Reconciling Attention Scarcity with Cognitive Surplus

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Cognitive SurplusLast week I wrote about attention scarcity, arguing that institutions and particularly brand will face an uphill battle in the attention market.  I realized after the fact that I never defined a specific notion of attention scarcity, and that oversight was particularly glaring in light of the fact that other popular buzzwords seem to directly contradict the notion of attention scarcity.  The most obvious of these is Cognitive Surplus.  Attention scarcity would seem to posit that people generally have a shortage of attention, yet cognitive surplus suggests there exists a vast reservoir of attention waiting to be redirected towards crowdsourcing platforms and other user generated content.  If we are all short of attention where is this vast reservoir?

Defining Cognitive Surplus

Since Clay Shirky first coined this term, it has often been used as if it refers to some uniform resource just waiting to be tapped.  But people are not just sitting around doing nothing and waiting for the next internet sensation to absorb their free cycles.  People are out living their lives and applying those ‘free cycles’ to the best uses they can find.  In other words, there are no free cycles.

Cognitive surplus is about options.  Its existence is demonstrated when people become willing to swap low value activities for higher value activities.  However, those low value activities are not in fact ‘low value’ until something of higher value appears.  Therefore, cognitive surplus can only be recognized relative to some prior reference point.  In hindsight it seems like all the hours spent watching TV were wasteful, but prior to the innovations Clay discusses, TV was deemed the least wasteful activity by those people who chose to attend to it.

Likewise, years in the future when we look back at our current attention allocation we will be appalled at the wastefulness of all this blogging and Twittering, and Facebooking.  This activity will eventually be the cognitive surplus seized by future innovations.

Defining Attention Scarcity

At the superficial level, ‘attention scarcity’ would seem to imply a simple shortage of available attention.  As with any form of scarcity this is not really the  case…attention scarcity is an allocative problem.  Allocative problems demand choices between options.  When oil becomes scarce the price will increase and people might choose to carpool or take public transit rather than driving everywhere solo.  Likewise, when the opportunity cost of attention goes up people must make choices.

The impacts of those choices are primarily felt in two ways:

  • The individuals forced to make choices search for efficiency in an effort to avoid making painful cuts
  • The parties that are cut immediately feel the pain, social and economic, that comes from becoming irrelevant

I addressed the first point in the last post, which described how tools and platforms with some of the characteristics of a currency can help individuals find efficiency in the peer-to-peer context.  The second point is cast in a new light by the discussion of cognitive surplus above…

Keep in mind that cognitive surplus does not exist a priori, but instead is created by higher value innovations that deprecate incumbent attention consumers.  Attention scarcity is the flip side of that same coin. Attention scarcity exists only when new high value attention sinks appear and convert incumbent attention sinks into cognitive surplus.  Television advertisers do not struggle with attention scarcity until web based platforms steal their audience with higher value offerings.

The challenge for incumbents struggling with attention scarcity is to create more value.  This challenge may prove impossible for many.

Human Beings Intrinsically Search for Purpose & Meaning

I made this claim in a post several weeks ago.  If you accept that this is even partially true, then one of the questions you must implicitly ask as you struggle to allocate attention is:

How relevant is X to my search for purpose and meaning?

For many of the incumbents attempting to regain our attention, the answer has to be “completely irrelevant“.

A friend asked me the other day if I thought marketing messages affected me, even on a subconscious level.  After mulling it over for a while I could confidently say that the vast majority of marketing messages never have even the slightest impact on my decisions.  I say this, not because I am some uber-rational consumer, but because I simply don’t consider options for the vast majority of purchases.  The brand of soap I use or the brand of beverage I drink is not the slightest bit relevant my life’s narrative.  If I need soap I buy the store brand, or whatever is on sale, or whatever is cheapest…it really doesn’t matter.  If your message is related to toothpaste, no amount of clever marketing could help it even register.

In order for that message to register it must cross some potential value threshold…it must offer some potential relevance to my search for purpose and meaning.  That threshold becomes more difficult to cross every time my options are meaningfully increased.


Ok, so it is easy to pick on toothpaste advertisements…let’s see if we can apply the principle more broadly.  One of the primary arguments for traditional education is that it creates a more discerning citizenry.  This perspective was in evidence in a recent TechCrunch post attacking Peter Thiel’s claim that higher education is a bubble.  Tom Katsouleas, the of Duke’s engineering school, is quoted as saying:

Of course, the other reason one should not take Peter Thiel’s advice is that the value of education is intrinsic and an end in itself rather than something to be measured by its career financial return.  It is during one’s undergraduate years that one discovers oneself, where one fits into the world and what it means to be human.

