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Michael Goldhaber Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange


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December 17, 2006

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Michael Goldhaber Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange

  1. 1. Site Search Michael Goldhaber Interview moderated by Paul DiPerna Paul DiPerna: Michael.. you have led a very unique professional life. Can you describe for us how you arrived to the point where you are today? home Michael Goldhaber: introduction themes Why such a peculiar career trajectory? interviews index Mostly because my parents and several other relatives were all physicists, I went into physics, but I soon discovered that physics subscribe to email updates research in the US had too tight a link with war to be comfortable. At the same time, I realized I was more interested in the intrinsic complexity of human relations rather than RSS for interviews the hoped-for simplicity of particle theory. Goldhaber's Bio My start in the human-relations field came partly through my anti-war associations in the late 60's and early 70's , Paul's bio and projects and also through psychotherapy and an interest in it. Being fairly Paul's email alienated from the society around me, I found myself learning Marxism. In time, I realized it was an incomplete analysis, even in its most undogmatic forms. A small amount of Marx's approach to history comments policy I still think is sound. I suspect some of my physics background has privacy policy helped me looked skeptically at standard social theories. At the same time, I am well aware that science, too, is a product of its particular historical context, and is socially constructed rather than just being timeless truth. A further important part of my background is that I am interested in many fields. Narrow specialization has never been my preferred mode. This, along with a good bit of personal shyness and a certain amount of neurosis, has undoubtedly kept me form pursuing a standard academic career. Paul DiPerna: You have had quite a range of experiences, launching your career as a physicist, and then gradually becoming more politically active and concerned about the intersection of democracy, technology, and social change. Was there a defining experience for you to make this career transformation? Michael Goldhaber: Three moments, in retrospect, stand out. One was discovering just how intensely my own dissertation advisor, who was also one of Lyndon Johnson's Science Advisors was involved in devising new weapons for the Vietnam war, which I was very much against. Another was more "spiritual" in a very odd way. In theoretical physics at that time, there was a hope that particle physics, which was considered the basis of everything, could be reduced to just a few axioms, a project that I spent a lot of time thinking about.  It was a time  when many people were taking drugs, which I mostly avoided, but on one occasion, I was persuaded by two other physicists to join them and their wives in smoking something.  In that altered state, listening to  Bach, I felt myself in a very cold place, and had the image of the fundamental axioms going through my body, with nothing else present.  It was a very barren image. The thought came to me: "I have 
  2. 2. seen the mind of god, and god is an idiot." I realized then and there that I was much more interested in the complex messiness of human interactions, and the complexities of art, rather than reducing everything to a few simple axioms. (Curiously, the axiom system I was interested in soon fell out of favor, to be replaced by a completely different set of axioms known as "Grand Unified Field Theory" however, after that held sway for a few years, super-string theory became the dominant hope for the "theory of everything," and in practice the theory is immensely complex. More ironic, string theory actually originated in an attempt to exemplify that first axiom system. ) A third was around the same time: an Italian mathematician friend of mine in New York gave me a copy of Marx's Capital, which I eventually started reading. I had little background in the subject matter, but it seemed eminently sensible, and really got me interested in social thought of various kinds. I was about 26-28 when all this happened. Paul DiPerna: What was it like for you to serve as Director for the Technology and Democracy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a think tank located in Washington DC? (I should note that when I was at Brookings, IPS annually ran circles around us on the softball fields.. ) Michael Goldhaber: IPS might have been good in softball, but as you probably know it was actually much smaller and less well funded than the more centrist Brookings.  A fair amount of the time, and quite typically, the T&D  project consisted of just me, with maybe an intern or two.  This  allowed me a very wide range. In addition to writing Reinventing Technology: Policies for Democratic Values at that time, I interacted with an active "appropriate technology" movement in Washington, interested in low tech solutions such as clay cookstoves, for the developing world, with a group of government bureaucrats concerned with the effect of automation on employment, with writers and union activists interested in the effects of  technology on workers, in various  ways, with discussion on nuclear proliferation and what to think of it, with worker self-management, etc.  I ran a conference on "Technology  for Meaningful Work" that tried to ask how possible new directions in technology might enable people to feel more rewarded by work itself, as well as other questions.  I testified (in 1982) before  a  Congressional sub-committee consisting of Al Gore in support of the idea of supplying computers to the third world.  I was also involved in  discussions on more politically explicit way of doing science. Another topic already of great interest to me when I arrived in Washington was trying to understand what the role and rapid adoption of some of the new electronic technology such as personal computers was all about.  In some ways, I think my unusual background led me to  look at this question at a deeper level than others did.  I had gotten  interested in the concept of "post-industrial society,"  but also found  the existing formulations of it highly inadequate. How can society simply be "post" some previous way of life without having some characteristics of its own, some motivating factor of its own, unless it is just a pure chaos? The rapid adoption of computer technology and the like was itself a sign of a definite new direction, but that left the question as to why that direction in particular? One can think of hundreds of possible and feasible technologies that did not get adopted so enthusiastically.  It is far too simple to say  that technology drives society.  By 1985 I began to understand that a  new kind of scarcity has come to dominate, the ineluctable scarcity of attention.
