal-school-based-learning opportunities available (or not available) to adolescents being educated in contemporary classrooms.

After introducing the concept of an attention economy in some of its main variations, and considering some of its surrounding theory, we will address three key questions about the relationship between education and the attention economy.

  1. What significance do digital technologies have for paying, attracting, and maintaining attention?
  2. What significance do new literacies have for effective participation in an attention economy?
  3. What do findings from 1 and 2 above imply for formal education?

 Conceptions and theory of an emerging attention economy

While there is growing agreement that an attention economy is emerging, among those who employ and support the idea we nonetheless find significant differences in substance and perspective. These differences will result in varying implications for formal education if we decide that education should indeed attend to the nature and demands of an attention economy. To help clear the terrain, then, we will describe what seem to us to be three significantly different 'takes'-albeit with broad 'family resemblances'-on the concept and theory of an emerging attention economy. These are associated with work by Michael Goldhaber (1997, 1998a, 1998b), Richard Lanham (1994), the Aspen Institute (Adler 1997), and the NCR Knowledge Lab (MacLeod 2000). We will take these briefly in turn.

 Michael Goldhaber on the 'Attention Economy'

Goldhaber links the superabundance of information to the hypothesis of an emerging attention economy. He believes the fact that information is in over-saturated supply is fatal to the coherence of the idea of an information economy-since 'economics are governed by what is scarce' (Goldhaber 1997: n.p.). More fully stated, economies are based on 'what is both most desirable and ultimately most scarce' (Goldhaber 1998b: n.p.). Yet, if people in postindustrial societies will increasingly live their lives in the spaces of the Internet, these lives will fall more and more under economic laws organic to this new space. Goldhaber (1997, 1998a) argues that the basis of the coming new economy will be attention and not information.

Attention, unlike information, is inherently scarce. This, says Goldhaber (1998b: n.p.), is because 'each of us has only so much of it to give, and [attention] can only come from us-not machines, computers or anywhere else'. But like information, attention moves through the Net. Goldhaber identifies cyberspace as the being where the attention economy will come into its own.

The idea of an attention economy is premised on the fact that the human capacity to produce material things outstrips the net capacity to consume the things that are produced-such are the irrational contingencies of distribution. In this context, 'material needs at the level of creature comfort are fairly well satisfied for those in a position to demand them' (Goldhaber 1997: n.p.)-the great minority, it should be noted, of living human beings. Nonetheless, for this powerful minority, the need for attention becomes increasingly important, and increasingly the focus of their productive activity.

Goldhaber (1998a) argues that when our material desires are more or less satisfied, such that we do not feel pressures of scarcity (such as being afraid of hunger or lack of shelter), we are driven increasingly by 'desires of a less strictly material kind'. Several such desires, he believes, converge toward a desire for attention. These include, for example, a desire for meaning in our lives-which is no longer a 'luxury' once material needs are assured. Goldhaber links the search for meaning to gaining attention. 'Why are we here, and how do we know that we are somehow worthwhile? If a person feels utterly ignored by those around her, she is unlikely to feel that her life has much meaning to them. Since all meaning is ultimately conferred by society, one must have the attention of others if there is to be any chance that one's life is meaningful' (ibid.: n.p.).

Hence, in the attention economy:

The energies set free by the successes of the money-industrial economy go more and more in the direction of obtaining attention. And that leads to growing competition for what is increasingly scarce, which is of course attention. It sets up an unending scramble, a scramble that also increases the demands on each of us to pay what scarce attention we can (Goldhaber 1997: n.p.).

Goldhaber makes six points of particular relevance to our concerns here.

First, in economically advanced societies young people during recent decades have spent a huge proportion of their waking hours within two key contexts: either in school, or engrossed in media-especially television and audio-recordings. The experiences of these contexts involve paying great amounts of attention and, moreover, focusing attention on 'a relative few' (Goldhaber 1998a): TV personalities, stars in different fields (music, sport, films, etc.) whom we attend to via television or audio media or contemporary multimedia, teachers, selected members of our peer group, etc. Goldhaber notes that

everyone who is seen on television models one common role, as do all teachers in schools, and that role is to be the object of a good deal of attention. Thus, without planning or intention, there has been a kind of cultural revolution, telling us that getting attention is a fine thing. And for many of us, having the attention of others turns out to feel very good, something we often want more of (ibid.).

Second, Goldhaber envisages two 'classes' within the attention economy. These are 'Stars', who have large amounts of attention paid to them, and 'Fans', who pay their attention to the stars. Because paying attention requires effort, fans supply most of the effort in the attention economy. Unlike most workers in the industrial economy who had/have only one boss, fans will typically devote their attention-paying effort to multiple stars. While stars are the great winners in the attention economy, the losers are not necessarily the fans-who may receive sufficient 'illusory attention' to meet their attention needs. The losers, says Goldhaber, are those who don't get any attention, who are simply ignored. This entails having 'less of a clear identity and place in the community' (ibid.). The extreme case Goldhaber gives is a homeless person who dies in the street but is ignored for days-as happened in LA not so long ago. 'Losers' may be people who do not stand out sufficiently to attract attention, or individuals who do not effectively reward attention paid to them, or else individuals who repel others by demanding too much attention (1998a).

