Tom Chatfield’s short essay, "The attention economy,” raises an interesting question: why do we think of attention as a resource?
For all the sophistication of a world in which most of our waking hours are spent consuming or interacting with media, we have scarcely advanced in our understanding of what attention means. What are we actually talking about when we base both business and mental models on a ‘resource’ that, to all intents and purposes, is fabricated from scratch every time a new way of measuring it comes along?
For the ancients, Chatfield notes, attention wasn’t a resource; it was a relationship.
For the ancient Greeks and Romans, this wooing [i.e., getting other’s attention] was a sufficiently fine art in itself to be the central focus of education. As the manual on classical rhetoric Rhetorica ad Herennium put it 2,100 years ago: ‘We wish to have our hearer receptive, well-disposed, and attentive (docilem, benivolum, attentum).’ To be civilised was to speak persuasively about the things that mattered: law and custom, loyalty and justice.
In this understanding, there is no such thing as “attention” as something that exists outside a relationship. It’s not like energy, or a pint of blood: it only exists between the person giving their attention, and the person trying to hold it. Indeed, Chatfield points out,
In Latin, the verb attendere — from which our word ‘attention’ derives — literally means to stretch towards. A compound of ad (‘towards’) and tendere (‘to stretch’), it invokes an archetypal image: one person bending towards another in order to attend to them, both physically and mentally.
I think there’s still some value in the attention-as-resource model, if only because we can demonstrate that humans have only a certain amount of attention they can “pay” in a day; in that respect, it’s like self-discipline or decision-making. But the notion that it can be treated as essentially interchangeable with coal or wind, does bear some rethinking.