Taste as attention technology

I came across this recent review article in the Journal of Bioeconomicstalking about Richard Lanham’s not so recent book, “The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information.” While I find the subject old and tired, and generally regard it as a phrase du jour of the new media enthusiasts, I was drawn to this article because of the “attentiontechnology” combo. Technology? Well, that’s one interesting idea.

Basically, the point that the author makes is that style can be regarded as technology for directing — attracting and allocating — human attention. (In a similar vein, brands can be regarded as technology for allocating attention). Then I wonder, this has to be a system design question. But then, what are we really designing here?

What’s the point of style? In the information age, the argument goes, it’s style, not “stuff” that becomes the greatest contributor to economic value. And then, “a mundane economic explanation for this shift from stuff to fluff is the rise of wealth, which induces income effects. For a family living at subsistence, “stuff” like food, clothing, clean water, and shelter, is vital. Wealth makes room for style; we expect style to be a strongly superior good.” (Funny, this reminds me of the “relationships not objects” ideas,part 1 and 2 … and also the fact that it seems that most brands online still operate in the condition of utmost poverty (amid waste) — if we follow the logic above — by focusing on creating stuff, not style.)

Then, there’s the addictive power of style, and the tendency (reflected in the assumptions of some economic models of addition) for the “investment of time and effort in critical appreciation to be rewarded with greater pleasure in the future.” And, finally, there’s the question of the spread of styles in society, and more generally how ideas capture public attention (is there anyone today who does not ask this question??). This author calls the process “cultural evolution”, similar to Dawkins’ memes (that evolve via modification, selection, and replication). Individual decisions and social interactions “set the conditions for the evolution of cultural traits, and cultural innovations — good “style” among them — and those which are good at grabbing favorable attention grow in popularity.”

Okay, all of this is not particularly new. What I am more interested in is, if style can indeed be regarded as technology, and if technology is “society made durable” as sociologist Bruno Latour claims, then it implies to something way more stable than evolution of cultural memes. And something much more “networked” and distributed and co-evolving. Which may indeed be an approach to attention more interesting than the economic one. (In economic view, attention is a raw and limited resource.Here, attention is a system, a network, a connective tissue; and as such it’s a matter of design). Style is not a property of objects; it’s indeed a technology. Perhaps.

Originally published on October 4, 2009