Third, being able to participate in the attention economy involves knowing how to pay and receive attention. A distinction between real attention and illusory attention is involved here. This is because in order to get attention one has to pay attention. Goldhaber (1997) argues that in a full-fledged attention economy the goal is simply to get enough attention or to get as much as possible. Clearly, accumulating more than one's 'share' of attention involves receiving more than one puts out. On the other hand, if one is to get attention one has to pay attention. The conundrum so far as the attention rich are concerned is resolved by the distinction between real and illusory attention. Stars and performers pay 'illusory attention' to fans and audiences. They create the illusion that they are paying attention to each fan, to each member of their audience. Attention involves an exchange. People will withhold attention if they have no interest in the exchange. When readers lose interest in a chapter they put the book down. To maintain interest they have to believe that the author is attending to them and their needs or desires. Creating illusory attention may be done by 'pretending to flatter' the audience, 'creating questions in their minds which you then "obligingly" answer,' claiming you will 'help them with some real problem they have', making eye contact, gesturing, etc. (ibid.). Methods of creating illusions of attention may lose worth (effect) if they become too common or too well recognized.

Fourth, the emerging attention economy is creating large markets for attention technologies-technologies that allow us to get attention, or that make it possible for us to go after it. The Internet is a classic example (see below). But old technologies like theatre stages are also important. The recent invention of digitized wearable display jackets (Kahney 2000) is a new trend in generating attention (see below also). This may involve gaining attention directly, for example, by advertising oneself. It may, however, involve a form of 'three-way attention transaction' (Goldhaber 1998a). This is where one has attention passed to one by somebody else-as when advertisers use stars to pass attention to clients and their products, or show hosts pass attention to guests (but in turn also receive attention from fans of the hosts who watch the shows). Hence, someone wearing a display jacket may screen clips of a popular star or even a favourite game show.

Fifth, the attention economy necessarily entails a new kind of privacy from the familiar kind of having private space away from the public gaze. Those who would accumulate attention have to be 'out there.' Attention wealth accrues from expressing oneself fully, living one's life 'as openly as possible', and expressing oneself 'as publicly as possible as early as possible'-e g., putting drafts on the web, rather than keeping them under wraps until publication (Goldhaber 1998b: 8th principle). The quest for privacy under these conditions becomes one of avoiding being constrained by 'would-be attention payers' as well as/in tandem with avoiding having to pay them too much attention (Goldhaber 1998a). Whereas the old privacy was about not being seen, the new privacy will be about 'not [having] to look at or see anyone else' (ibid.).

Finally, gaining attention is indexical to originality. It is difficult, says Goldhaber, to get new attention 'by repeating exactly what you or someone else has done before.' Consequently, the attention economy is based on 'endless originality, or at least attempts at originality' (Goldhaber 1997: n.p.). Attention is a function of 'everything that makes you distinctly you and not somebody else' (Goldhaber 1998b: 9th principle).

Richard Lanham on the attention economy

In 'The Economics of Attention' (1994), Lanham's focus is on the changing world of the library and, especially, on the changing role of librarians in the age of digitized information and communications technologies. According to Lanham, in order to address questions like: 'how are libraries and librarians to negotiate the changing terrain of information?'; 'what kind of changes are involved?'; and 'where should one look for clues to handling the changes?'; it is important to understand the new economy of attention.

Lanham shares some common bases with Goldhaber. He begins by observing that we currently seem to be moving from 'the goods economy' to 'the information economy' (Lanham 1994: page?). Within the so-called information economy, however, information is not a scarce resource. On the contrary, 'we are drowning in it' (ibid.). At least, to put it more accurately, we are drowning in a particular order or kind of information-information as raw data,

Lanham argues that we use different terms for information depending on how much attention-'the action that turns raw data into something humans can use'-has been given to it (ibid.).

No attention gives you 'raw data'. Some attention gives you 'massaged data'. Lots of attention gives you 'useful information'. Maximal attention gives you 'wisdom'. And so on (ibid.).

For simplicity's sake Lanham reduces these types of information to Data, Information, and Wisdom, and claims that of these wisdom and information are in shortest supply. In the face of the volumes of Data coming at us 'we do not have time [and] do not know how to construct the human-attention structures that would make data useful to us both for ... private life and public life, domestic economy and political economy' (ibid.; cf., Gilster 1997 ). The scarce resource in the information economy, according to Lanham, is attention.

Like Goldhaber, Lanham identifies the key resource of the new economy as non-material (or what he calls 'immaterial'). But when the most precious resource is non-material, 'the economic doctrines, social structures, and political systems that evolved in a world devoted to the service of matter become rapidly ill-suited to cope with the new situation' (Wriston 1997, cited ibid.). In a manner very similar to Goldhaber, among growing numbers of others (e.g., John Perry Barlow, in Tunbridge 1995), Lanham insists that we cannot continue to apply concepts, laws, practices and the like that were developed to deal with the economic world of goods to the emerging economic world of information. Entertaining and exploring the notion of an emerging economy of attention looks like a step in the right direction.

From these similar starting points, however, Lanham's thought/theory develops in a different direction from Goldhaber's. Rather than focusing on how to gain and maintain attention, Lanham is concerned with how to facilitate or enable attention to data by developing new human attention structures for attending to the flood of information-as-data we face constantly. He notes that banks have been early starters here, out of necessity, since the banks' traditional role of safeguarding clients' money and lending it out has largely been taken over by other institutions. 'To survive, banks are now creating from the digital stuff of instantaneous global data new attention structures for savers and borrowers, new investment instruments [which banks call] "securitization" ' (ibid.). These provide people with new frames for attending to the financial part of their world.