Dean Katsouleas would seem to agree with me that human beings intrinsically strive to find purpose and meaning.  He then implies that higher education is the only (or best?) mode of achieving this self discovery.  I have trouble seeing how that claim could be justified.  In a world of increasing options, how could it be that the best way to “discover oneself” is to follow a standardized curriculum prescribed for thousands of students?

It is worth noting that many large universities do not demand student attention at all; they only demand that students pass the tests.  Are such policies an admission that the value provided by higher education is the credential and not the enlightenment provided in the classroom?

When Peter Thiel claims that higher education is a bubble, he is claiming that students are not getting the same value out that they pay in.  That is a recipe for becoming the reservoir of cognitive surplus that is sucked dry by the next educational innovation.


  • Cognitive surplus is created when higher value attention demands are introduced
  • Incumbent, lower value attention demanders face attention scarcity
  • As innovators offer higher levels of value that increasingly  help users find meaning and purpose, some incumbents will be forced out of audience consciousness entirely

photo courtesy of fireflythegreat

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  • Danny Iny

    Hey Greg, I feel like it’s been a while. :)

    Very thought-provoking, and I agree with you that there is definitely a bubble going on in higher education.

    Thanks for turning me on to Clay Shirky’s TED talk!

    • GregoryJRader

      Hey Danny, thanks for reading. I am somewhat amazed that anyone doubts there is a bubble in higher education. The Dean of Duke’s Engineering school who I quoted sounds an awful lot like the newspaper executives who insist that their role in society is unassailable.

      Clay Shirky has several TED talks and they are all among my favorites.

  • Alex Saul Goldman

    Excellent post- great comparison of cognitive surplus vs. attention scarcity. I think it is important to note additionally that attention scarcity usually refers specifically to the consumption of media, while cognitive surplus generally implies production. The quintessential decision is whether people choose to produce or consume.

    As you noted, people search for value and meaning. If people prefer to ‘produce’ media rather than consume it, it would seem that production is a more satisfying act than consumption, and that we would expect people to prefer, in general, acts of production rather than consumption.

    Of course, many acts are both production and consumption, like tweeting or being active on Facebook. I agree that in the future we’ll not think of these things as ‘productive’. On the other hand, the value/meaning prerogative would seem to be countered by the desire for quick and easy entertainment; productive actions require thinking and forethought, while tweeting and posting on Facebook are instant gratification. I can’t imagine the vast majority of Americans forsaking easy gratification for more ‘meaningful’ forms of cognitive surplus.

    At least not anytime soon.

    • GregoryJRader

      Lot’s of things to respond to in this comment. Clearly the old distinctions between production and consumption are blurring, and I think that is as it should be. A search for purpose and meaning necessarily involves both consumption and production, both passive learning and active valuing. We naturally do this on a daily basis with small decisions and on longer time frames with larger decisions, passively consuming information but then actively evaluating it.

      This is one of the primary ways in which traditional education fails. Nearly everyone I know will concede that their college education had very little relevance to their eventual work. Traditional education, unfortunately, emphasizes passive consumption to the nearly complete exclusion of active evaluating and practical use of the information consumed.

      Your last point speaks to another blurring distinction, that between entertainment and “work” (for lack of a better term). I definitely think there are benefits to be gained from shifting entertainment towards higher value activities (twitter > TV), though we should be careful not to confuse high value entertainment with active production (as @dannyiny:disqus pointed out in a previous comment

      You propose an interesting question then with regard to Cognitive Surplus. Does the surplus primarily come from encouraging more active creation or from redirecting entertainment towards these higher value activities?

  • Stefan King

    I like how this kind of surplus and scarcity underscores that attention is a currency. Wants and needs are solved with money, and purpose and meaning is solved with attention. That shows why it’s so difficult to make money online without feeling like a douche-bag. The most honest and non-iffy way is to to make something that solves a material want or need with attention, exchanging intellectual- or experiential capital for money. A fine line to walk, with becoming a guru on the left, and becoming a fraud on the the right.

