For the better part of the past century, the most important commodity has been oil. Wars have been fought over it — Pearl Harbor was a preemptive strike to secure Japanese access to Indonesian oil — and it elevated desert tribes to the ranks of the wealthiest cohorts in history. But the sun has passed midday on oil’s supremacy. We’ve moved from an oil economy to an attention economy.
We used to refer to an information economy. But economies are defined by scarcity, not abundance (scarcity = value), and in an age of information abundance, what’s scarce? A: Attention. The scale of the world’s largest companies, the wealth of its richest people, and the power of governments are all rooted in the extraction, monetization, and custody of attention.
Commercial exploitation of attention is not new. Humans have been competing for attention since the days when nomadic leaders argued over which branch of the river to follow and turning “content” into wealth since Aeschylus produced the Oresteia. Oil was elevated by the invention of the internal combustion engine, industrial revolutions in mechanization and plastics, and the development of a Western lifestyle dependent on the mobility of goods and humans. Now the shift from atoms to bits — digitization — has put wells into pockets, on car dashboards, and on kitchen counters, drilling night and day for … attention.