Lanham elucidates the concept of human-attention structures by reference to examples from contemporary conceptual art and pop art. In an environmental art exhibit which involved erecting many large umbrellas in two very different kinds of location-a rainy valley in Japan and a desert mountain pass in southern California-the artist, Christo, created 'temporary attention structures to make us pause and ponder how we engage in large-scale collective human effort' (ibid.). The 'product' was attention structures rather than objects. 'The center of the project ... became the contrast in how each culture went about its work, both social and geographic' (ibid.).

Some decades earlier Roy Lichtenstein had taken popular attention structures like the comic strip as his subject matter. Andy Warhol, as much as conceptual artists in the mould of Christo, Rauschenberg, and Robert Irwin, along with today's leaders in the aesthetics of digital expression, recognized that organizing human attention was 'the fundamental locus of art, not making physical objects' (ibid.). Lanham notes that many of Warhol's best remembered observations indicate how far the Pop Art explosion comprised an 'Arts of Attention Management': c.f., 'we weren't just at the exhibit, we were the art incarnate and the sixties were really about people, not about what they did,' and 'Fashion wasn't what you wore somewhere anymore, it was the whole reason for going' (Warhol, cited ibid.).

Within the information economy the scarce commodity is 'how human attention sorts out an overpowering flow of information' (ibid.). Examples from the worlds of conceptual and pop art reveal the macroeconomics of attention. From the perspective of the microeconomics of attention, Lanham asks how the overload of information carried by 'the rich signal' which is the heart of the digital revolution can be managed. This signal can be manifested as alphabetic text, as image and as sound, and 'creates its own internal economy of attention.' Lanham illustrates this with his example of fighter-jet cockpit displays, where digital data arrives at quantum rates in alphabetical and numerical information, in iconic displays, and as audio signals. A design was needed to mix all this data-information into 'a single functioning information structure' that, as in the rest of contemporary life, allows our minds to make sense of data coming at us 'thick and fast' (c.f., ibid.). This is a technical instance of the larger questions of how to develop structures-frames and organizers-that facilitate paying attention to data so that we can turn it into something useful, and who will develop these structures? To the extent that the world of information at large is becoming like the fighter cockpit displays as it falls increasingly under the logic of digital expression, the key questions for literacy and the answers to those questions will increasingly concern how to develop attention structures and to organize and manage information.

As a new dominant metaphor for thinking about our world, as matter and energy were previously, the model of information directs us to attend to what lies behind or beneath 'stuff'-the world of objects-and to see 'hidden forces and forms ... which those objects allegorize' (ibid.). Similarly, a theory of communication based on stuff presupposes a model of simple exchange whereby a package of thought and feeling is transferred from one body and place to another or others. The same communication model, says Lanham, employs a 'Clarity-Brevity-Sincerity' style of prose and expression (ibid.).

Lanham argues that this model no longer applies. In terms of style and expression the transaction within an attention economy is no longer 'simply the rational market ... beloved by the economists of stuff'. Rather, people bring with them to the free market of ideas 'a complex calculus of pleasure' and 'make all kinds of purchases' in the attention economy. Lanham suggests that our efforts to learn and understand how to handle the new conditions of 'seeing' and thinking about the world, and of style and expression-in short, how to develop appropriate attention structures-may be usefully informed by earlier and long-standing arts and habits. These include the Western tradition of rhetoric and the medieval allegorical habit of life and thought that saw 'the immanence of God as informing all things' (ibid.).

In spatial terms, the information model is revolutionizing practices of literacy and thinking, which Lanham illustrates by reference to the library. No longer can librarians see their role as one of 'facilitating thinking done elsewhere,' as was the case in the age of lending out books: a matter of 'maintaining the signifiers, and leaving the decryption of the signifieds to the readers' (Atkinson, cited ibid.). Instead, in the world of superabundant information, thinking involves generating attention structures and libraries and librarians are in the middle of this-as schools and teachers and academics should be (although Lanham holds out little short term hope for universities and does not mention schools).

The point, finally, is that gateways will need to be developed to facilitate attention to information, to turn it into something useful for users and to enable users to use it usefully in terms of their wants and goals. Lanham believes, however, that this involves much more than the current development of intelligent software agents like search engines, specialized bots, the practice of 'data mining', and the like. Rather, he says, there is a frame issue involved. Building attention structures is more than a software or 'technical' issue alone. It calls for an architecture that incorporates frames, and for a 'new kind of human architect' who will mediate the economics of attention. This will be far from a technical task and will comprise the highest order and most powerful, sought after and rewarded literacy.

Advertising and the Attention Economy: The Aspen Institute and National Cash Registers' Knowledge Lab

Not surprisingly, the notion of an economics of attention, and the theme of how to gain attention as an increasingly scarce resource in proportion to the sources competing for it, have entered advertising discourse during recent years. Advertising is a domain of human practice with a strong stake in the economics of attention: the 'first challenge for every advertiser is to capture and hold the attention of the intended audience' (Adler 1997: 5). Indeed, advertisers have to create attention to products in which the targets of advertising typically have no inherent interest. Despite the massive and increasing amount of time citizens in countries like the US spend using or consuming media of one kind or another-projected to reach 60.5% of the waking hours of the average US person in 2000-advertising faces ever-increasing competition for attention. More is involved in this competition than the success of advertisers and products alone. The very fortunes of the media used for advertising-from TV (whether public broadcast or cable) to the WWW, via newspapers, magazines and radio-fluctuate with and depend upon levels and constancy of advertising revenue.

