The Intention Economy

Several years ago, it became very fashionable to talk about something called the ”attention economy”. I think the analysis was valid, but one-sided. Economics is not about just one single, particular thing – it’s about the way all things in the world are related. Often, it reduces them to statistics before reaching a policy judgement. Only a simpleton would argue that the free market solves everything – I suggest that such simpletons should try out an unregulated market for deciding which side of the road to drive your vehicle: they could take the free market highway to hell, and I would continue to traverse the regulated route in splendid isolation from their chaotic crashes.

Well, so if the attention economy only gives part of the full story, then what explains the rest of it? One thing that is quite central to the economic view is the notion of supply and demand. Where does attention fit in here?

Attention is a little abstract. You can’t really measure it. It’s quite difficult to even come up with an operational definition of what might even pass as ”attention”. Broadly speaking it falls within the scope of what is more generally considered to be communication, in particular: receiving messages (and understanding them – i.e., recognizing them, in the language of pattern recognition). I am therefore inclined to interpret this as ”demand” (for information).

What about the supply side? One friend of mine who has more experience than I do in areas which might be referred to as ”supply” (of information) once explained to me how information sort of means ”bringing stuff in form” – i.e., forming the message in a way that it can be received (well), that it can be understood, etc.

Hence, we are really talking about a market for literacy: about how to create messages (i.e., supply them), and how to interpret them (i.e., how to receive them – the demand side of the equation). If I were to say ”how to encode and decode messages”, some people might think I am referring to secret messages – but in reality we encode and decode the meanings we wish to communicate pretty much all the time, without even thinking about it very much at all.

Several decades ago, Ludwig Wittgenstein formulated one of his most quoted ideas: ”Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen”. In my humble opinion, he was wrong – at least partially. His primary focus was the analysis of language as a set of rules – and indeed: at any particular point in time, language may very well function that way. However: Language does undergo evolution over time. Therefore, if we cannot say something we want to say at one point in time, we change language in order to be able to say it at the next point in time. Shakespeare apparently did this a lot. If we didn’t continue to do it, we wouldn’t be able to talk about speed limits and other traffic regulations, constitutional amendments, space flight or perhaps even about evolution itself.

In other words: Any thought we have, any message we wish to convey, can be formulated (this notion of the ability to convey messages clearly was actually also of central concern to Wittgenstein) – but it may take a while to change the system in order to not only assimilate the idea, but also to accommodate the ”messaging capability” (for more on ”assimilation” and ”accommodation” – two central concepts in Jean Piaget’s work – please refer to the vast literature in  his tradition [and in that vein also to Herbert Simon’s work related to systems and organizations]).

Today, we have – all of a sudden – become able to formulate messages with great ease. What previously required very large investments can today be done at a marginal cost of … very close to zero. Yet while in recent years monumental and revolutionary advances have taken place with respect to the ”external” technology required, very little seems to have changes with respect to the human capabilities required – i.e., the ”internal” technology, which I refer to as literacy.

If you take a moment to consider the historical perspective, then the reason why there is such a huge discrepancy between external and internal capabilities becomes immediately obvious: over the past five centuries, a very large industry named ”publishing” was formed around the idea that publishing messages was very costly, and therefore that great care was required in order to to publish ”fail” messages. Today, both prize-winning eloquence and also sheer stupidity can be published equally at the drop of a hat.

Now, data floods onto websites at rates that far exceed our capability to pay attention to them.

In order to separate the babble from the best, we need to reward intention.

Traditionally, intention has been an internal characteristic – something like a personal and individual motivation. Today, intention can be externalized by mapping internal intentions onto external, linguistic constructs. Using ”language technology”, your intent to buy a car or sell a car becomes blatantly obvious via your use of language strings such as ”car”, ”cars”, ”auto”, ”autos”, etc.

Before I end this post, I want to point out one very important caveat. There was another term which was coined several years ago which seems to play a crucial role in this discussion, namely the notion of ”vendor relationship management” (VRM). The idea was basically a sort of futuristic software application that was supposed to intermediate between the intentions on the part of consumers and the supportive engagement on the part of producers (and/or service providers). Yet such software is actually not abstract at all – vast numbers of people use such software on a daily basis. Just to give you two common examples, one is called “Google”, another is called “Facebook”.

By mentioning these household brand names, you might think I have wasted your time by telling you something you already knew. Yet here is the significant difference: “Google” and “Facebook” are not language – they are brand names (i.e., registered trademarks). Since a brand does not mean anything, it also doesn’t intend anything. They are as empty and meaningless as a blank page, a blank stare, as blank, empty space. They are nothing more than an empty search box with the promise of connecting you to a positive result. They offer you a free lunch, and their target audience are suckers ready to buy that, who they can use to turn a profit, who can be sold down the river to companies ready, willing and able to pay for that.

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