    • GregoryJRader

      Wow, interesting way of putting it. I definitely agree that the safest path is exchanging “monetizable” information for money. This is why “How to start your business” and “How to earn passive income” sell so easily. Converting other types of value into money proves much more tenuous and generally involves some form of indirect monetization (entertainment monetized through advertising, thought leadership monetized through speaking engagements and books, etc). I began to address this in a post a couple weeks ago but there is much more that could be said (

      It is worth noting that moving in the other direction, for example buying influence with money, makes you look equally like a douche bag. There may be a general principle here, that the further removed are two forms of value on opposite sides of an exchange, the more “improper” the exchange will appear.

  • Openworld

    An original, brilliant and (almost) beautifully-conceived post. I agree all of the points in it except for this –

    >>how could it be that the best way to “
    discover oneself
    ” is to follow a standardized curriculum prescribed for thousands of students

    The aim of a core curriculum – a distribution requirement in courses – is to introduce (purpose-searching) individuals at a formative time to the highlights of what others across a range of domains have found worthwhile.

    With such encounters, a learner may more readily find paths that resonate with her or his sense of personal destiny. The experience of such a classically liberal education may also help individuals to adapt and change course during their life without becoming overly “silo-ed,” to find and appreciate patterns across domains, and more easily to communicate with other explorers who engage in differing quests.

    I’m inclined to believe that such a balanced, “whole person” foundation also can emerge in new, post-bubble systems of learning. It’s likely to happen more quickly if the value of a standard curriculum – or tests that confirm understanding of what comprises a liberal education – are appreciated by those working on disruptive alternatives to higher education.



    @openworld @peerlearning

    • GregoryJRader

      Mark, I absolutely agree with you regarding the value of a liberal education. My point is that such an education should be *more* liberal and more liberally directed by the individual.

      A predefined liberal curriculum makes a lot of sense in environments like those of the 18th and 19th century that created this model. In those environments information was much more difficult to come by for the individual and the existing stock of knowledge was legible enough that a predefined curriculum could provide a reasonably comprehensive survey.

      Today neither of those conditions is true. Information is easily available to the individual and the existing stock of knowledge is far too great for any survey to be even remotely comprehensive. In this environment any predefined curriculum necessarily reflects the biases of the party creating the curriculum because so many topics must necessarily be left out.

      I am simply arguing against leaving the decision about what gets left out to a bureaucrat in an ivory tower. Let the student decide what gets included and what gets left out. I think the argument that this would lead to gross specialization is a red herring. Left to their own initiative, students do seek out liberal education, but they do it on their own terms and their own timeframe. Such a self directed education is much less legible to the bean counters but much more valuable to the motivated student who perhaps then actually retains something.

      • Openworld

        I can see individual “core curricula” emerging and evolving in peer learning networks.

        It could be started quite easily.  Admired bloggers and tribe members might begin by including pointers, in their blogs or social network user profiles, to a small number ( 5-10?) resources that have most inspired or otherwise shaped their thinking.

        Creators of such lists might also note any intriguing (to them) open questions relating to each of the resources.

        Identifying such core materials and issues might prompt others to engage with them as well, leading to co-evolution of  core material lists and areas of inquiry.

        As personal currencies – convertible to attention – emerge in parallel, creators of such resource lists might endow anyone making a first contact with a gift of their (attention preference) currency, based on the core overlaps.

        As far as I can see, this approach would encourage individuals on the edges of many tribes to engage more frequently on a deep rather than ephemeral level, and help to spread mutually-enriching insights.

        What do you think?



        • GregoryJRader

          There is definitely a market for a tool that does what you describe somewhat automatically.  For example, I would love a tool that crawled all the posts here and put together a list of which resources I link to most often.  Obviously that would only capture a small piece of what you are describing but it would be an easy win to start with.  The harder part would be recognizing all the foundational stuff that doesn’t often get cited explicitly, but once you had a bare bones profile going it would easier to add things on the fly as you were reminded of them in discussion.

          I like this idea a lot as an alternative to the blogroll.  I am tempted to post a blogroll at times but without defining a clear purpose and standard it degenerates into a popularity contest and the value to the reader is less apparent.      

        • Michael Josefowicz

          My thought is that it might be helpful in this context to consider the “prepared mind”.  I think it’s fair to say that the mindset is close to those of  successful venture capitalists. They are able to see opportunities where others see threats.

          Goes to the question of a “liberal arts” curriculum chosen by the student or by an outside body. Perhaps a helpful way to frame it is as free choice within constraints.   What I think I’ve seen is that the lack of familiarity with the 6000 year history of intellectual thought hinders the ability to see opportunities. Without a pretty good sense of history, it’s very hard to apply the patterns of the past to the complexities of the future.

