Is attention finite?

Just came a across and excellent “Attention” post by Matt Mcalister – Is attention finite? Matt’s post is in response to another excellent “Attention” post by John Hagel – the economics of attention.

“The problem with discussing attention in economic terms, in my opinion, which is, by the way, completely uninformed by any kind of economic education, is this notion that attention is finite.

It’s true that time limits how many words I can read on a page, how many links I can click on in a browser, and how many billboards I will see in a day. In addition to time, the language, user interface and art of design as we know it limits what I can take in and digest.

But the fluidity of attention is limited more by the medium and the information therein than it is by the brain’s ability to absorb, interpret and output ideas. The brain has an amazing ability to abstract things, to alter viewpoints and understand them both on macro and micro levels. Depending on your perspective, ‘time’ can be as literal as the movement of shadows on the ground or as abstract as evolution of species.”

This was my comment over on Matt’s blog.

Is attention finite?

If their were some kind of Moore’s law of Attention where a user’s ability to expand their attention was constant, then I would agree that attention is not finite. However, while abstraction may give us a bump in attention efficiency, you will still bump up against the finite time limit of 24 hours in a day – just at a higher fixed level.

My take is that user attention is in fact finite. It’s also scarce and saturated.

“We see this now in the way media properties charge advertisers a fee for the cost of reaching valuable eyeballs. But advertisers are forever chasing people to get their attention. They are always paying for the inefficiencies in the market. And media properties are motivated to retain inefficiencies in order to capitalize on that friction. This business model locks companies on both sides into the status quo.”

What you describe here is a huge symptom of the Attention problem. Marketers spend $300B/yr to broadcast 3000 marketing messages a day to every US consumer. Could abstraction allow us to expand our Attention and absorb more?

Is more more in this case or is less more? I think abstraction can help us with the latter.

“The opportunity, on the other hand, is vast for those who are able to alter our viewpoints and abstract the way we understand information. It’s about offering new methods to communicate and taking advantage of the methods that are already infinitely fluid. The supply of attention can be limitless when the barriers are removed and the right lubricant is applied.”

I think you are talking about influence and efficiency here and not attention supply?

Attention discussions always seem to move to the abstract! This is a fun one and hope it will continue.

Please read Matt’s and John’s posts they are excellent.

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One comment

  1. Chris Saad

    Great post David – I have always considered Attention finite – but it is opportune to stop and think about it again.

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