Attention Economics

2019-03-20T12:46:19.000Z Honest Cash

Lawrence Kay is a senior policy adviser at the Open Data Institute. Today on Medium I read his latest story… Open data and the Sciences of the ArtificialMy reply


Last Easter, my neighbors bought their daughter a pair of rabbits. Whether by intent or accident, one was male, one female, and we now live in a rabbit-rich world. Persons less fond than I am of rabbits might even describe it a rabbit-overpopulated world. Whether a world is rich or poor in rabbits is a relative matter. Since food is essential for biological populations, we might judge the world as rabbit-rich or rabbit-poor by relating the number of rabbits to the amount of lettuce and grass (and garden flowers) available for rabbits to eat. A rabbit-rich world is a lettuce-poor world, and vice versa. The obverse of a population problem is a scarcity problem, hence a resource-allocation problem. There is only so much lettuce to go around, and it will have to be allocated somehow among the rabbits. Similarly, in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information resources that might consume it. — Herbert A. Simon, Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World

How does your organization allocate attention? What system do use to decide which information to put on your homepage?

Does everybody at ODI have equal influence on what goes on your homepage? Is ODI a democracy? I’m guessing that it isn’t. It’s probably a top-down system… some leaders ultimately decide what goes on your homepage.

But do you have proof that top-down systems are the best way to allocate attention? I’m pretty sure that you don’t.

My best guess is that the market is the best way to allocate attention. For example, right now the Libertarian Party is using donations to rank convention themes. How the themes are ranked will determine how attention is divided among them.

Except, donors don’t have the opportunity to decide which content goes on the Libertarian Party homepage. Can the market be suboptimal for ranking content but optimal for ranking themes? Nope. Information is information… there can only be one best system for ranking it.

On Honest Cash (HC) the market is used to rank all the content… but what do you see on the homepage? You don’t see the most valuable content. This is a really big problem, and I’ve been trying to persuade the founder to solve it. Ideally the decision should be made via… the market.

If my assumption about markets is correct, then HC will prove that the market is the best system for allocating attention. As a result, all democratic systems and top-down systems will be replaced with market systems.

Is my assumption correct? We should find out sooner rather than later. So far I haven’t had much success persuading prominent people to help safely test and compare their preferred systems.

It’s not like Taleb is shy. If he thought that my suggestion was stupid, then he’d say so and then he’d probably block me. So far he hasn’t done either.

If my assumption about markets is correct, then HC is going to make it harder and harder for people to ignore the truth about markets. At what point will Taleb say something relevant? And what, exactly, would he say? “Yes, I knew all along that markets are vastly more effective than democracies at allocating attention, but I didn’t say anything because…discretion is the greater part of valor.” Nope. Nope. Nope.

Anyways, now I’ve put you in the same boat as Taleb and a bunch of other people. You can’t say that I didn’t give you a heads up. But you can say that I didn’t do a very good job of explaining the benefit of safely testing and comparing different economic systems. Heh. Why is that funny? It’s funny because…

  1. explaining things really isn’t my forte
  2. I really shouldn’t need to explain the benefits of safely testing and comparing different economic systems

The benefits of safe experimentation should be self-explanatory.

I’d be surprised though if you joined Honest Cash. I’d be even more surprised if you managed to persuade your leaders to give donors the opportunity to prioritize your organization’s information. But I sure would enjoy being very pleasantly surprised!