In 1996 the Aspen Institute hosted a seminar to assess the current state of and prospect for the field of advertising and to identify perspectives on how individuals choose to allocate their attention. The seminar made particular reference to the context of emerging new media, notably the Internet and WWW, which have the potential to challenge established media as advertising channels. As Internet use has continued to grow rapidly in recent years, the Net has been transformed 'from a non-profit medium for academic and personal communication into a dynamic commercial medium' in which most major corporations and many small companies have established an online presence (ibid: 20). Although Internet advertising accounts for only a tiny proportion of total current advertising expenditure, it is growing rapidly and a hot search has been mounted by marketers and advertisers to create ever new and more effective means for gaining attention.

The Internet, however, presents advertisers with differences in both degree and kind from other media. The Web, for example, produces a massive 'fragmentation of channels' (ibid: 21). As the original situation of a very small core of television networks became dozens and then literally 'hundreds of different cable-and satellite-delivered channels,' advertisers had to switch from broadcast to narrowcast strategies. With the advent of the Net, however, 'there are now potentially millions of channels available, with the conceivable end point being a separate, customized channel for each individual' (ibid: 21-22). The growth of new interactive media creates the possibility for one-to-one marketing. This involves a strategy which focuses less on building advertising market share than on 'investigating a company's best customers and building a one-to-one relationship with them' in order to get more purchasing or consuming per customer by 'treating them as individuals [to] build loyalty' (ibid: 24).

This is a context where there is much to play for and where old kinds of intermediaries and partnerships change and new ones are invented. For example, given that distribution expenses may account for 50-80% of the end cost of consumer products, if producers can bypass conventional marketing and distribution intermediaries and sell direct to the consumer via the Internet has potentially huge advantages for the latter in terms of cost and ease. At the same time, however, Internet users have greater potential than users of other media to actively control the information they receive. In Net advertising, the relative balance of power shifts from producers to consumers of advertising, since on the WWW customers do not face the choice of sitting through intrusive ads (ibid: 37). The logic that has to operate in Net advertising is less one of how media users can opt out of advertisements to one of how advertisers can get users to opt in to marketing information.

This has seen the emergence of new kinds of intermediaries, like search engines, bots, the active creation of interest-based online communities with potential for commercial exploitation, collaborative filtering technology for sharing views and interests online, and so on. For example, marketers quickly saw and acted on the potential of creating and exploiting online communities concerned with specific topics that would attract key groups or niches of customers. Once these audiences are created and identified, marketers can interact with them to 'sell and support products, provide customer service [and] conduct continuous market research' (ibid: 25). Ingenious devices and processes-as well as some utterly gross forms-have been developed to capture audience attention on the Internet. Gross forms include email 'spam' and 'push' strategies, as well as successive generations of eye-catching 'gizmos' (javascript animation, flashing words, etc.). Subtler means include companies hiring marketers to create 'ad bots' that inhabit chat rooms and similar spaces on the Net. These respond to trigger words and can engage potential customers in private conversation that has commercial relevance (ibid.).

High profile research work, backed by serious budgets, aimed at developing approaches to advertising grounded in the economics of attention are under way. Perhaps the current leader in the field is the NCR Knowledge Lab. The Lab's work in this area begins from the idea that consumers are saturated with potential information sources for practically any requirement and simply cannot use all the available options without eating heavily into time. For producers and vendors operating in the emerging Network Economy, this creates the challenge of how to get the attention of those consumers they want to attract and/or keep, and how to make their product or brand stand out amid increasing competition for customer attention. According to the Knowledge Lab, as the Network Economy continues to grow, attention will become increasingly scarce. As a consequence,

[f]irms will have think of themselves as operating both in an Attention Market as well as their core market.

Attention will be hard to earn, but if it is viewed as a reciprocal flow, firms can use information about consumers and customers to stand out in a sea of content to increase profitability: pay attention to them and they pay attention to you. Relationships are likely to encompass attention transactions. As customers realize the value of their attention and their information needed to get it, we show that they may require payment of some kind for both.

The Knowledge Lab is looking into how we can quantify, measure and track flows of attention in the Network Economy (<>).

To this end the Knowledge Lab has established Consumer Research as one of its five research foci. The program comprises research into a tracery of intersecting themes. These include (among others) the nature and role of online branding, the use of interfaces for interactions and relationships with customers, the adoption and diffusion of new technology, online communities and relationships, 'connecting with kids' and 'cashless kids,' together with research on the attention economy.

The Lab has also developed and trademarked the concept of 'Relationship Technologies' and settled on a view of attention as 'engagement with information.' The key to successful business in the future, says the Lab, will be the capacity to generate and maintain personal attention to new and existing customers. Advertising can create opportunities to gain attention, but it cannot actually secure, let alone maintain and build ongoing attention (MacLeod 2000). Early work by Lab researchers suggests the importance of using personal information to gain initial attention, and 'harnessing [this] attention' to create successful 'real relationships' with customers (ibid: 3) with the assistance of 'relationship technologies.' Successful relationships of all kinds 'contain the elements of attraction, communication, "being there" for the other party, and understanding.' The Lab's idea is that in business as well as in other areas of life, relationship technologies will serve to 'enable, support and enhance these key elements of real relationships' (ibid.).

