READER YUVAL LEVIN emails about my TechCentralStation column from yesterday:
The concept of the scarcity of time is a very helpful way to explain some of the dynamics of the web. I write to suggest a very similar but possibly more precise way to put the matter.
Could it be that the way to frame the problem is not so much around the scarcity of time, but the scarcity of attention? We have always been short on time: the day is too short, the semester is too short, our lives are too short. But in a certain sense what is different about the web, as a medium of communication, is that it offers an enormous array of new voices clamoring for our attention. The trouble with these voices is that so many of them are so damned interesting and have such useful things to say that we feel compelled to listen, and so we must divide our (finite) attention among an ever-growing number of sources of ideas, which makes our attention very scarce (and, incidentally, therefore very valuable.)
This may be more helpful than speaking in terms of time, because individual units of time do not become less useful to us the more they are divided–a minute is still a minute, it’s just a question of whether we spend it doing something valuable or not, and that’s largely up to us. But attention can be “measured” not only in terms of quantity (like time) but also in terms of
intensity, and in both cases it begins to lose its value the more it is divided. If, in order to keep informed, even just on matters relating to my work, I have to check 15 web sites every morning, the amount and (importantly) the level of attention I can pay to each declines, and this makes my ability to benefit from each decline as well. In turn, this also affects our attention span, since we become accustomed to giving only small amounts of attention to each source, if only because there are so many. This is of course very closely related to the scarcity of time, but it might illuminate more of the character of the problem.
In cyberspace, almost everything is fantastically abundant, but human attention is terribly scarce. And in the age of the Internet and constant omnipresent communication in general, human attention is terribly scarce. One very significant result of this is that the value, and therefore the price, of attention goes up dramatically. This has serious consequences–consider for instance the fact that political campaign funds are spent almost entirely on purchasing human attention, through ads and the like. This seems to suggest that rather than bringing down the price of politics, and alleviating the “money problem” (a name I detest, since it isn’t really a problem) in politics, as some people have suggested, the information age is actually likely to make more expensive the commodity which all that money goes to buy, and therefore to make more money necessary.
I think this is right. One of the reasons people used to pay so much attention to politics was that it offered cheap entertainment at a time when entertainment was scarce. Now entertainment is plentiful, and much of it is more entertaining than politics.