  3. 3. Funding was a huge problem, and after initial success, I proved quite poor at fund-raising, but the issues were many and interesting, and in that sense Washington was an excellent place to be at the time. However, I also came to feel that too many thinkers in Washington were seduced by their relation to Power. Everything seems to revolve around that, and it can in its way be very narrow and barren. Paul DiPerna: Did your founding of the Center for Technology and Democracy in San Francisco have similar objectives as the prior project at IPS? Michael Goldhaber: I moved to San Francisco for personal reasons, but of course that put me back near the heart of Silicon Valley, where the digital technologies dominated more than elsewhere. Understanding their role, already a concern, seemed even more of interest. I hoped that my new Center would be a vehicle to pursue such studies, but again, because of my lack of adeptness at fund-raising it became mostly a solitary vehicle for me to pursue my interest in understanding the ramifications of the attention society or attention economy hypothesis. (I wavered between the two names.) Paul DiPerna: Early on in your career, say until the mid-80s.. what had been your most rewarding project and/or writing to that point?  Why? Michael Goldhaber: I am not sure I can accurately point to one thing that was most rewarding in terms of my views at the time, but in retrospect what stands out most is certainly my discovery of the attention economy idea. I realized I had hold of an enormous insight. It is an insight I still have some trouble making crystal clear to others, so sometimes it has felt more like an albatross than a pleasurable revelation, but the truth is it is a very generative concept, and I do feel rewarded by the many directions it has led me. Paul DiPerna: There are probably a lot of people reading this interview that are looking for outlets to publish, but unsure of where they can go because of credential or political barriers.  Can you recommend journals,  periodicals, or other respected outlets (online or offline) so these folks can broadcast their research and written work? Michael Goldhaber: I don't think there are  too many general journals, so the topics  would matter.  If your work has to do with the Internet, I do recommend  First Monday. In general, though, I am not the "Just keep best person to answer this, since I working on tend to get discouraged by rejection. what matters to However, I have still found out ways you." to get some of my ideas out, including by doing my own newsletter (started before the web) and snail-mailing it out to assorted people who might find it interesting. (You don't get rejection letters that way.) Out of that, came requests to write articles, which led in turn to some speaking invitations, which led to more article invitations. For most of these, the chances that the articles would subsequently be rejected were small.  Now I have a blog, which I would certainly  recommend. Just keep working on what matters to you, try to write as well as possible, and to the extent you can stand it, put your work out wherever you think it might have a chance to be seen or picked up.  Of  course do research; there really are thousands of small journals, websites, listservs,etc., many of which you can join, and many of
  4. 4. which are looking for fresh and interesting ideas. Ask your friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and anyone you admire for suggestions. Start your own journal if necessary, or ask friends to.  They may jump  at the idea. Paul DiPerna: What is the "attention economy" hypothesis, and when did you first formally present it publicly? Michael Goldhaber: In very brief form, it is this: What explains the huge burgeoning of 'information technologies" and their importance in our lives is that we have passed beyond an economy chiefly governed by material scarcities to one governed by the scarcity of attention. We produce expressions and performances of various sorts in order to compete for the ineluctably scarce attention of other human beings. That means that older forms of wealth become passe compared with holding a place in the minds of one's audience. Paul DiPerna: If you can recall, what were the real world observations that led you to conceptualizing the "attention economy"? Michael Goldhaber: I am wondering what you mean by "real world" here?  As opposed  to what other kinds of observations?  That makes me imagine trying to  develop a theory about society purely by reading novels and watching fictional movies and TV.  One way that might distort the way life  actually is would be through the fact that, quite often, in fiction, everyone gets a chance to speak their minds, and are generally heeded and understood. The real world is not like that (nor are some fictional worlds).  We all have some real experience of the scarcity of  "the floor" (as in "he has the floor," meaning he has the right to speak and the rest of us must remain silent while he does.)  Most of us have  childhood experiences of the scarcity of attention.  So we all have  noticed a lot. But those kinds of scarcity of attention don't normally seem to dominate daily life, unless they are further amplified. What amplified that sort of experience for me was more or less as follows.  