Last 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