a Declaration of Gestural Independence

Attentiontrustorgbadge_2Last Friday, I led a workshop to build a web site for a new foundation that Steve Gillmor and Hank Barry and I have been thinking through called AttentionTrust.  Steve is an inveterate blogger and podcaster who has been on a crusade to inform the blogosphere about the value of attention data.  Hank Barry took a sabbatical from his role as VC at Hummer Winblad and stepped in to run Napster a few years back and take on the RIAA, an opponent whose paperwork he is still digging himself out from under.  I came to Attention because it simply felt right, like an equal rights argument at a time when all such arguments seem to have been resolved many years ago.  It is exciting to think about ways to get people to pay attention to their own attention, which means organic value that they rarely if ever recognize.  By putting up the site in advance of much other than putting up the site, we wanted to spur an agile development process around a fundamentally good purpose. has already generated a basic set of questions, "So what?  What is attention anyway?  And why should my mother care?"

Definition of Attention

Attention is the substance of focus.  It registers your interests by indicating choice for certain things and choice against other things.  As Steve reminds, the establishment of value in the attention economy is a dual register of what one pays attention to and what one chooses to ignore (or unsubscribe, turn off or tune out).

The reason attention is becoming more important now is that the Internet has enabled the recording and sharing of these choices in real-time. The massively parallel synthesis of meta data streams has concentrated enormous influence in people and their sites.  Some consumers are proactive in gaining full control over their influence, but the majority are passive users of free services and offers (that actively capture and sell their intentions).

There are a number of people I have been listening to that have thought harder for a longer time than myself about how attention relates to our modern, networked condition.  A few months back, a friend pointed me to the work of Jonathan Crary, who is a Professor of Art History at Columbia University.  In his recent book, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture, Crary writes:

At the moment when the dynamic logic of capital began to dramatically undermine any stable or enduring structure of perception, this logic simultaneously attempted to impose a disciplinary regime of attentiveness.  For it is in the late nineteenth century, within the human sciences and particularly the nascent field of scientific psychology, that the problem of attention becomes a fundamental issue.  It was a problem whose centrality was directly related to the emergence of a social, urban, psychic, and industrial field increasingly saturated with sensory input.  Inattention, especially within the context of new forms of large-scale industrialized production, began to be treated as a danger and a serious problem, even though it was often the very modernized arrangements of labor that produced inattention.  It is possible to see one crucial aspect of modernity as an ongoing crisis of attentiveness, in which the changing configurations of capitalism continually push attention and distraction to new limits and thresholds, with an endless sequence of new products, sources of stimulation, and streams of information.

Crary puts attention squarely in a conversation about modernity.  Yes, people always paid attention (cf the work of late 19th century philosopher William James), but it is only with the emergence of 20th century communication technologies that attention became part of a broader social conversation. Georg Franck, Professor Architecture in Vienna considers attention to be a currency that gets exchanged in a new kind of economy of social influence:

Nothing seems to attract attention more than the accumulation of attention income, nothing seems to stimulate the media more than this kind of capital, nothing appears to charge advertising space with a stronger power of attraction than displayed wealth of earned attention… The solution to the riddle of the miraculous increase in prominence lies in the media’s ability to collect and deliver the critical quantities needed to run gathering attention as a mass business.  If the attention due to me is not only credited to me personally but is also registered by others, and if the attention I pay to others is valued in proportion to the amount of attention earned by me, then an accounting system is set in motion which quotes something like the social share prices of individual attention. What is important, then, is not only how much attention one receives from how many people, but also from whom one receives it – or, put more simply, with whom one is seen. The reflection of somebody’s attentive wealth thus becomes a source of income for oneself… No attentive being has direct access to the world of another being’s attention. By receiving another being’s attention, however, the receiving one becomes represented in that other being’s world… Applause may, of course, sometimes come from the wrong side, and it may sometimes be the wrong side which is noticed. But if caring attentiveness comes from people whom we esteem, and if we receive it for qualities of which we are proud, there can hardly ever be too much of it.
Georg Franck, Economy of Attention 

The Franck insights are stunning and point (albeit metaphorically) towards a financial market for attention.  While Crary establishes the historical framework, and Franck establishes the economic framework, Michael Goldhaber ties both to the Web (1.0 at least). He seems to have been thinking and writing about attention for more than ten years now.  Although he is dismissive of any attempt to formulate commercial applications of attention, he is remarkably precise in his use of language.  From his Principles of the New Economy:

