On attention, myware, and the precience of Headmap

I remain skeptical of whether we’re truly entering some sort of post-capitalist “attention economy.” But I’m a techie, not an economist, so I’ll leave that discussion to people better suited for it for the time being.

Regardless, attention is the new technological frontier. Reading through notes from ETech 2006, as well as other recent blogosphere activity re: glocalization, everyware, myware, etc. I was left with a feeling I’d heard rather a lot of it before. It’s pretty impressive how far ahead of their time Headmap were in when they published their manifesto in 1999. I’ve only read the Headmap Redux, available here. It had some early ideas about the stuff that’s shaping our current reality.

Here’s one particularly relevant bit:

As far as I can tell I’m a pattern following animal. There are whole years of my life that I cannot clearly remember. Sometimes in an effort to recover those years, and in the absence of a journal or diary to remind me, I grab a pile of bank statement from that year and study them to see roughly where I was and what I was doing. Usually mind numbing patterns emerge. Same Safeway, same day, every two weeks, roughly the same amount spent. Same ATM every friday night roughly the same amount. Every two weeks a meal at one of a small number of revisited restaurants. Every month rent cheque, haircut, some aberrant item like clothing or travel. If I continue long enough the pattern breaks up temporarily as I move to another city and then quickly settles down again. If I had my grocery receipts I’d find roughly the same food items recurring for months at a time. If I could trace my movements I’d find myself taking similar routes over and over again to get to the same set of destinations.

Show people their patterns in a way that might be directly useful and interesting to them, even suggest changes in behaviour and be able to measure and show direct changes in mood resulting.

Sounds a lot like what Attention Trust is up to.

They also warned us, in this blog post, of a potential dark side I’ve not yet seen discussed elsewhere:

on the darker side quantifying attention leads to being paid in attention units rather than hours, and more pay for longer periods of continuous attention ..and variable rates depending on where your attention is focused at any given moment

[call centres pretty much there already]

(Update: I remembered that this idea is also present in Snow Crash, the character who works for the federal government has her attention tracked constantly)


  1. Capitalism is management of scarce resources by allowing public pressures to determine where those resources are allocated, isn’t it? If so, “attention” becomes just another resource that is being allocated based on the rules of supply and demand, not something that supercedes or progresses away from the current economics.

    That said… with reference to everyware:

    “Be deniable; allow for the opt out of the program at any time.”

    How do you escape from this world of constant computing without removing yourself from your society? You can’t. You have to find a new society, or go off on your own.

    But in a world where people are everywhere, and they carry their technology with them, you can’t escape. There is no opting out when signals saturate the entire planet. You’re in, and you’re in until you’re dead.

    No wonder libertarians pray for the apocalypse.

  2. Capitalism is private ownership of capital/means of production, theoretically controlled by market forces. What they keep harping about in terms of an attention economy is that the “capital” is attention, and no one owns your attention but you. But I hardly think you can base an “economy” around that. But again, what do I know?

    re: opting out: could depend on how it all works… It would be easy enough to make it so that people can’t opt out without dropping out of society, and that’s precicely what Adam is advocating against, I think. It seems like it would be harder to implement an opt-out system, but doable. For example, if we are to assume it’s some sort of ambient advertising like in the Minority Report movie, it could work by doing an identity scan of some sort and not advertising to you if you’ve opted out.

    One of Adam’s ideas:

    “I’ve been saying for about three years now that the first real business opportunity of the full-fledged everyware age is gonna be zones of amnesty — cafes where you can explicitly go to be offline and inaccessible. Maybe I’ll start a chain called Faraday’s Cage, or something. (It seems that a few coffeehouses and the like are actually starting to institute similar measures, at least during peak hours.)”

    One story circulating around the blogosphere lately is something about a paint with nano-shite that blocks cell phone signals.

  3. And that is, I think, a fairly extreme example I cite above. A less technologically advanced and pervasive system, would require people to carry some sort of device or chip that would identify and connect them to the ambient services. It would be a relatively easy fix to turn these sorts of services off, or just not carry the device or chip or whatever. Where it could become a social hinderance is if these identifiers were required for making purchases, etc.

    Of course, I’ll probably have a better idea once I actually read Everyware… which has still not shown up at Powell’s.

  4. Your blog ate my comment. To short up ::

    Re: define capitalism. Mine details what it does, yours details what it is.

    Attention is “owned” by person; person is private individual. Do not compute: post-capitalist.

    We live in a social system it is impossible to opt out of without vast personal resources available. Most do not have such resources, and never will. Prediction: Temporary opt-outs are unsatisfactory, but children won’t know any different, and opposition will die out.

    Conclusion: “Que sera sera, and so it goes.”

  5. I agree with you that attention is just another resource to be managed in the economy, rather than a new economy. Seems attention is becoming more important, but I see no fundamental economic shift.

    As for definitions, I don’t quite get your point. Defining things by what they do, rather than what sets them apart from other things, makes little sense to me. Other economic systems purport to manage scarce resources by allowing public pressures to determine where those resources are allocated” (ie, communism). But that’s neither here nor there, is it?

  6. “We live in a social system it is impossible to opt out of without vast personal resources available.”

    That’s the point. Adam wants everware to be designed so that people can opt out of it without having to opt out of society.

  7. With regard to definitions, I was conceding the point (in the least clear way possible to save face). I described what it does, and that doesn’t make any sense, yes.

    To the issue at hand!

    You can’t design “everyware” so that people can opt out of it while still allowing full engagement with society, largely because it is almost entirely social factors that push people into opting in, not technological limitations.

    Which is to say… Tried to send any telegraphs lately? When will analog broadcasts be phased out again?

    Everyone is expected to opt in or drop out in the final analysis, either through regulation or just the great majority accepting it. As I said: “Temporary opt-outs are unsatisfactory, but children won’t know any different, and opposition will die out.”

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