This will be achieved through attention transactions in which information flows back and forward between content providers (the business or commercial interest) and content users (potential and actual customers). Since attention is 'engagement with information', both-way information flows grounded in reciprocal interest are, in effect, attention transactions that create and sustain relationships (ibid: 7). The Lab puts its faith in the capacity of paying attention to gain and maintain attention. Its early research documents various mechanisms used to try and elicit customer attention (such as paying people to view content, providing free computers which come with content, offering free email via portals which bombard users with advertising and other commercial information, and so on). Without dismissing these outright, the Lab stresses the importance of attention transactions based on personal information. This requires customers to appreciate the advantages that can come from providing personal information that permits companies to pay personal attention to them in the course of creating and developing successful relationships (ibid.). Reciprocally, it presupposes that companies will use this information fruitfully. 'Acquiring personal information about a potential customer is useful only insofar as it can be translated into more personal attention' (ibid.: 19).

Rory MacLeod (ibid: 19-20) identifies several key strategic implications for businesses operating in the Network Economy. These include:

 Overlaps and differences: multifaceted attention

While there is much more to be said than is possible here, there seems to be significant overlap as well as significant differences among these positions. In terms of differences, the three perspectives pursue attention on behalf of quite different purposes and beneficiaries.

Goldhaber's account focuses on individuals pursuing attention for their own purposes in terms of finding meaning for their lives under 'post materialist' conditions. Lanham addresses the pursuit of attention structures that will enable other people to use information effectively in relation to what they are interested in. The work of the Aspen Institute and the NCR Knowledge Lab seeks in different ways to help companies mobilize attention in the interests of selling consumer items to customers who believe their purposes are served by purchasing them.

The main point of overlap seems to be the creation of effective attention structures, even though Lanham is the only one of the three to identify this construct explicitly. Managing attention is clearly where the action is for each perspective. The point of advertisers, producers, and vendors entering relationships with consumers and obtaining information on them directly or via research is to be able better to mobilize and organize their attention to what is available commercially as goods and services. Goldhaber's reference to the pursuit of endless originality seems also, albeit tacitly, to entail a search for frames that will draw or focus the attention of potential fans on would be stars.

 Digital technologies and the economics of attention

Goldhaber (1997) highlights the distinctive significance of new information and communications technologies-especially, but by no means solely, the WWW. He sees the capacity to send out multimedia or virtual reality signals via the Web as a particularly effective and efficient means for attracting attention and paying illusory attention.

Say you are primarily a writer of mere words, i.e., text; still, on the Web you [are] able to supplement your writings with you picture, with video images, with recordings of your voice, with interviews or pieces of autobiography. The advantages of doing that is that by offering potential readers a more vivid and rounded sense of who you are, you can both increase their sense of who it is who is offering them illusory attention, and have them have a clearer and more definite feeling than otherwise of what it is like to pay attention to you, rather than to some other writer of similar sounding words. Both these effects can help you hold their attention better (ibid.: n.p.).

In this way the Web is an ideal means for 'transmitting and circulating attention' and is getting better for this all the time: a precondition, says Goldhaber, for a full-fledged attention economy to emerge. He contrasts the circumstances of Plato with those of any number of people today. Over the past two millennia, says Goldhaber, millions of people have read and studied (paid attention to) Plato. But apart from 'contributing to his "immortality," the vast majority of that attention did him little personal good.' It came after he was dead! While very few of today's 'attention getters' could aspire to be attended to for thousands of years, they are able to pursue the benefits of attention from many-maybe millions-of people via the Web throughout their lives (ibid.). This, says Goldhaber, is what will constitute living very well (on a sliding scale) in the new economy.

At the level of employing digital technologies, working the attention economy can take on very different forms. Two cases must suffice here. They will serve to make wider points as well.

Early in 2000, a number of online magazines (e.g., Dreamcast 2000, Suck 2000) described one young man's special mission and encouraged readers help him meet his goal. Walter, a sixteen-year-old Canadian high school student described his special mission on his website that was located within the Geocities community (the now-defunct <>). According to Walter's website, two girls from his school had told him that one would have sex with him if his website received a million hits within a given period. Pictures of Walter were published alongside the articles featuring his mission (Dreamcast 2000). They showed him to have an almost-shaved head, braces on his teeth, sparse goatee, and what would generally pass for an 'unattractive air'. Walter's mission spawned anti-Walter sites (e.g., <>) and a sympathetic spoof in the form of an animated sequence ( 2000).

The articles urged readers to visit Walter's website to help him complete his mission before his time ran out. The response was overwhelming. According to Suck magazine, 'Walter's [website] log ultimately showed referrals from 2630 sites, many displaying banner ads in a show of solidarity, and sympathic visitors flocked from around the world' (2000: 1). Some of these sources also stated that while Walter's Special mission might be a hoax people should visit his website anyway, in case the endeavor was for real (cf., Dreamcast 2000). On the day we visited Walter's website-well before the deadline set by his female peers-the only page that could be accessed told in huge letters that the mission had been accomplished. It also stated that due to still-heavy traffic to his website Walter had been forced to remove it from the Internet.

