Rhetoric as the economics of attention?

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This week in my rhetoric and digital media course, we are reading Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention. What a fascinating read! After several weeks of communication theory (not my strong point), this is a book that I’ve really gotten into and can’t wait to discuss in class. And now to think through some of the key ideas before getting to class… (Not a full synopsis.)

Lanham’s introduction I saw to actually be his weakest chapter. He spends time here justifying the niche of the book, showing the audience why this message is necessary now and what new ideas he’s bringing to the table. This is where I saw him taking the most liberty with his logic and explanation for how he’s arrived at the conclusion that rhetoric nowadays is the economics of attention. I believe he has a 100% valid argument and great idea, I just wasn’t convinced with the explanations he used in the introduction. It is clear, though, that in today’s information economy, we are drowning in knowledge and access to it, and the scarce resource that we need to allocate more efficiency is our attention. How to manage attention? Lanham claims that rhetoric is the key: the books, web pages, videos, songs, etc. that we will read/watch/listen will be the ones that pay attention to style and audience.

In the third chapter, Lanham begins to outline what he sees as “what’s next for text,” or how text will move beyond linear black and white print to the electronic forms now made possible through technology. This chapter is actually posted online, because it was written using HTML and he wants it to be read that way (though it is possible to read it in the book; I read the book chapter first and later went to read it online, what a difference!). The coolest point he makes here, I think, is a discussion of Martin Minsky’s experimental e-text, where Minsky walks around in the margins of his book as he narrates.  Can you imagine having the author roaming the margins of the book that you are reading, offering extra information as you hover your eyes over a certain word? I all of a sudden feel enlightened to this amazing possibility with e-text and want to see more of it in practice. I wonder where to find them? The e-texts we think of now are essentially Kindle books (or other companies’ equivalents). How come we haven’t made greater strides using all of the tools available to us? Overall, the argument in this chapter, with all of the examples of digital, animated, and interactive text is that digital media influences style, but it is also influenced by style.

 The final chapter I want to think about is Chapter 7, “The Audit of Virtuality,” as I’m helping lead discussion for this one in class tonight. Here, he explores how concepts of online universities can offer better models for traditional universities, ultimately arguing not that traditional universities need to change their ways completely, but that a university that succeeds in the new attention economy will oscillate between virtual and theoretical practices to better suit the needs of students. He claims that the four-year model for school, with semester courses, is no longer relevant, and that schools need to be more flexible to meet the needs of students. This also means that tenure may no longer be the best way to evaluate the suitability of a professor for a department, or that the same professor has to teach the same course for nineteen years running (as Lanham himself did). Instead, Lanham posits that a professor sets up a course one time, complete with readings, assignments, etc., and the university can offer the course virtually in unlimited settings. Lanham never addresses whether the course would be evaluated for effectiveness and whether a professor would work to improve the course over the years, as many professors do in their regular courses.

As an instructor teaching a hybrid (half in-class and half online) course for the first time this semester, this chapter was especially relevant to what I am currently doing. I recognize how I am in the middle of an attention economy in attempting to select readings for my students to do online, and I often choose fluff (style) over stuff (substance), knowing I can add missing or additional information later if I need to. But the first goal is how to get the students to do the readings for the online work days – and figuring how to get their attention is my first order of business when designing a day’s work. What Lanham doesn’t address, which I think is crucial for his model of a university that oscillates between virtual and traditional values, is how to support instructors in an attention economy. Because digital rhetoric demands a new attention model (one of Lanham’s main claims), it goes without saying that instructors will need new models for teaching. How can we support the faculty in this endeavor?

Finally, as a graduate of a private arts college who appreciates her liberal arts degree, I have to say that his view of the re-emerging arts degree a little too utopian to be probable. Yes, this attention economy necessitates new rhetoric, but will employers recognize this as a skill coming from arts degrees? Not necessarily. This is one of his prophecies that I don’t see coming true at the moment. On the whole, I definitely agree with his view of the new attention economy and see a new rhetoric emerging as a result, but I just don’t see how arts degrees will be favored over others because of it. We may see new programs of study emerging, which I think is a better approach to producing graduates with the ability to work in an attention economy – not reverting back to English literature majors because they can recognize style when they read it.

2 thoughts on “Rhetoric as the economics of attention?

  1. Great post! Question though about e-texts: I know Lanham is big on exploring the innovative potential of e-text, but do you really think that’s such a great idea? I mean, do you really want the author walking around in the margins of a book, giving you background on certain phrases?

    I know that sounds awesome, but I think it would run into serious problems. Think of Wikipedia. When I’m reading a long Wikipedia article, I almost never finish the article because I click on one of the many links and end up on another page. Books, to me, require a certain engagement that is made more or less impossible when they are hyperlinked. Would you ever finish a book if you could click on a link to explain the allusion included in every 5th sentence? In excitement about digital texts, are we too quick to abandon the linearity built into the structure of print? Something to think about 🙂

  2. I think Lanham’s vision of academia is really interesting. It reminds me of this blog (http://www.academicevolution.com/) run by Gideon Burton–the author of Silva Rhetoricae. Both Burton and Lanham hit at some really interesting possibilities, ones that I think we should take seriously. I think the current model has a lot we should keep, but also a lot we should phase out.

    If we don’t, higher ed might just end up like GM (http://www.economist.com/node/16941775?story_id=16941775)

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