Do You Want My Attention? Then Make Something New.
Everything your company does, it does for the scarce resource of attention.
All work is transformation
If you use effort to achieve an objective, you’re changing an existing state into a desired future state. This transformation involves a scarce resource.
Farms harness light, labor, liquid and living things to create food.
Manufacturers transform and package raw materials into products.
Lawyers and accountants transform education into expertise.
Media companies sell the attention they have aggregated.
Value, in other words, is a function of scarcity.
One of the tensions of capitalism is that it requires scarce resources, but also endless growth — because systems that pay interest on capital require growth to pay it back. (Otherwise where would the interest payments come from?)
This incentivizes colonization. Cultures grow beyond the capacity of existing local resources to sustain them, so they go exploring for new resources and customers, or they invent new techniques.
This current wave of capitalism has been built on mining human attention at unprecedented scale.
Media companies have always sold attention but this was limited by the amount of time spent consuming media, and by interest, and by language as well.
The emergence of ad networks and social platforms created a new kind of attention mining company that could operate globally without producing content—simply by being an aggregator or facilitator.
By leveraging this fact of attention, Google and Facebook have become two of the biggest companies in the world.
Human attention is so valuable that the companies building self driving cars and virtual realities are fueled by it it. They give you all those wonderful web services for “free” in exchange for your eyeballs and your mind.
A few years back there was a lot of talk about peak oil:
the hypothetical point in time when the global production of oil reaches its maximum rate, after which production will decline.
Mathematically speaking, this “peak” moment must come when dealing with any scarce resource: when the most amount of supply has been tapped, and there is less supply remaining, then that resource is considered scarce. It also becomes harder to mine. In the case of oil, all the easy to access oil has been tapped first. Thus, the mining becomes more expensive.
With oil, concerns about its “peak” led to technique innovations. Deep sea mining, fracking, etc. These techniques come with ecological concerns, but they also led to a glut in the oil market. Oil was no longer as “scarce” as it had been.
Now, human attention is peaking.
Media consumption has been growing for years, as new channels and technologies crept into previously unoccupied attention niches. Thanks to smartphones, we can now Tweet from the toilet, Snap from the sauna, and email from everywhere.
But attention is a function of being an awake consciousness—and there are only so many hours in the day.
This is why growth in total time spent consuming media is peaking. According to eMarketer, “by 2018, growth in total time spent is expected to be a negligible 0.1%”. We can consider that a proxy for “peak attention”.
At over 12 hours a day, I’d say that’s pretty peak—at least until we are actually plugged into the matrix.
Attention is a zero sum game.
Attention isn’t going to run out. But the easy-to-mine pockets have all been tapped. Any quantum of content that wants attention must now take that attention from somewhere else.
The attention rush is over.
The players have emerged, defending their mines and mining techniques. New companies entering the market will find it increasingly harder to monetize the same scarcity. You want me to pay attention to you? Then you have to be better, or quicker, or more germane to my interests than the other guy.
So, in the future, we will need to find new untapped resources.
The misleadingly named “sharing economy” found an untapped resource — they took underutilized existing capital and made it available for rent. Whether renting out cars that spend most of the time parked [Turo, Getaround], rooms in your house [AirBNB], or your time and driving license [Uber/Lyft], these companies found a scarce resource that wasn’t being monetized. They made us give them their attention by creating value.
What contenders are there for the next untapped resource?
Doc Searls has long been pushing “intention”, where customer intention signals are used to create connections and manage supply. Google has already started to do this: they sell access to the “database of intentions” that searches on their service suggest.
And, in a more traditional colonial endeavor, Elon Musk just announced plans to get humans on Mars by 2022.
That’s not only a whole new planet of resources—that’s a whole new, burgeoning planet of attention.