In the second case, Stephen Fitch, a graduate of MIT's Media Lab, has developed a leather jacket containing in its back panel a complete Windows computer with a '233-MHz Pentium III processor, a 1 Gigabyte IBM micro hard drive and a broadband wireless Internet connection' (Kahney 2000: 1). The jacket is being marketed as 'wearable advertising' and even comes with 'a built-in infrared motion detector that can tell how many people have seen it close up by sensing their body heat' (Kahney 2000: 2). According to Fitch, the jacket 'allows people to use video as a form of self-expression' (Fitch quoted in Kahney 2000: 1).

The jacket could be used in diverse ways as a medium for initiating or mediating attention flows and transactions. Some uses might essentially serve the owner's own attention seeking interests simply by attracting the gaze of passersby and engaging them in information (however briefly or superficially). Alternatively, the owner might use the display as an initial point of contact with potential customers for her or his own goods and services. Likewise companies, advertisers, and 'stars' might hire 'jacket space' as part of their contact-making and attention-attracting strategies. Many uses of the jacket display might serve multiple attention interests conjointly. For example, if the wearer was running a video for a popular band or a trailer for an upcoming movie (that is, for 'stars'), s/he would simultaneously be paying illusory attention to fans of the band or movie star, transferring attention to the star, giving the star an opportunity for paying illusory attention to the fans, and generating attention for her/himself.

Fitch has formed a company called Hardwear International (<>) to market the video jacket. His main company tagline is 'The revolution will be televised'. Hollywood has already shown keen interest, planning to display trailers for upcoming movies on people's clothing. Fitch is currently also working on a range of video jackets for children, as well as lunchboxes, handbags and hats that all incorporate his video technology. Fitch says, 'I believe display technology will be incorporated into our lives as a form of personal expression' (Fitch quoted in Kahney 2000:2).

 New literacies and the economics of attention

On the basis of the ideas sketched above it is reasonably easy to identify a range of typical 'new' literacies that might become increasingly significant within an emerging economy of attention. We will outline several such literacies here in embryonic ways that will provide a base for potential further exploration and development.

 'Contact displaying': jackets (and similar gadgets) that work

This is the idea of using highly customizable, mobile, public media-like the video display jacket-to catch the eye and establish a basis for gaining attention. Not every jacket will 'work' in an attention economy. Not every jacket owner/wearer will be able to use it successfully as a means to gain and sustain real attention. Moreover, the jacket itself (or any similar device) cannot be the medium for sustained attention unless its wearer can claim a 'space' to which others 'return' in order to see what s/he is up to today. More likely, a successful display will create an opportunity to gain attention in the manner described by MacLeod-by establishing initial contacts that may create the possibility to develop relationships via attention transactions. This could take diverse forms ranging from broadcasting arresting or entertaining 'display bytes' that achieve their task of establishing a sense of identity and presence instantaneously-in the moment of a passing by-to simply announcing a product or service that can be 'taken down now' (e.g., a URL, phone contact, email address) or memorized for following up later. Part of displaying successfully is likely to be a matter of 'immediate effects' (rhetorical, quirky, stunning), but much will likely be predicated on having something to say that is worth hearing, something to sell that is worth buying, and so on.


In his MEME email newsletter (see <>), David Bennahum defines 'meme' thus:

meme: (pron. "meem") A contagious idea that replicates like a virus, passed on from mind to mind. Memes function the same way genes and viruses do, propagating through communication networks and face-to-face contact between people. Root of the word "memetics," a field of study which postulates that the meme is the basic unit of cultural evolution. Examples of memes include melodies, icons, fashion statements and phrases.

We have extended this definition to suggest a kind of literacy that may prove very effective in gaining attention as well as in constructing attention structures along the lines described by Lanham. Meme-ing may be seen as a meta level literacy whereby 'writers' (e.g., displayers, conventional authors, advertisers, changemakers, publicizers, etc.) try to project into cultural evolution by imitating the behavioral logic-replication-of genes and viruses. This involves generating and transmitting a successful meme, or becoming a high profile 'carrier' of a successful meme. Meme-ing presupposes the existence or establishment of two necessary conditions: 'susceptibility' (for contagion), and suitable conditions for replication to occur.

Susceptibility is tackled by way of 'hooks' and 'catches'-by conceiving something that is likely to catch on or that gets behind early warning systems and immunity (for example, even well-honed critical perspectives can be infiltrated by textual creations like Coca Cola's white swirl on red, or by the Nike icon). Networks-e.g., communities of scholars, electronic networks-provide ideal conditions for replication. Examples of successful memes and their respective 'cloners', 'high profile carriers' or 'taggers' include: 'cyberspace' (William Gibson), 'screenagers' (Douglas Rushkoff), 'GenX' and 'Microserfs' (Doug Coupland), 'the information superhighway' (Al Gore), 'global village' (Marshall McLuhan), 'cyborgs' (Donna Haraway), 'clock of the long now' (Stewart Brand and colleagues), 'complexity' (the Santa Fe Group), D/discourse (James Gee), and so on. Obviously, for a meme to be a way both of gaining attention and of bringing attention to a particular individual or group, its cloners or key carriers must somehow or other lay claim to it or otherwise publicly establish their association with it.


Building or narrating scenarios is a good way of coming up with original or fresh ideas of the kind needed to attract and sustain attention. We think of it as a literacy because it is a way of reading and writing the world (of the future).

Scenarios are catchy narratives that describe possible futures and alternative paths toward the future, based on plausible hypotheses and assumptions grounded in the present. Scenarios are not predictions. Rather, building scenarios is a way of asking important 'what if?' questions: a means of helping groups of people change the way they think about a problem (Rowan and Bigum 1997: 73). Scenarios aim to perceive possible futures in the present, encourage us to question 'conventional predictions of the future,' help us to recognize 'signs of change' when they occur, and establish standards for evaluating 'continued use of different strategies under different conditions' (ibid.).