  1. Cyberspace is where the new kind of economy comes into its own. Like any economy the new one is based on what is both most desirable and ultimately most scarce, and now this is the attention that comes from other people.
  2. Attention is scarce because each of us has only so much of it to give, and it can come only from us — not machines, computers or anywhere else.
  3. An economy has to be based on something that is fungible, that is that can be passed along, and one thing about cyberspace — e.g., the web — is how conveniently you can pass on attention through hyperlinks.
  4. Not everyone can attract the same amount of attention. Some of us are stars, but most just fans.
  5. The more you pay attention to someone, the more that person is etched in your memory, and the easier it feels to pay still more to her.
  6. So, roughly, your attention wealth = size x attentiveness of your past and present audiences.
  7. Unlike the old matter-based wealth, the new wealth is nothing you can hope to put under lock and key. You get it by reaching out into the world.
  8. Wealth therefore comes to you by expressing yourself fully. The best guarantee you have for attention going to you for what you do is living your life as openly as possible, expressing yourself as publicly as possible as early as possible (hence it makes sense to put out drafts, early versions, so there are witnesses for everything you do.)
  9. Also you accumulate attention through the full extent of your personality –everything that makes you distinctly you and not someone else…
  10. So the new privacy and the old are direct opposite. The new privacy means having no secrets, which you don’t normally need to have, because little that was previously shameful or had to be concealed is so now…
  11. What people do demand as privacy now is freedom from having to pay attention, not from being seen but seeing what they don’t want to.

Mother Should Know

The first move in establishing an open market for Attention was to declare a set of basic rights:

Property:  I own my attention and I can store it securely in private.
  I can move my attention wherever I want whenever I want to.
  I can pay attention to whomever I wish and be paid for it.
:  I can see how my attention is being used

These represent our rights as attention owners.  Our attention data is ours, each of us individually.  In the wake of the behavior of credit card companies, credit unions and data brokers, it is vital that we recognize our right, and our responsibility, to govern ourselves relative to the use of our private information.  There are careful distinctions between data, meta data and attention, that I am still trying to figure out.  In any case, by virtue of recognizing the above-listed rights, members of the AttentionTrust (both individual and corporate) express their participation in a free, open market for exchanging their attention.  Our attention establishes intention; and our intention establishes economic value.  Once one recognizes the value of one’s attention, it is shocking to see how cheaply most people offer theirs to companies looking for their business. 

take our gestures private

The domain of gesture:  Willingly or not, humans, when in co-presence, continuously inform one another about their intentions, interests, feelings and ideas by means of visible bodily action.  For example, it is through the orientation of the body and, especially, through the orientation of the eyes, that information is provided about the direction and nature of a person’s attention. 
Gesture-Visible Action as Utterance, Adam Kendon, 2004

In August 2004 we floated Google.  By we, I don’t mean us as in investment bankers and buyers of the IPO; I mean all of us that used Google search on a regular basis.  Google is incredible at getting us to look for things using its search engine. I use it constantly. To be clear, (1) Google is a tremendously useful service for consumers, and (2) Google is a fantastically profitable economic juggernaut.  Part of the reason why it is so successful seems to be its constant ability to absorb mine and others’ gestures of lookingforness (typically three words or so).  Google seems to do this better than Yahoo!, Microsoft, and others.

Our public gestures are channeled into Google’s selfish algorithm; selfish in the Darwinian, capitalist,  Richard Dawkins sense.  Google has evolved into a hypercompetitive (some would argue post-competitive) service.  It treats any loose, public piece of data as an opportunity for information absorption, including notably the content of any page that Adsenses:

AdSense TOS Sec 16.  Information Rights. Google may retain and use, subject to the terms of the Google Privacy Policy, or such other URL as Google may provide from time to time), all information You provide, including but not limited to Site demographics and contact and billing information. You agree that Google may transfer and disclose to third parties personally identifiable information about You for the purpose of approving and enabling Your participation in the Program, including to third parties that reside in jurisdictions with less restrictive data laws than Your own… In addition, You grant Google the right to access, index and cache the Site(s), or any portion thereof, including by automated means including Web spiders or crawlers.

