Peak Attention is a term often used by Venkatesh Rao on his blog, The Ribbonfarm. In his absolutely seminal, must-read article A Brief History of The Corporation he breaks up the history of commerce into discrete chunks of time and corresponding values. From colonial and imperial reliance on land-grabbing for natural resource, industrial reliance on productivity and capital to the 20th century and today where the commercial focus is on attention.
Sadly, Peak Attention made it into the buzzword lexicon of techpreneurs, marketeers and advertisers making it easy to jump to the conclusion that Peak Attention is symptomatic of the idea that 'we're running out of time' - that up until the Internet we had a good 12 or so hours a day to sit around, twiddle thumbs and wax lyrical at leisure. Really, it all began back in the annals of time (around January 2008) when Matt Webb of BERG (who in fact, possibly coined the term) wrote an oft-quoted post that kicked off the whole idea and began it's more refined development. Rao begins to expand on it succinctly:
Take an average housewife, the target of much time mining early in the 20th century. It was clear where her attention was directed. Laundry, cooking, walking to the well for water, cleaning, were all obvious attention sinks. Washing machines, kitchen appliances, plumbing and vacuum cleaners helped free up a lot of that attention, which was then immediately directed (as corporate-captive attention) to magazines and television.Attention in an economic sense and commercial reliance on it is born of Schumpeterian growth - where innovation breeds new types of capital, thus resulting in growth. Cynically, Schumpterian growth could be outlined with the angsty teen axiom of companies finding ever new exciting things to make and sell that we didn't know we needed. To generalise: faster ways of making clothing cheaper filled a niche during the industrial revolution when people were poor and poorly clothed. But once they were clothed? Then innovation pulled fashion beyond the tailors and boutiques and into the magazines of the new middle class allowing for economic growth beyond the demands by creating new demand.
It is fairly obvious that Schumpeterian growth has been fueled so far by reserves of fossil fuels. It is less obvious that it is also fueled by reserves of collectively-managed attention.
As Rao points out, Schumpterian growth needs our attention on that market bubble which it has created in order to nurture it. In that sense it's quite quantum - if we don't look at it, it doesn't happen. Because our genuine demands (food, clothing, a roof etc.) have been filled, we now have a disposable income (created by Schumpterian growth) to invest in excess consumer demand (kittens, shoes, chocolate and so on) but there's only so much we can buy, so much we can look at, so much we can take an interest in and our exposure to a wider variety of these things and the ability of producers to access us is now almost fully saturated.
How Rao and Webb propose or envision dealing with this problem is where the real difference emerges. Webb looks to the technology and the businesses behind it, taking a very Nicholas Carr-like line that we need to be more conscious decision makers, both on a producer and consumer level in self-editing:
What are the consequences of living post-Peak Attention? Nobody will be able to understand anything hard unless they make sacrifices.
But this solution still works within our current economic model, it ensures the continuation of the bubble and bust economy and a certain amount of triviality in our transactions. Rao's suggestion is much more radical. He proposes that peak attention means the end of Schumpterian growth, as evidenced by the rapidly advancing 'creative destruction' of capitalism - a zero-sum theory borrowed from Marxism stating that crashes and bubbles are required to create new wealth i.e. Polaroid camera's being 'destroyed' by digital cameras - both exist within the same market. He posits that a new metric is required to measure and sustain growth. Instead of trying to cope with dwindling attention and it's deferential effects on our economy, we change the way we measure activity entirely and make it more suitable to the way we interact now and in the future.
The point isn’t that we are running out of attention. We are running out of the equivalent of oil: high-energy-concentration pockets of easily mined fuel.
The result is a spectacular kind of bubble-and-bust.
Each new pocket of attention is harder to find: maybe your product needs to steal attention from that one TV obscure show watched by just 3% of the population between 11:30 and 12:30 AM. The next displacement will fragment the attention even more. When found, each new pocket is less valuable. There is a lot more money to be made in replacing hand-washing time with washing-machine plus magazine time, than there is to be found in replacing one hour of TV with a different hour of TV.
What’s more, due to the increasingly frantic zero-sum competition over attention, each new “well” of attention runs out sooner. We know this idea as shorter product lifespans.
So one effect of Peak Attention is that every human mind has been mined to capacity using attention-oil drilling technologies.
widely proposed solution is 'clout.' Essentially, the more influence one has in directing the attention of consumers makes them more valuable actors in an economic sense....the oil rig of human attention, will start to decline at an accelerating rate. Lifestyle businesses and other oddball contraptions — the solar panels and wind farms of attention economics — will start to take over.
It will be the dawn of the age of Coasean growth.
Attention span is set to be the limiting factor on growth above capital - the time in which we have to utilise our utilities is become more of a limiting factor than the usefulness of our utilities. In this sense, money - currency, as a measure of growth and power become irrelevant.