Scenarios must narrate particular and credible possible future worlds in the light of forces and influences that are apparent or inchoate in the present, and that are likely to steer the future in one direction or another if they get to play out. A typical approach to generating scenarios is to bring a group of participants together around a shared issue or concern and have them frame a focusing question or theme within this area.

Once the question is framed, participants try to identify 'driving forces' they see as operating and as being important in terms of their question or theme. When these have been thought through participants identify those forces or influences that seem more or less 'pre-determined,' that will play out in more or less known ways. Participants then identify less predictable influences or uncertainties: key variables in shaping the future that could be influenced or influence others in quite different ways, but where we genuinely can't be confident about how they will play out. From this latter set, one or two are selected as 'critical uncertainties' (Rowan and Bigum 1997: 81). These are forces or influences that seem especially important in terms of the focusing question or theme but which are genuinely up for grabs and unpredictable. The 'critical uncertainties' are then dimensionalised by plotting credible poles: between possibilities that, at one pole are not too unimaginative and, at the other, not too far fetched as to be completely impossible. These become raw materials for building scenarios.

In relation to the economics of attention, 'scenariating' is a potentially significant new literacy because it provides a basis not only for coming up with innovative, original, and interesting information, but also because it addresses a topic in which almost everybody has a keen interest: what the future might be like and how to prepare for it. Scenarios can work very well as attention structures, providing frames within which people can work on information in ways that make it useful. There are many reasons for engaging adolescent students in activities of building and narrating scenarios besides its potential value for participating in an attention economy. The latter, however, would be sufficient reason on its own because of its fruitfulness as a way of balancing originality and freshness with sheer usefulness for human beings in most areas of everyday life.

 'Attention transacting'

This is based on MacLeod's idea of both-way information flows grounded in reciprocal interest that create and sustain relationships (2000: 7). 'Attention transacting' need not be grounded in commercial or business motives. It is about knowing how to elicit information from others, encouraging them to provide it (with appropriate assurances), and knowing how to work with that information so that it becomes an instrument for meeting what the other party believes to be their needs or interests. These may be in terms of goods, services, or more interpersonal concerns. To a large extent there is nothing particularly new involved here. It is similar to the kind of thing talk back radio hosts, psychoanalysts, therapists, market researchers, and diverse kinds of consultants have had to learn to do in the past using different media. What is new is largely the use of new information technologies to obtain, interpret, share, and act on information of a private nature, knowing how to build and honor trust in online settings, knowing how to divulge and interpret information obtained electronically in appropriate ways, and so on. So far as formal education is concerned, of course, this is an entirely new literacy because it projects into modes and domains of life with which schools have not typically been concerned-even in subject areas like business and commercial practice. Interestingly, various 'meta' approaches to language and literacy education, such as 'genre theory,' have access to theories and concepts of direct relevance to developing such a new literacy. Conventional curriculum and syllabus foci, however, have rarely encouraged serious movement into the kinds of 'reading' and 'writing' implicit in attention transacting. Many of these will have to be invented 'on the fly' and by trial and error-as with so much that is important to know in any period of transition.

 'Culture jamming'

Culture jamming refers to counter-cultural practices which critique, spoof, and otherwise confront elements of mainstream or dominant culture. It relies on making incisive or telling 'strikes' which manage to turn elements of mainstream culture against themselves in a manner reminiscent of Michel de Certeau's (1984) notion of 'tactics.' The logic of culture jamming tactics is of gaining maximum attention with minimum resources or inputs.

A good example of culture jamming is provided by Adbusters (see Adbusters Culture Jamming Headquarters at <>). A sequence of highly polished web pages comprising slick and clean designs present information about Adbusters and its purposes. They describe an array of culture jamming campaigns, subject worthy media events and advertising, cultural practices, and overbloated corporate globalisation to knife-sharp critiques in the form of parodies or exposs of corporate wheelings and dealings, and undertake online information tours that focus on social issues (see also Rushkoff 1996). The following graphic, which depicts the true colors of 'Benetton', is a typical example of culture jamming as literacy. It shows how the act of 'tweaking' readily available resources available as images and texts can produce direct and bitingly honest social commentaries. These are commentaries that everyone everywhere is able to read-a form of global literacy which has the potential to catch the attention of almost any population, whether or not they share the text's inherent values.

In terms of attention, culture jamming organisations such as Adbusters turn media attention-grabbing tactics on their head to critique the mechanisms by which people 'buy into' consuming items or ideas.

 'Transferring' (or 'trickle across')

The principle of transferring is apparent each time one uses a search engine to locate information on a well-recognized expert or authority and turns up a student assignment, or reads a journal article that takes the form of an interview with a well known person conducted (and published) by a much less (or un)known person, or when one happens upon web pages and zines lovingly assembled by fans. Transferring is based on the principle that 'you have to be in to win.' If one has something to say or offer that might otherwise remain unrecognized and unknown, one has nothing to lose by hitching it to or bundling it up with a personality or theme that enjoys a good deal of attention. This literacy may involve nothing more than inserting references or hyperlinks into a text published on the world wide web. At a more complex level, it may involve negotiating an interview, conducting, editing, and 'thematising' the interview, and then getting it placed for publication.