This relates to the Input phase of the I/O equation for which Google asks for total transparent access to everything on the host page as well as everything about the participant.  Now granted Google has the right to anything you agree to provide it with as part of your contract to enable AdSense on your site.  Still, their attitude towards Output, however, introduces a strong asymmetry (ie selfishness) relative to theirs towards Input:

No Automated Querying  You may not send automated queries of any sort to Google’s system without express permission in advance from Google. Note that "sending automated queries" includes, among other things:

  • using any software which sends queries to Google to determine how a website or webpage "ranks" on Google for various queries;
  • "meta-searching" Google; and
  • performing "offline" searches on Google.

Please do not write to Google to request permission to "meta-search" Google for a research project, as such requests will not be granted.

Or in other words, please give us your attention but stay away from ours.  Google uses us as much as we use Google.  Yes, we are driving the keyboard and mouse to search for things and in this way we are in control; but this activity can also be seen as a form of programming the way we want to be programmed.  As radical Internet creator Josh Harris kept chanting at in 1998 "Let us show you how we show you how to live." Like so many Web applications, but on a much grander scale, Google takes what I am looking for (literally my attention) and turns it into a commodity called a keyword, which in turn gets pooled and traded by advertisers and publishers who don’t give me anything in return but do subsidize my use of Google search, my storage in Gmail, etc.

We take our gestures public

Our challenge as consumers in the age of paid search and performance marketing, therefore, is whether/how to wrest control back from the machine that has begun to anticipate our intentions for its proprietary gain.  As Norbert Weiner warned in 1950, in the Introduction to the first edition of The Human Use of Human Beings:

Control, in other words, is nothing but the sending of messages which effectively change the behavior of the recipient… I wish to devote this book to a protest against this inhuman use of human beings; for in my mind, any use of a human being in which less is demanded of him and less is attributed to him than his full status is a degradation and a waste.

I am not sure exactly what attributing full status to a human being looks like on the Internet, but it likely relates to making the value of private gestures public, rather than having them live as secret elements in a black-box algorithm.  A few weeks ago I mothballed my Sidekick and decided to live without wireless email for the first time since I got my RIM pager in 1998.  The decision was related to my desire to control my attention which had gotten splintered beyond repair in a continuous wireless communication environment.

The human element of web development has been well covered in the business press as emerging in tags, wikis, social networks and other forms of social media.  As big as the Internet has become, there is less and less content being consumed on the Internet and more and more of it being created.  Increasingly, pages are being built dynamically, on the fly.  Such pages are based on the explicit/implicit interests of the user as understood by publishers and advertisers.  This is distinct from the traditional model of reading, where one consumes something that already exists.  In this new case, what is to be consumed by the user is only created once the user has already expressed his interest (based on where he came from, what he was looking for, and what patterns of behavior might be relevant from his past).

The choruses of attention, data, privacy and identity are all converging in one giant conceptual mashup, which stretches from Web 2.0 pundits to members of Congress grappling with identity theft regulation.  Lost at times are the basic rights we are fighting for, which I understand to be:   

  • You have the right to yourself.
  • You have the right to your gestures.
  • You have the right to your words. 
  • You have the right to your interests.
  • You have the right to your attention.
  • You have the right to your intentions.


I want to help level the playing field and expose the free, open attention marketplace that is latent within the public Internet. I believe that people have the right to themselves and all of their associated data.  The next ten years of Internet development will be driven by the needs of consumers for services to better represent their economic interests in a socially networked world.  At heart, I am an entrepreneur and love creating new businesses that take advantage of various gaps, seams and disruptions.  I am working on a number of ideas that will benefit from the realization of the principles of the AttentionTrust.  In so far as these principles are open and good, I hope that many will collaborate and compete with me in this journey. 

31 thoughts on “ a Declaration of Gestural Independence

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  12. Here’s a thought experiment that can be tested when the markets for attention have formed: Compare the market value for 1 minute’s attention of an individual with disposable income of $1,000,000 to the market value of 1 minute of each of 100 individuals with disposable incomes of $10,000. Seems like they might be about equal, or maybe the millionaire’s attention is worth proportionally more. This suggests that “attention” is a surrogate for “revenue potential” – not an independent unit of value.

    Statements like “I can pay attention to whomever I wish and be paid for it.” don’t ring true. This formulation neglects that the attention seeker also has a hard cash value proposition. My attention alone is not enough.

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