The Economy of Attention

“Title” by Dude, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Licsense.
Photo Credit: Stephen Poff. Creative Commons License.

What if you had all the attention in the world? What would you do with all that attention?

(What do those questions even mean? Do they mean, “if I had everybody’s attention at my disposal” or do they mean “if I could give attention to everything I wanted to”?)

Quick economics lesson: economics is the study of a human behavior, taking as a starting point the scarcity of the factors of production necessary for humans to get what they want. The scarce factors of production studied by economics are labor, capital, and resources.

But if I may indulge myself in a thought experiment, what would our economic models look like if we factored into the mix of scarce factors, the factor of attention?

I mean, we talk about attention in economic terms already. We are often asked to pay attention. Attention deficit disorder is a thing. Information overload seems to be just another kind of surplus, something that sounds great from one perspective but, just like how a surplus of labor is really unemployment or a surplus of money is really just inflation, an information overload reduces our ability to think clearly, throws our minds out of equilibrium.

I am apparently not the first person to think of such an idea (thanks, Google, for reminding me that I am not as original as I thought I was). In 2002, Thomas Davenport and John Beck published a book called The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business, and in 2007 Richard Lanham came out with The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. There is a Wikipedia article on the Attention Economy — but all the sources cited are at least five years old.

Why Thomas, John and Richard and their readers stopped the conversation then and there is beyond me. Maybe because the years that followed were the years that Facebook and Twitter really took off, and they all signed up for accounts which they now are all distracted by (although, certainly those services underscore the fundamental importance of attention all the more!). Or maybe they just decided that attention, like entrepreneurship, is just another type of labor, just in the same way information is just another type of resource or perhaps even capital.

Can we have that conversation again though? It seems to me that the scarcity of attention is an important enough topic that it warrants, well, our attention.

How to Get Attention

It dawned on me on the other day that I am employed in the attention economy. Whether it is middle schoolers or influential public figures, I go to work each day trying to figure out how to influence people so that they pay attention.

I could probably write an entire post on how to get people’s attention, and it would probably get people’s attention. I could elaborate on the following tips and tricks:

Be quality. Be concise. If you have to go beyond 140 characters, write with the cadence of pop music, with plenty of lyrical hooks. Be visual. Be active. Be attractive. Use innuendo – reveal enough to spark their interest, conceal enough to keep them wanting more. Be loud. Be fussy. Be charming. Turn the lights off and on. Use suspense to your advantage. But don’t be vague or esoteric. Make lists. Make a sign. Get this guy to hold your sign. Make a list of guys holding signs. Be timely, not timeless. It is easy to get the attention of a narcissist – just make it all about them. Have you considered sending a notification?

It is important to realize, not all attention is the same. A single thing may capture a person’s entire concentration, or it may simply be a multitasker’s background noise. Attention may convey love, it may invade personal space. Attention may be given to a task of mental endurance, it may also be given to a distraction. There is a certain value in having the attention of the intended audience, and yet a different value in having the attention of an eavesdropper or a passersby.

Know what kind of attention you want + figure out how to get it = formula for success.

How to Pay Attention

The powers that be are going to want our attention, because our attention is productive. Sometimes we will get goods and services in exchange for our attention (fill out this survey, get entered into a sweepstakes to win an iPad mini) (here are some flowers, will you go out with me?). Sometimes we can’t help but pay a fleeting moment of attention (to a billboard on the interstate) (to that provocatively dressed individual).

But then there are some things that inherently are worth our attention, but have trouble asking for it (like buried treasure) (like the one with the shy smile, sitting across the room).

Mastering the art of paying attention is perhaps our best shot at making it in the world.

Know what you want to give attention to + figure out how to give it = formula for success.

At the after school tutoring program I work to coordinate, during a day where the middle schoolers were particularly rowdy, one of the tutors gave the youth a lesson in how to pay attention. “Keep your mouth quiet, look at me with your eyes, and listen to me with your ears.”

Hopefully when they are in high school, they will learn the advanced arts of paying attention: nodding their head with an occasional “mmhmm”, choosing to pursue those who are neglected, and asking responsive and appropriate questions.

Best after school tutoring lesson ever.

On Defense

There is a lot of noise out there, some of it competing for our attention, and some of it directed at others but we can’t help but be distracted by it. Some of the noise that comes emanates from really valuable stuff – friends and family and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities – but the timing is all off, the noise fractures our attention into worthless fragments.

In the rush to get attention and to give attention, we need to take an occasional breather. It sounds cliché, probably because it is common argument for anyone who is trying to get your attention, but we need to focus on the things that really matter. And to do that, we need to create the right kind of space.

