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digital rhetoric

Richard Lanham's Economy of Attention

I’ve started on my summer reading with Lanham’s text. I don’t know if I’ll post chapter by chapter, but here I am after chapter one…

Lanham is not the first to discuss the concept of the attention economy, but I’ll describe that concept briefly here. Basically, the field of economics as it is normally practiced deals with material goods and is founded on a notion of scarcity (i.e. supply and demand). Though we say we live in an "information" economy, and information is highly valued, one can hardly say it is in short supply; to the contrary, there is a deluge of information. What is scarce, as Lanham and others point out, is the ability to attend to that information. Though Lanham points out several times he is NOT an economist, nor pretending to be one, he insists that traditional economics may not be the sole or best approach to understanding the attention economy.

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?

I see this approach as significant for professional writing, if not for the broader discipline. It connects with things I’ve written here before in relation to Daniel Pink’s perspective on the "Conceptual Age." Rhetoric becomes the method for understanding how information/media is experienced and how information might be designed to reach rhetorical purposes. In turn, this becomes a fundamental skill of the new economy: the engineering of a new economy.

However, as Lanham discusses here, this presents significant educational challenges:

The arts and letters have not yet outgrown the antipathy to industrial enterprise, the world of stuff, left over from their nineteenth-century delusions of a static, rural, earthly paradise. The world of affairs is still pretty much the enemy. But the arts and letters, in an attention economy, constitutes the world of affairs. For those of us who teach in the humanities, that enemy is now us.

Of course, this last bit is all too familiar to rhetoricians. We are all too often the enemy within. Whatever. Here is a significant difference between at least some rhetoricians and the rest of the humanities. Despite a stereotypical disinterest in science, the humanities strive for their own brand of scientific certainty and truth, a top-down approach as Lanham discusses it. The conventional humanists cloister themselves and seek to establish an authoritiative claim to some Truth over some territory. From Lanham perspective, those in cultural studies are equally guilty of this, for while they can identify the ideological underpinnings of others’ discourses, they often fail to see the same in their own.

In any case, rhetoric comes from another direction, bottom-up. It is less about ascertaining the truth than it is about making things that work. Where many humanists seek the cloister, rhetoric functions in the marketplace. So here is where we always seem to find ourselves in professional writing: thinking about writing and discourse in the marketplace, while many of our colleagues deride the entire notion of the "free market," prefering instead the socialism of a planned, top-down economy.

From my perspective, I have plenty of complaints about American capitalism. At the same time I recognize that changes to our culture will be eeked out through rhetorical and material victories in the marketplace. So whether you seek personal profit or social change, you will first need the attention of your audience, and then you will need to do something with it.

I’m hoping Lanham will provide some insight into how this works.

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One reply on “Richard Lanham's Economy of Attention”

I’ll be interested to hear what you think as you make your way through it. I’ve seen at least a couple of the chapters in other forms, but I won’t have a chance to read it for a couple of months, most likely.
I also remember the couple of pages in Electronic Word where he made his first reference to attention economies, and I was excited to see him expanding on it. I’ll be curious to see how much of the recent interest in AE (or Reputation Economics) he picks up on…
cgb

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