The Economics of Attention by Richard A Lanham

Lost in cyberspace? Send in the artists...
Click to follow

If there's one thing the internet has not brought about, contrary to all prediction, it's the destruction of literature. As the author of this consistently interesting argument notes, we have been liberated into a bibliotopia almost unimaginable to previous generations, with Amazon selling millions of second-hand books at cut-price rates, and Google digitising university libraries for (hopefully) free usage. It's not literary or artistic values that are under threat, but the opportunity to pay even the most cursory attention to what lies before us. Our true scarcity is attention, not culture.

If the definition of economics is the "allocation of scarce resources", then Richard Lanham suggests we might need a new version of that dismal science to account for our hyper-mediated lives. The "attention economy" isn't a new idea - it's been flitting around the pages of techno-capitalist magazines like Wired for nearly ten years now. But Lanham's take is unusual. He is as deeply immersed in arts and letters as he is in bytes and chips. An emeritus professor of literature, he previously published The Electronic Word, which anticipated those surprising synergies between digital and literary culture more than a decade ago.

His agenda is familiar enough. Modern capitalism succeeds by the promotion of brands as much as by the delivery of products and services: we're buying narrative and symbolism with our mobiles or cars, as well as functionality. Or, as Lanham puts it a little too winsomely, we invest in "fluff" (the attention we pay to things) as much as in "stuff" (the things).

But he wants to argue that it was ever thus, using all the classicism and humanism at his disposal. When Plato expresses distrust of poets and the sophists, he begins a tradition which extends all the way to Naomi Klein and the anti-advertising instincts of the happiness gurus. The need to persuade, seduce and command attention - in short, the arts of rhetoric - have always been suspected by the powerful, claims Lanham. Those who want their authority to be based on a stable interpretation of reality will be suspicious of those who mess that up, who allow style and substance to intermingle.

So artists are the ultimate "economists of attention", who think with most sophistication about grabbing their chunk of our mind-share. They want us both to look through their artworks to the reality behind, and look at their artworks to enjoy the artifice of communication. Andy Warhol, the Dadaists and Christo (famous for wrapping parts of cities and deserts in fabric) are his favoured examples: artists who create "attention structures" that force us to dwell on our tricky relationship with reality and its representation.

Lanham roams all over the canon, from Cicero to Laurence Sterne to Roy Lichtenstein, to show how enduring this tendency is. So his welcoming attitude towards electronic media comes from his long perspective. As the symbolic animal, we should be used to the idea that we play around with our means of expression. The artistic archive shows that, despite the headline scares, humanistic values will always find appropriate new transmission devices.

What helps Lanham in his sanguinity is his unusual political stance for a literary academic: as a Hayekian, free-market, bottom-up libertarian. He looks for upheaval and experiment as a sign of health in any system. Indeed, the instability implied by his theory of attention - our incessant flipping between substance and style - is the necessary tumult that any entrepreneur would recognise as the best conditions for change and evolution.

The argument doesn't always hold together tightly. If authoritarians distrust the power of rhetoric, what about the propaganda machines of Nazism? There are also some regrettably donnish moments: a fantasy symposium featuring Barbie and the Expert Boffin makes you want to take a sledgehammer to the nearest ivory tower. But it's refreshing to read a deeply literary mind who embraces the information age, and wants to focus on its civilising possibilities rather than flee from the screens in horror.

Pat Kane's 'The Play Ethic' is published by Macmillan