I have a number of friends who have gone off to work at some sort of camp for the summer (I used to be one of them). They are off to work in places where cell phones don’t work and the news isn’t breaking, to create places that people enjoy coming to – not simply because they are fun, but because they are an escape.

These camps are defensive places, places where our thoughts can settle and the things that really do matter can rise to the top. We can give people, ideas, and tasks our undivided attention. For those who work there, they can experience the incredible thrill of doing one thing in one place for a long time – the feeling of having life flow.

What about the rest of us, those of us stuck in the city, or, rather, stuck in the routines and the noise? How are we to play defense?

I simply don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be one good, solid answer. I suppose I’ll have to give the question a little more thought.

On Devotion

Attention is ephemeral. Once you have it, you have to spend it. There is no bank, no warehouse, no armory in which attention can be stored for later use. People will have heard your point, listened to your song, done what you asked them to do. They are going to move on; you are now yesterday’s news.

But what happens when they come back? With no hand-waving, no yelling, no new signs, no external incentive of cash-back or a candy bar? Not because they are curious if you have anything new or novel or different, or because they are addicted, or because they want to squeeze a little bit more value out of what you already given, but, because, well, they just came back?

This is the phenomenon of devotion – a loyal and active (intentional) exercise of focus and dedication, directed towards either someone or something.

Devotion, in economic terms, is a kind of capital good. Devotion is durable, devotion is man-made, devotion can transform simple things into something incredible. If attention is a nail, a package, a steak, some gasoline, or a question, then devotion is a hammer, a forklift, a grill, a car, an encyclopedia.

Notice that we show devotion, we don’t pay devotion. Devotion, unlike attention, does not have an ephemeral, transactional quality. The one who shows devotion will remain devoted; the one who experiences devotion trusts that this time is not meant to be the last.

For these very reasons, devotion is powerful. The same powers that be that want our attention would kill for our devotion — if only they could. The problem is, there is no way they can get it. Because devotion is not transactional, no level of incentive (or degree of threat) could ever wrestle devotion away from a person.

If mastering the art of paying attention is actually our best shot at making it in the world, then mastering the art of showing devotion would seem to be an important part of not being overcome by the world. If we learn how to develop devotion, express devotion, appropriate devotion, we may actually end up being unstoppable.

What if you had all the devotion in the world? What would you do with all that devotion?

Will Work for Attention” by Stephen Poff, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

The Economy of Attention

On Notifications

Welcome to the world.

You will have survival needs. You will have aspirations. As a relational and finite creature, you will not be able meet these needs and aspirations alone. Regardless of how self-sufficient you may deceive yourself into thinking you are, you ultimately will need the assistance of other people.

Their time, their talent, their money, their presence, their attention.

It looks doubtful that they will come to you on their own. It is quite possible that you will need to find a way to get to them.

Have you considered sending a notification?


The analysts talk about how social media and the corresponding hardware are changing the world. This is the new human experience: we are closer than ever before. We are lonelier than ever before. We are more visually-oriented than ever before. We are more creative, at least up till 140 characters, than ever before.

They say that our private has become more public, as we can now both update and check up with our entire community from the comfort of our living room. Meanwhile, our public has become more private, as we can put our ear buds in and listen to our favorite song, texting our best friend, all while walking straight through the park where children are playing and the homeless are taking shelter.

This inverted life comes with its own flow of steady, expected interruptions. Instead of the girl asking you to kick her back the out-of-bounds soccer ball, or the tired man with alcohol-stained breath reaching out his hand to ask for change, the interruption flow now originates from our pockets. With a beep! With a vibration!

No surprise here, it is just a notification.


On my iPhone home screen, as on my Facebook toolbar, notifications are aggregated and symbolized by some sort of integer greater than zero, placed against a red background. Red, the color of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Wendy’s. Red, the color of Walgreens and Costco and Office Depot. Red, the color of consumption.

Confession: I judge people who have miscellaneous quantities of notifications littering their smartphone screen: 27 unread text messages, 4 “your moves” in that one game app, 2 weather alerts, 519 unopened e-mails, nevermind Facebook with 13 friend requests and 40 direct messages and 112 at-large notifications.

In the spirit of humility and self-improvement, I am trying to not look at people like you as if you are three months late for your haircut. I am trying to hold out for some sort of explanation. Maybe you really are that popular. Maybe you just went viral. Maybe you just do not know better.


There is such a thing as a notifications diet.