          My strong hunch is that end game of common core, in whatever forms it emerges, is to disintermediate the power of traditional educational enterprise. The learning, the constraints, the assessment are moving to student centered as opposed to institution centered.

          To that point i found an interesting piece today on some under appreciated policy decisions put into play by the Obama administration. The full post is

          two paragraphs i think are the crux of the matter:

          The concept is simple: Community colleges that compete for federal money
          to serve students online will be obliged to make those
          materials—videos, text, assessments, curricula, diagnostic tools, and
          more—available to everyone in the world, free, under a Creative Commons
          license. The materials will become, to use the common term, open
          educational resources, or OER’s.

          but the real disruptor is
          That still leaves the problem of credit. Public libraries were the
          original OER, yet people can’t demand a diploma just because they’ve
          learned from a book. But here, too, new developments are under way. The
          latest and most sophisticated open educational resources have tests
          embedded within them because assessment is a fundamental element of
          learning. Feedback-based, assessment-driven “cognitive tutors” developed
          by learning scientists at Carnegie Mellon are woven into science,
          engineering, and philosophy courses produced by the university’s Open
          Learning Initiative.

          My very strong hunch is that Once the credit giving oligopoly is broken, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

          • GregoryJRader

            Michael, I agree that accreditation is the big monopoly that the schools still possess.  It is not only in the degrees themselves but in the brand names of the schools.  There are lots of “diploma mills” these days but they don’t have much impact on the demand for traditional university education because people don’t perceive those degrees the same way.

            That is why we see the disruption appearing first in the areas where your work speaks for itself.  If you can code a web platform that can attract millions of users then you really don’t need accreditation.  Your portfolio of work is sufficient evidence of your capabilities.  In other areas I think you are correct that we will see alternative forms of assessment appear on the scene.

          • Michael Josefowicz

            So glad to see we are the same page. Want to share some of what I’m seeing. The US Congress has already started hearings on the diploma mills and there is now some activity on looking at outcomes in “traditional highered”. My very strong hunch is that the accreditation monopoly and the ensuing highered bubble is about to burst.

            Following the stories published by the New York Times has always been a pretty reliable way of getting a sense of the meme-o-sphere of the Powers that be. I’ve seen an increasing frequency of the “is Higher Ed worth the price” kinds of stories.

            The place to watch is teacher highered. An under appreciated fact is that “teachers” are the largest single category of BA.s As alternate teacher certification gains traction, the whole thing may be reinvented much faster than is presently believed.

            Important to keep the the “financial meltdown” of 2009 in mind. Many predicted it was coming. But still it was a “Who could have predicted? ” situation. My strong hunch is that we are now at the beginnngs of the same kind of meltdown in Higher Ed, and especially teacher colleges.

            A couple of years ago, some folks at National Academy of Science wrote a piece on the Future of Higher Ed. As far as I can see they have the dynamics pretty correct.

            The point I’m trying to get at is that I think you are precisely on the right track. But I think the opportunities to really make a difference sooner rather than later may not be as obvious.

          • GregoryJRader

            “the market for content-free intellectual snobbery had simply collapsed”
            I love it.  The implications with regard to attention scarcity, and for that matter, transparency, are pretty clear.  As we face increasing demands on our attention we will require increasing transparency into the value provided by those attention demands.  

            I noted in my most recent post and a couple previous posts, that around this time last year I was preparing to apply to business school.  What ultimately changed my mind was the finality of the decision.  I would have been taking on a huge amount of debt that only would have paid off if I took a specific route thereafter (I was targeting consulting).  I then would have been stuck on that path for at least 5-10 years in order to repay the loans and that thought scared me to no end.  

            As the NAS report implies, I suspect the reality will shift well before mainstream perceptions shift.  We see this with newspaper publishing today – the model is clearly obsolete and the shift to new business models is a foregone conclusion, but we still hear significant mainstream sentiment about the sanctity of the journalistic profession, etc.  With regard to making a difference…disruption doesn’t happen in a day.  I don’t expect any unique “nail in the coffin” type event…just a series of small disruptions that chip away at the monopoly bit by bit.   

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  • gregorylent

    attention scarcity, cognitive surplus … contemporary buzzwords that have nothing to do with anything apart from academic discussions.

    these concepts have no relationship with the self as consciousness and their existence act as barriers to expansion of awareness.

    which, if done, eliminates them.

    • GregoryJRader

      You won’t get any argument from me.  We each travel our own winding road to enlightenment…some pass through academic discussions of academic buzzwords.

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