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A Review of The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information by Richard A. Lanham

by Nate Kreuter

1. Richard A. Lanham’s newest book, The Economics of Attention, explores, as we might expect from the title, a new economy, an economy not of goods, but of information, an economy not of production, but of synthesis, an economy not of consumption, but of comprehension. He writes in the book’s preface:

Normally we would think that the phrase “information economy,” which we hear everywhere nowadays, makes some sense. It is no longer the physical stuff that is in short supply, we are told, but information about it. So, we live in an “information economy.” But information is not in short supply in the new information economy. We’re drowning in it. What we lack is the human attention to make sense of it all. (xi)

Lanham makes no effort to obscure the fact that he is no economist. But the disclaimer is a feint, for Lanham, by the end of the book, has made a sound case that as the economies of the developed world shift from economies of goods to economies of information, rhetors and rhetoricians (both broadly, broadly defined) will become traders in that new economy, trading not in hog bellies or electronics or foreign currencies, trading instead in human attention spans, trading in an economy where the winners will de determined not by those who have the best goods to offer consumers, but by who can bring the eyeballs of information-saturated consumers to rest on their particular stock of goods or services or information.

2. How will/do the traders in the new information economy win the attention of information and stimulus addled “consumers”? Style. Lanham writes, “The devices that regulate attention are stylistic devices. Attracting attention is what style is all about” (xi). And so we see that Lanham has not strayed far from his 1974 work Style: An Anti-Textbook. In his most recent book, which might just as easily have been titled Economics: An Anti-Textbook, Lanham updates us on the function of style (in language, art, advertising and design) in the new economy. Style – a neglected topic in both contemporary rhetorical scholarship and pedagogy – becomes critical to our movement within and understanding of the new information economy. No longer merely ornament, Lanham argues that style is the very substance of stuff, now, in the information economy.

3. One of the subtler implications of The Economics of Attention is that argument, the primary concern of rhetoric for 2,000-plus years, may begin to loose its footing atop the rhetorical mountain. For, in an economy of information that is greased by the currency of attention, arguments may become in many cases less important than, or at least only as important as, the style that draws us to engage with a particular argument. Style will determine which arguments we pause to consider.

4. The first chapter of The Economics of Attention, “Stuff and Fluff,” outlines the nature of contemporary consumerism, where the function and construction of products is often less important that the name brands printed upon them, less important than the products’ style. Our culture continues to be one of materialism, according to Lanham, but a materialism driven by the aesthetics of style. Referring to the Antiques Roadshow, a representative example of the new style-driven information economy, Lanham writes:

Sure, they want to know what their object is worth, but quite as much they want information about it. How old is it? Where does it come from? Who made it? And, more rarefied yet, What about its style? It is by style that most of the expert identifications are made anyway. The hunger for stuff is paralleled by a hunger for style. Modern “materialism” turns out to be an intellectualized, spiritualized affair. (3)

So, style is an integral component of the value of goods in contemporary trade. Lanham proceeds in this opening chapter to outline the exponential increase in the human production and collection of information rather than tangible goods. The dilemma of the information economy is how to sort through all of the data. Traditional economists are concerned with the distribution and valuation of goods based on their scarcity, whereas the new information economy reverses the dynamic and gluts the market with its commodities, gluts the market with information. And reading style, and the markers that style provides, is how today’s economic winners sort through the glut, how they separate the digital wheat from the digital chafe. Similarly, today’s winners don’t only read the fashionable styles, they produce them: “Real men engineer brands not engines” (3).

5. In his second chapter, “Economists of Attention,” Lanham argues that the new economics of attention phenomenon he is describing is not entirely new, but simply accelerating. For historical evidence Lanham draws on 20th Century avant-garde artists, who didn’t exactly replace substance with style, but helped muddy the distinctions between the two. The examples illustrate Lanham’s point that style is not replacing substance (well, maybe it is, according to Lanham) so much as the two are converging into an indecipherable symbiosis.

6. Chapters Three and Four, “What’s Next for Text?” and “An Alphabet That Thinks,” respectively, outline the history and future of text, how the analog, and now digital, recordings of language have affected and been affected by style. Lanham convincingly argues both that digital media transform style, but are also transformed by style. And Lanham also points out that much of digital text is simply a new means of replicating the same-old same-old; e-books have yet to take a form radically different from traditional books, at least until very recently.

7. Locating indeterminable line where substance ends and style begins is the lofty goal of Lanham’s fifth chapter, “Style/Substance Matrix.” The chapter offers a quasi-quantitative method for thinking about the style/substance distinction, a method that at least helps us to conceptualize style/substance distinctions in a culture/economy where that already blurry distinction is becoming increasingly complicated.

8. “The Audit of Virtuality,” the seventh chapter, is perhaps the book’s most practically oriented, rattling the assumptions that dominate the contemporary academic community and simultaneously motioning towards how the new information economy may radically transform higher education. While many academics are quick to point out that higher education is not a business, Lanham rightly points out that we in the academy are competing not only for students and funding, but also for attention, in just the same ways that businesses are in the information economy. And while not operating for profit, the success of higher education may depend on the institution’s ability to adapt to new kind of student with a world of choices at her fingertips. This chapter should interest a much broader audience of academics than Lanham’s reliable following in the rhetoric and writing disciplines.

9. Throughout The Economics of Attention Lanham provide sections labeled “Background Conversations” at the end of each chapter. These sections are enlightening in their own right, serving as a sort of annotated bibliography and background story on the research and thinking that went into each chapter. Offering insight into the writing of the book and further readings pertaining to the often esoteric cultural example Lanham cites, the “Background Conversations” are simultaneously enlightening and superfluous. Readers can skip the sections entirely or pursue the readings mentioned for a more in-depth experience with the underpinnings of Lanham’s theory.

10. The Economics of Attention is significant for how it offers of model for thinking about a variety of media in our increasingly information saturated culture/economy. Regardless of whether or not Lanham’s analysis will hold true for the actual economy we live in today, it seems a quite savvy reading of the intellectual economy that the data-driven information economy has precipitated. Style, oft-neglected in contemporary rhetorical theory, is the currency of this bold new economy Lanham so convincingly describes.

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