Michael Goldhaber Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Michael Goldhaber Interview
moderated by 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?
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
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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
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
time, I am well aware that science, too, is a product of its particular
historical context, and is socially constructed rather than just being
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.
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
Was there a defining experience for you to make this career
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
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
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.. )
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
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
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.
Did your founding of the Center for Technology and Democracy in
San Francisco have similar objectives as the prior project at IPS?
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.)
Early on in your career, say until the mid-80s.. what had been your
most rewarding project and/or writing to that point? Why?
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.
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?
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
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
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.
What is the "attention economy" hypothesis, and when did you first
formally present it publicly?
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.
If you can recall, what were the real world observations that led you
to conceptualizing the "attention economy"?
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
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
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.
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?
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
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.
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?
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
strictly on their own, these chapters say some interesting things about
typography. Some readers see what I said as too mean. I did not
Are there any points of agreement between you and Lanham?
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.
What will you be doing in the next year?
Any particular writing projects or speaking engagements?
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
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