Like pulling weeds, I go through my phone and unsubscribe from push notifications all the time. For example, I won’t hear about any Facebook notification until I am actually on Facebook.

Most apps remain safe on my phone if they just stay quiet. If you were an app, you probably could sit there all year round, but the moment you wish me Happy New Year for no explicable, pragmatic reason, consider yourself trashed.

Roughly once a week, I try and purge the system of all notifications. Get my e-mail inboxes to zero, my iPhone screen free of zits, and my social media presence all caught up. Whatever caught up means.


Confession: I really like receiving notifications.

Notifications often mean that somebody out there has liked something involving me. It seems as if this person may almost love me.

I don’t know much about neuro-chemical-ology, but I know there is a hormone called dopamine that supposedly makes me happy and I think I get a dose of it running through my veins with every notification I receive.

Unless, of course, I find out that notification was a mass invite to play Candy Crush Saga.

In that case, they may just as well have sent a “poke” — a notification for the sake of notification.


Then there are those phantom notifications. I can’t trace them down. I can’t unsubscribe from them. I swear, my phone just vibrated. It made some sort of noise!

But the screen looks like the normal background, which is just a heavily filtered photo of the waterfall that I snapped when I went on a hike the first week after getting my new phone.


Tap on the shoulder. Someone wants my time, my talent, my money, my presence, my attention. Who is it? Is it the girl wanting to play soccer? Or the homeless man asking for change?

There is a moment of suspense.

My phone promised instant connectivity, but I can almost always take a pause before responding to this-or-that beep, this-or-that vibration. There is always the “oh-sorry-my-phone-was-off” card.

Except for when it is a tap on the shoulder. These sorts of notifications have been around since the beginning, since babies could cry and trumpets could blare.

And so I turn around.

“Oh, it’s you.”

On Notifications

A vision for neighborhood youth ministry

Confession: because of a lot of exciting projects I am in the middle of, I had decided to take April off from the blogging game.

Confession #2: I’m going to fail at that un-resolution. In addition to the knee-jerk response I wrote after the Boston Marathon bombings, I wrote a newsletter piece for Ravenswood Covenant, the church that I work at, that I think those of you who like what I write here might appreciate.

Confession #3: I am really, really excited for May. Stay tuned.

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

Mark 4:30-32

The imagery of a mustard seed parable has been helpful for me when it comes to understanding the sort of kingdom work that has been taking place among Ravenswood Student Ministries, work that has taken place not just over the past year but also before I came on as program coordinator.

I came to Ravenswood with my youth ministry background being almost entirely in camping ministry. Camp is a unique environment for spiritual formation – kids are there for a week or more, all distractions from the outside world are cut off, and a large and focused staff work to create a big experience. From this big experience comes the big stories of conviction, conversion and commitment.

Things are different at the corner of Damen and Ainslie. At best, youth come for a couple hours a week, but sometimes we see them only once or so a month. The outside world makes itself known, as we spend Thursday nights talking about the week’s highs and lows. Instead of an army of college students who have taken what often is a convenient summer job, we have a crew of 5th Quarter tutors and Thursday night leaders who all have to make certain sacrifices to be there consistently.

But because our presence is felt year-round, because our conversations are rooted in day-to-day issues, and because our love is so sacrificial, we have been effective in a way that (at the very least) complements the camp experience. If from camp comes big stories, then I believe here at Ravenswood Covenant that God has entrusted us with the small stories.

Small stories like the one night the kids actually listened to me talk about finding their identity in Christ. Or the 5th Quarter student who is learning to express himself musically for the first time. Or the Thursday night regular who is turning in her application to be a part of North Side Youth Collision’s discipleship program. Or the fifth grader who can’t wait till next year to join Ravenswood Student Ministries.

Some of the small stories are so small, they go unnoticed by myself and the student ministries team. But that’s because there is mustard seed logic at work here: we have faith in a kingdom that grows and becomes like the largest of all the garden plants. We do not know when these small stories will come to fruition: maybe it will be at camp, or maybe it will be when one of these students is in their mid-twenties and has hit rock bottom and all they can remember is that one happy time when a church cared unconditionally for them.

Perhaps then too, they will become part of a project so big that the birds can perch in its shade.

A vision for neighborhood youth ministry

Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World”

I hardly pride myself on having good taste, but I am very fortunate to have friends who do or at least should. So when one of those friends, particularly my tall Dutch friend, recommended Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, I felt like the responsible thing to do was read it. And I’m glad I did.