Through a complex chain of circumstances and curiosities,  by the late 1970's I had gotten interested in the social origins and effects of microprocessors, i.e. the computer chip. However, I also was interested around that time  in theories of post- industrialism as well as post-modernism in general. However, as I mentioned in my first response, I had imbibed the outlook of physics more or less literally with my mother's milk, and even though I was no longer terribly interested in the topics that are the subject of physics, I couldn't completely stop thinking like a physicist, and especially not like what I had observed and admired about my father's thinking when I was an early teenager.  He was concerned  then with why the universe is the way it is, and was willing to make outrageous assumptions if necessary to try to understand what seems peculiar about it.  (He is still active, and recently told me that  his work at that time seems to have been the origin of the current thought that there may be many universes other than our own, even though we cannot observe them at all.)  The lesson for me was that  one must permit oneself to think at the largest scales if one is to answer fundamental questions, and if one notices such a question, one should not let it go or forget it until one can begin to find some hypothesis to explain it. By 1982, I was deeply interested in a project I called "the Human Meaning of the Information Revolution."  Such terms as information  revolution were in reasonably wide circulation at the time.  By that  year, I explicitly gave a quite well-received talk on the "Information Economy" at a communications research conference.  By then, the  personal computer had arrived, with great fanfare. There was also
  5. 5. personal computer had arrived, with great fanfare. There was also much talk of the "paperless office."  Marc Uri Porat had begun, at  least, to try to count the proportion of jobs in the US that were related to information; though his definition was in some ways expansive, he came up with a figure of at least half.  So the question in my mind was  "why?"  Why on earth are more people needed to deal with information  than with things, especially if it is taken, as it is by standard economics, that such information is merely in service of the production and distribution of things? A related question was why do so many people work in offices, if this is an industrial society?  What actually goes on in offices,  anyway?  I was at IPS by that time, and of course, Washington DC is  full of offices, so there was much to notice, study, ponder and observe.  One thing you can't help noticing in such a setting is how  hard it is to get to speak with or talk to certain people.  Their attention  was clearly very valuable. One day I was considering myself fortunate because I had a chance to escort around DC an old idol of mine, Ivan Illich, the somewhat renegade Roman Catholic priest, radical thinker, and former (Bulgarian?) Jew (then stationed in Mexico).  He had given a  lunchtime talk to people interested in religion at the World Bank, in which the subject of scarcity came up. After his talk, to about 30 people, many hands shot up.  Not everyone had a chance to speak.   On the way back to IPS I pointed out the scarcity of the floor.  He was  dismissive of my observation, saying merely that the time comes to shut up and go home.  By then, of course, I had been puzzling also  over the pre-eminent problem with my information-economy hypothesis, which was that economies  are motivated by scarcity, not  abundance. So it slowly jelled in my mind that while information was superabundant, not at all scarce, by putting it forth people could hope to get attention.  That eventually led to the eureka moment when it all  came to consciousness in the attention economy idea.  I immediately  knew that this was a key. By now it was 1984 or 85.  I was working on my book Reinventing Technology, but I immediately began to tell a few people about the Attention Economy.  I remember speaking at American University on it,  in a class or seminar organized by one of the few economists I knew, Robin Hahnel.  I spoke on it at an IPS seminar at about the same  time.  By 1986 I gave a short course on the topic in the Washington  School of IPS.  By 1986 or 87 I spoke of the Attention Economy at a  conference on Education and the American Dream at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and also gave an invited talk at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Then I moved west, and spoke at a Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility Silicon Valley chapter meeting, probably that year.  By 1989, I was devoting my  energies to my own small-circulation newsletter "Post-Industrial Issues" where I advanced various versions of the hypothesis and its consequences in several fields. In 1992 I published an article in "Z papers," a theory offshoot of Z Magazine, and also a special issue of Esther Dyson's "Release 1.0"   One reason I published in such an off-beat way was that I lacked the credential, and perhaps the terminology to be taken seriously in any particular academic discipline, or so it seemed. Paul DiPerna: In your 1997 First Monday article, "The Attention Economy and The Net", you describe the Internet fostering a new natural economy where attention is the scarce resource. What are the social consequences of our current attention economy? Do you think we have more or less social dysfunction because of it? Michael Goldhaber:
