I’m not talking my friend is somewhere in the NY Times, mentioned in some article about someone/thing else, or appears as an identifiable face in some photo. My friend, Michael Goldhaber — my old friend Michael Goldhaber — has an interview/article about him running across two pages of the centerfold of the Sunday Review section, which is the most excruciatingly important weekly op/ed forum in the country.
I just thought you’d want to know that about me. Oh, wait a minute, this is supposed to be about Michael and his ideas.
The New York Times article by Charlie Warzel begins:
“Michael Goldhaber is the internet prophet you’ve never heard of. Here’s a short list of things he saw coming: the complete dominance of the internet, increased shamelessness in politics, terrorists co-opting social media, the rise of reality television, personal websites, oversharing, personal essay, fandoms and online influencer culture — along with the near destruction of our ability to focus.
Most of this came to him in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Goldhaber, a former theoretical physicist, had a revelation. he was obsessed at the time with what he felt was an information glut — that there was simply more access to news, opinion, and forms of entertainment than one could handle. His epiphany was this: One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. To describe its scarcity, he latched onto what was then an obscure term, coined by psychologist Herbert A. Simon: “the attention economy.”
….Most obviously, he saw Mr. Trump — and the tweets, rallies and cable news dominance that defined his presidency — as a near-perfect product of an attention economy, a truth that disturbed him greatly.
Michael looked at the January 6 insurrection through the lens of the attention economy:
“You could just see there were so many disparate factions of believers there,” he said, remarking on the glut of selfies and videos from QAnon supporters, militia members, Covid-19 deniers and others. “It felt like an expression of a world in which everyone is desperately seeking their own audience and fracturing reality in the process. I only see that accelerating….”
His biggest worry, though, is that we still mostly fail to acknowledge that we live in a roaring attention economy. In other words, we tend to ignore his favorite maxim, from the writer Howard Rheingold: “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”
I find myself swamped by the attention economy — even though I don’t do social media, don’t watch television, don’t check the news on my phone, and don’t subscribe to any streaming entertainment. There are still so many ways I can find to distract myself. I subscribe to two print newspapers, three print newsletters, one print magazine, and several online journals. I have a very active email correspondence. I feel a responsibility to keep up with what’s going on politically so I can respond to important events in my blog. I also quite like to entertain myself and my email brings me so many options for that. At the moment, I’m jonesing to read about lesbian weddings in the Style section of the NYT and then watch Marilyn Monroe’s last unfinished movie on YouTube.
It’s not that it would be bad to read Style and watch the movie. It’s that I kinda flounder through my days in a constant state of overwhelm. I need to pay attention to where I pay attention.
Maybe Michael can give me some advice. We’ve known each other since I started graduate school in New York in 1969. He was my roommate’s cousin. I was awed by him — I mean, a theoretical physicist! I must confess I only found out he was a theoretical physicist when I read the article. But I knew he was not theoretically a physicist but really one and that was impressive enough.
When we both ended up in Berkeley, we became friends. When he talked about the attention economy decades ago, it made sense to me. He was writing a book about it and had gotten an advance from a mainstream publisher. But then his editor moved to another publisher. When your editor leaves, your book becomes what is called an orphan. No other editor wants to take it on, because it’s not really their project. And no other publisher is interested either. So that was the end of his book. Nowadays, he would probably publish the book himself. He has continued writing articles and also working on political issues, both local and national.
Starting in 2003, we did a weekly show for a while, talking about current events, “Operation Infinite News.” Our title mocked the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was named “Operation Infinite justice.” That’s so perfect, isn’t it? The invasion was a war crime labeled as it’s opposite for publicity purposes. Talk about American Exceptionalism! We’re so good at that — finding glorious titles for our war crimes.
We had a lot of fun at first. Michael’s as obsessed with reading the newspaper as I am. But it wasn’t an easy thing to keep up. Yes, it’s done on television — but with a very large team of writers. We were attempting something similar just the two of us.
I don’t remember how long we did it — six weeks? two, three months? It was just too hard for the two of us to comment on an entire week of news in a continually entertaining fashion. I think I was the one who wanted to stop. Maybe I had another project that called me. I wish we had some video footage of it. But those were the days when not everything was recorded. The attention economy was not yet that developed.
In any case, I think we all should consider paying more attention to what we’re paying attention to. We do have control over it. And I’m thrilled that my old friend Michael’s ideas are finally getting the attention they deserve.
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