Thursday, September 07, 2006

Stuff and Fluff: a new enigma?

From tangible products to non-tangible services, which now dominate the economies of developed countries, new work needs to be done on what constitutes traded ‘commodities’. Pre-industrial concepts of commodities are less appropriate to the 21st century. David Warsh in his Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations (2006) sees knowledge as a non-rival good; Richard Lanham sees the deluge of information as an instance of abundance replacing scarcity (the reverse of economics as taught in the textbooks – scarce means confronting abundant desires). There is something in the air pressing for our attention at present! Scarcity re-asserts itself, this time as time itself. However, it is worth a look.

Richard A. Lanham, professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Los Angeles and president of Rhetorica, Inc., a consulting and editorial services company. His most recent book is
The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information , interviewed for the California Literary Review (Carlsbad, California, USA) on 6 September said:

Q: What is the "Economics of Attention" and how does it differ from our traditional view of economics?:
The basic argument is simple enough. We're told that we live in an information economy. We remember from Econ.1 that economics studies "the allocation of scarce commodities that have alternative uses." But information is not a scarce commodity; we're drowning in it. What is scarce is the human attention needed to make sense of it. We really live in an attention economy. What does such an economy look like? What are we to make of it?
That attention is in short supply seems to be born in upon us from all sides. From frantic multi-tasking two-career parents to soldiers in computerized fox holes or pilots inundated by cockpit information, we're all drowning in a sea of information.
The usual life preserver thrown out to us was first suggested by Herbert Simon in 1971. He argued that what we need are filters. "Knowbots" that pre-google our experience for us. Plenty of these life-preservers have been thrown over the side to keep us from drowning in information and often they do help. But information filters are not what we need the most. We need to know where the flood originates and what it means. This holds doubly true if we are moving the other way, trying to attract attention from people immersed in a flood of information.

The common assumption runs deep. What is really important, really real, is the physical stuff of the world. Commodities. Substance. We dug and grew it in the Agricultural Age, and we built it in the Industrial Age. The allocation of such stuff, after all, is what classical Adam-Smith economics came on the scene to explain. The rest is just "Fluff," style not substance, "rhetoric" instead of "reality." But now we are in a third age, the Age of Information. Now we're stuck, it seems, with the "everything else." With the "fluff." And the fluff sometimes seems to be more important than the stuff.

Interesting thoughts that make you think. Especially when applied to ‘stuff’ like printed books and the possibilities of the digital age with searchable, accessible and printable content that is downloadable from digital libraries.

I am not so sure that Smith did not appreciate ‘fluff’ and ‘rhetoric’. After all he delivered a series of 30 lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (LRBL) each session from 1748-64 and considered education in such ‘fluff’ and essential part of any seriously educated person. The 30 lectures in LRBL were published in the book (stuff) of the same name, edited by J. C. Bryce, 1983 in a Liberty Fund edition (1985). An earlier edition was edited by Professor John M. Lothian appeared in 1963 (Nelson).


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