Taylor, an Episcopal priest who left 20 years of parish leadership for a life that is now split between farming and academia in Georgia, wrote this book as someone who had grasped “religion” but was now trying to understand “spirituality.” Could the presence of God be experienced outside church walls?

She cites the biblical story of Jacob’s dream in where he thought was the middle of nowhere, and what actually could have been just an ordinary dream without supernatural intervention led Jacob to proclaim, “Surely God is in this place — and I did not know it! How awesome is this place!” Jacob proceeded to take the stone that he used as a pillow and planted it into the ground, poured oil on it, and called that middle-of-nowhere place “the house of God.”  Jacob’s “altar in the world”, significant for many reasons, becomes the foundation of Taylor’s book.

Although Brown talks about this-worldly spirituality using Christian language, it is completely accessible to non-Christians. Instead of taking the preacher’s role of how Scripture informs our worldview, Taylor uses the book of the world to uncover what can we all can know about experiencing the divine. This puts her book in the same genre as the Indian thinkers Buddha and Kabir, both of whom she cites at least once. This is why some of the spiritual practices she describes, like the labyrinth or prayer or the sabbath, will be familiar to Christians; while others, like “paying attention” or “carrying water” might catch us by surprise.

One of those chapters, “The Practice of Getting Lost” more than resonated with me. It was eerily like the short mediation I wrote in June on “The Simple Pleasure of Being Lost“, down to the tirade against GPSes we both made. Although Taylor is much more eloquent than myself, I took some surprising joy in knowing that somehow the 21st century has affected me and a Southern Episcopalian priest, now in her sixties, in much the same way. (Perhaps I’m not all that crazy, or at least I have a worthy companion in the crazy-den.)

That said, there were some things in the book that made me flinch. For example,

“I use paper, and I know it has to come from somewhere. I just hate thinking that a whole forest came down for one run of a mail-order catalog, especially since I saw so many copies of that catalog in the trash at the post office. From there, they will go to the landfill, where wastepaper is the number one problem. The sacrament of the catalog creates more than reverence in me; it creates painful awareness of my part in the felling of the forest. It weaves me into the web of cause and effect, reminding me of my place in the overall scheme of things.” -p.31-2

There actually is nothing wrong with this (well-worded) quote itself. The problem is that Taylor didn’t go where I expected. I found myself wondering: “Where is the call to action? Where is the prophetic fury against the powers that be, which are causing this literal mess?” Taylor was content to feel the “pain” of brokenness, and I could not help but wonder why this “pain” did not directly result in some sort of burning desire to change the world.

But now, after journeying through Taylor’s book, I realize I was trying to impose political fury on a list of personal practices. My own tendency towards problem-solving was getting in the way of problem-feeling. Similarly, whereas I wanted to know how to make the broken world beautiful, Taylor was teaching me how to pause to the beauty in the world, stubbornly shining through brokenness.

Granted, as far as books written from the Christian perspective go, this hardly gets to the meat of the gospel. The gospel is not romantic but radical. Living life well is quite different from losing one’s life.

But these aren’t contradictions. One example from Christian scripture: Song of Solomon, a book that is undeniably about proper orientation to a particular aspect of our physical existence, and Isaiah, a book undeniably about proper orientation to the divine and divine justice, sit right next to each other in the biblical canon. In that tradition, then, An Altar in the World can coexist with, say, the missional-minded The King Jesus Gospel of Scot McKnight, my former professor (who, it just so happens also wrote a book on living life well, One.Life.)

There was a moment, back during this late summer, when I was about half-way through Taylor’s book, and I had just spent the afternoon trying to figure out my working situation come autumn, on websites like craiglist and idealist and and And while I told myself I was being productive, I realized that all I was doing was browsing career porn, doing more fantasizing about vocation than actually applying to anything.

It was high-season for blueberries back in the Pacific Northwest, and we had a number of them ripe for the picking in the backyard. Frustrated from looking for a job in Chicago while in Portland, I went outside with a large bowl and just started adding berries to it. The sun was just beginning to set, creating the brilliant orange and purples of the summer sky. About twenty minutes later I had to go back inside for a second bowl.

There was something cathartic about picking berries, about grasping by the hand the potential productivity that lay in the immediate moment, in the immediate vicinity. There were no paychecks involved, but there were blueberries. It was neither perfect nor ideal – some berries were still a touch green while others were so ripe with juice they had exploded all over themselves – but it was real and fulfilling.

It was at this time that I began taking Taylor’s book seriously. Not just as a recommendation from a friend, or a somewhat sophisticated version of a self-help book, but exactly as what Taylor said she set out to explore.