 'Framing and 'encapsulating': Beyond keywords

Lanham makes an important and interesting point in his comment on the 'hot search for software intelligence agents that will create "gateways" of one sort or another without further human intervention' (loc. cit). This endeavour has developed in conjunction with attempts to define 'information literacy' and identify the kinds of skills-e.g., locating maximally efficient keywords-integral to being informationally literate. The other side to this literacy, which relates more directly to attention, was evident in the discourse of 'tricks' to use when registering your web site to ensure it comes near the top of the list of returned keyword searches-or, at any rate, finds a place as often as possible within the kinds of searches people are likely to do about the things one has to offer.

This is useful so far as it goes. But Lanham is pitching for higher and richer stakes in his focus on attention structures: in short, ways of framing information that hook us into organizing our interests within an area in this way rather than that; or in ways of encapsulating information that stand out because they are especially attractive or interesting. This involves the kind of analytical and theoretical work that puts someone sufficiently 'on top of' a subject or area to allow them to find 'angles' that attract and compel. Notions like 'a brief history of time,' or of 'Pythagoras' trousers', of 'a language instinct' or of 'things biting back' are reasonably familiar (if high end) examples.

The point here is that reading and writing the world (of information) is very different from the kind of approach evident in key words and the like. The same kind of difference is evident in titles for works: some (like the examples listed above) are frames and (en)capsules; others are more like keywords (accurate, functional, but short on inspiration). The best, of course, are both. Their production encapsulates the kind of literacy we have in mind here.

 A challenge for schools

There are many other new literacies we have neither time nor space to think about and sketch here. For example, literacies that go with 'smarts' in design, that get the mix right within 'multimediated' productions, and so on. Hopefully, the examples sketched here will be sufficient to indicate and illustrate the nature and extent of the challenge facing formal education if we believe schools ought to be paying more attention to attention. It is worth noting that all the 'new' literacies identified here are 'higher order' and/or 'meta literacies.' Some are good for creating opportunities to gain attention, others for facilitating and structuring attention, and others for getting and maintaining attention. Some are good for a combination of these. Few are closely related to most of what passes for literacy in schools today.

Indeed, prior to even addressing the more specific issues of literacy in relation to preparing students for effective participation in an attention economy it is important to note that attention is currently constituted mainly as a problem for schools. On one hand, 'attention seeking' is closely associated-often cited as a cause-with behavioural problems. On the other hand, learning difficulties are often attributed to 'short attention spans' or 'attention deficiency syndrome'. Thus, schools are simultaneously caught between trying to reduce and increase attention.

Interestingly, the postmodern world of the Web, channel surfing, and 'playing the future' (Rushkoff 1996) and the postmaterialist world of the attention economy openly embrace tendencies that currently constitute problems for schools. Perhaps it is time for us in formal education to rethink the issue of attention, and quite possibly the interface between digital technologies and new literacies provides a good place to start.

For many of us this will almost certainly involve a challenge to existing mindsets. Cathie Walker, self-styled Queen of the Internet, creator of the Centre for the Easily Amused and co-founder of, offers an early warning of what that challenge might involve. In 'Short attention spans on the web' (reprinted at <>), she confesses to having once read in a magazine that if you don't grab the average web surfer's attention within 10 seconds they'll be out of your site. She immediately qualifies that claim by admitting that she doesn't remember whether the exact figure was 10 seconds because her attention-span 'isn't that great either' (ibid).

If we can 'hack' that kind of entree, and accept her celebration of the short attention span as a basic assumption for effective web site design, the five short paragraphs that follow in Walker's statement provide an engaging perspective on literacy in relation to attention. It is a perspective that may well offer more to adolescent and young adult students than much that is to be found in our most venerated and most-cited tomes. If nothing else it would provide a class with serious grist for problematising 'attention' and evaluating literacies that pitch for attention. Our own web site observes none of her recommendations, but it doubtless receives almost infinitely fewer visitors as well.

At the opposite extreme, we note that almost everything the sources we have cited on the economics of the attention economy point to the importance of having a good grasp of theory and analysis. This is not necessarily an explicit grasp of highbrow theory and analysis. The ideas surveyed owe as much to the tradition of Geek philosophers as to the tradition of Greek philosophers. They uniformly assume that an emphasis on content and lower order skills is not enough. The kinds of competencies associated with successfully engaging the economics of attention are those that come with the capacity to research aspects of the world as opposed to merely looking at them or receiving them as content.

Once again, this does not imply a highbrow or academic approach to research, although these will be advantageous if other things are in place-such as an interest in 'angles', an interest in originality, willingness to take risks, and so on. Rather, the generic sense of 'research' that we have in mind is inherent in the very kinds of new literacies we have begun to identify here, and which we think it is now time for us to explore, develop, and encourage as the core of the high school literacy curriculum. While imaginative and expansive use of new digital technologies is not a necessary facet of such literacies (c.f., scenariating, transferring, meme-ing, framing, encapsulating), they certainly enhance and enrich their scope and possibilities.

If we continue to believe that formal education has something to do with helping prepare (young) people for the world they will enter, it will be worth exploring further conceptions and implications of the economics of attention, and relating them to our conceptions and practices of literacy education within formal settings.


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To be published in:

Alvermann, D. (Ed.). New Literacies and Digital Technologies: A Focus on Adolescent Learners. New York: Peter Lang.