Saturday, August 26, 2006

Book Review: Richard Lanham's Economics of Attention

I wouldn't normally plug any books on this blog: I think it's somewhat stupid to advertise for someone for free. However, Richard Lanham's new book, The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance In the Age of Information (University of Chicago Press, 2006), addresses so many of the cultural quirks and rhetorical fallacies that I discuss here that I couldn't avoid it. I'll admit, I read and enjoyed his earlier work on rhetoric and the digital - his 1994 book The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts was one of the texts used in a seminar I took last year - but this book takes the ideas he posited in TEW (most of which proved to be correct) and examines them twelve years later.

Lanham's book is probably one of the finest pieces of rhetorical theory and application to appear in the past five years. In the Preface, he addresses the very reason I gave for writing when this blog appeared:
"Rhetoric" has not always been a synonym for humbug. For most of Western history, it has meant the body of doctrine that teaches people how to sepak and write and, thus, act effectively in public life. Usually defined as the "art of persuasion," it might as well have been called the "economics of attention." It tells us how to allocate our central scarce resource, to invite people to attend to what we would like them to attend to. Rhetoric has been the central repository of wisdom on how we make sense of and use information since the Greeks first invented it sometime in the last millenium before Christ.
The book discusses the "information economy" from a rhetorical perspective: we live in a society in which information is so abundant, and so key to economic success, that those whose work is most attractive to consumers are those who thrive, while others fall by the wayside. The key to understanding the "information economy" is understanding the rhetorical means - visual and linguistic - by which our attention is garnered by information providers; for, as Lanham would suggest, these means are rhetorical: they are conscious decisions related to persuasive means, with all facets save audience under the absolute control of the designer.

I won't spoil the entire book for you. I will say, however, that anyone interested in rhetoric, language, or digital media should at least read this book, if not purchase it. Mine's already full of pencil marks and marginalia.
Currently on miPod - Overture (Suite) no. 4 in D-Major, 1st mvmt., J. S. Bach