No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are. – p.xvi-xcii

Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World”

Mr. Spontaneous

Growing up, I knew a guy a number of years older than myself who saw opportunity in every corner of life. He could turn a simple car ride from school to the grocery store into a party, and once at the grocery store he would split up the shopping list among the four of us and turn a regular old shopping experience into a complicated game of stealth and intrigue. Sometimes he would disappear for hours or even the entire day, and nobody would be able to say where he was, but nobody was ever concerned. Other times, he showed an uncanny ability to come over uninvited, but never unwelcome.

Mr. Spontaneous, as I liked to think about him, was fun. I wanted to be more like Mr. Spontaneous.

As I got older, and Mr. Spontaneous became less of a role model and more of a peer, there happened to be a moment where I got a privileged peek at his weekly planner. Color-coded and detailed to the quarter-hour, his days were managed like a work of art.

I didn’t believe it at first. Mr. Spontaneous, who seemed to live life on a whim, actually had structure and routine to his days? Nonsense. There was no way his unyielding sense of freedom could have come from such careful planning.


I came to realize that Mr. Spontaneous was not trying to be spontaneous at all. It just kind of happened naturally. Through his planner, he could gain a sense of what needed to be done in that day and what could wait for tomorrow. Reading between the color-coded lines, one could see the people and places he was choosing to make a priority. Mr. Spontaneous organized his life with spontaneity as an afterthought, instead choosing to pursue a practice of presence.

Another example. Although ideas of spontaneity and presence are not necessarily religious, the Christian scriptures are a testament to the spontaneous power of presence. Take the overlooked prologue in the story of the feeding of the 5,000, where Jesus’ apostles had just come back from a grand and exhausting adventure, and Jesus makes plans for the team to travel to a remote location for a sort of rejuvenating retreat. But, upon arrival, there is a massive crowd waiting, and Jesus was moved “by compassion” to change course and start teaching the crowd.

(I’m surprised the apostles didn’t full-out revolt at this point. This episode is akin to arriving for a week-long vacation in Hawaii only to be get a call from the office manager that there is more work that must be done immediately.)

Jesus was present to the needs of the exhausted apostles, and so spontaneously announced plans to take a break. But he was also present to the needs of the mob yearning to hear from him, and so he spontaneously announced a change of plans.

I think that spontaneity, the creative expression of being present, has political implications as well as being a personal trait. Just like how well-meaning religious folk can overemphasize the Genesis myth of origins (i.e. entrenched creation/evolution debates) or the eschatological expectations of Revelation (i.e. apocalyptic doom-sayers proclaiming the imminent end of the world), I think our politics are often stuck on visions of the past and future, at the neglect of the present.

People trying to change “the system” tend to cast their hopes on a romantized version of the past, or a fantastic utopia of the future. This is despite the fact that flaws of “the system” are often inherited from outdated traditions of the past, or rational-yet-overbaked blueprints for the future. Needless to say, traditions and rational expectations are important, but they must intersect in a rugged commitment to the possibilities of the present.

I don’t know what presence-based politics looks like, but be rest assured that the next candidate to look like Mr. – or Ms. – Spontaneity will get my vote.

But for now, I think it is a noble enough goal to pursue a sort of spontaneous presence in each of our personal lives.

That means time-management of the sort that doesn’t divide between “busy time” and “free time.” It rather contains the sort of flexibility that makes sure what needs to get done gets done, while no great opportunity goes missed because it was not on the schedule. Being spontaneously present means showing up a half hour late to work because of an incredible conversation with a friend, and once at work scraping the revered to-do list because there is a tremendous offer that cannot wait until tomorrow.

Especially in our technologically advanced world, with advanced communication and transportation networks, spontaneous presence also means place-management. It is choosing (as much as we are able) to live, work and getting a bite to eat in neighborhoods where we are likely to be interrupted by the people we care about. It means walking or running city sidewalks without the iPod and earbuds, in tune to the voices that don’t realize they are talking to you. And lest I forget I am an Oregonian-wandering-in-Chicago, these same thoughts apply towards being present to the wonders of nature as much as they do people.

And all that means developing the eyes that see possibilities on top of responsibilities, the mind to discern which commitments actually open doors, the guts that can stomach a roller-coaster change of plans.

There is something initially terrifying about being present. The past and future, the states of being faraway and not-paying-attention, are safe places. Vulnerability to the present means giving up a measure of control. Anything can happen. But Mr. Spontaneous understood this, Mr. Spontaneous was fun, and I want to be more like Mr. Spontaneous.

Mr. Spontaneous