  6. 6. We are  of course are still in transition, with one foot still in the old  economy. The social ramifications of both the transition and the attention economy itself are ubiquitous, at every scale, and therefore a bit hard to catalog at less than book length. I suspect many graduate dissertations could profitably be devoted to this issue.  Manifestations  include how people see themselves, the nature of relationships, the ways members of families interact, how children are raised, how schooling  actually works, the rhythms of daily life, the way politics  functions, the changing nature of war, the increased prominence of art, pop music, pro sports, etc. Also, the ways people eagerly adopt such avenues of attention getting (and attention paying) as MySpace, YouTube, blogging, texting, etc. Also the general ways respect is apportioned and to whom in our society. Terrorism. Perhaps it would be easier to list aspects of social life that are not affected. I can't think of any, offhand. Again, there are two issues, the dysfunctions and dislocations due to the transition, and those resulting more or less from the pure attention economy itself. It may be useful in this regard to consider the parallel transition from feudalism to the market-industrial system. that included violence such as the Thirty-years war, the English Civil war, the French revolution, etc. It also included a tremendous amount of physical ousting of various groups and families from their ancestral homes. Resistance to change and desires to hold onto traditions were enormous. At a lesser level was a tremendous amount of simple confusion as to what was what. Today, that last effect certainly present, as is a great deal of mostly non-violent resistance and some violent, taking a variety of forms. (In the so-called developing world, market industrialism is still an incoming tide, even as it is being swamped by the faster tide of the new attention economy; it is difficult to ascribe the problems simply to one or the other.) In general, though, I think this new transition will be much less violent, though far from painless. As to social dysfunction as a result of the attention economy in its pure form, how you might define dysfunction is less than clear cut. In general, the attention economy seems to tend towards inequality, and people who lack a certain minimum share of attention are probably in serious trouble. On the other hand, to me somewhat peculiarly, the vast majority seem to "A minority accept this undesirable state relatively are easily. It seems that people can easily seriously come to feel that the attention one gets is alienated..." what one deserves, even if it is far below average.  A minority are seriously alienated, at least so it seems at  present. Or perhaps it could be said that in desperate attempt to obtain attention however possible, they resort to self-destructive or other-destructive acts of many kinds. This is especially true of some young people who grow up with an extreme lack of attention. But again, these are all issues that need much further exploration, research and analysis. Paul DiPerna: You recently reviewed Richard Lanham's new book, The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. At one point, you say that Lanham "went of the rails" in his writing. How did this happen in his book? Michael Goldhaber: I use the expression you quote to emphasize that Lanham soon gives up on the promise of either his title or his subtitle, especially when he starts focusing in too much on uses of typography. Most people seeking attention pay very limited mind to that, although, taken
  7. 7. strictly on their own, these chapters say some interesting things about typography.  Some readers see what I said as too mean.  I did not  intend that. Paul DiPerna: Are there any points of agreement between you and Lanham? Michael Goldhaber: Of course.  We both do agree that the fundamental scarcity now is  of attention. Lanham also emphasizes the importance of  rhetoric.  I  would place that importance slightly differently: Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and everyone seeking attention must somehow persuade the potential audience member to pay it and keep paying it. I think that in consequence new forms of rhetoric, not much discussed by standard rhetoricians, including Lanham, to the best of my knowledge, have developed and are developing. Paul DiPerna: What will you be doing in the next year? Any particular writing projects or speaking engagements? Michael Goldhaber: My main project is my book, which I hope at last to get published. The current, working title and subtitle are ALL THE WORLD A STAGE: The Emerging ATTENTION ECONOMY, Why It's Coming, It's Deep Difference from the Familiar Market-Money-Industrial Economy, and What the Changes Mean For Our Lives. I also am planning an essay for my blog on post-modern thinkers as stars. I'm hoping to be speaking more, and writing for, audiences of standard economists. I would like to follow up on my recent blog piece on the rhetoric of weapons. Many other topics are bubbling around. I am somewhat separately working on a conference for a viable broad vision for progressive Democrats, which I hope to find ways to connect to Attention Economy thoughts. December 17, 2006 home | interviews index | Join the email list | RSS for interviews | Paul's email Blau Exchange, est. 2006 | Blau Exchange, All Rights Reserved 2006-2008 site design by gralmy