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Attention is Scarce and What is a Venture Attentionist?
What are you attending to?
In a post I wrote a few months ago called Scarcity, Flow and Great “Glugs” I recount a lot of Albert Wenger’s thinking on the great ages of humanity and what he sees coming next from his book The World After Capital. Central to his argument is the idea that we can define these ages by that which is most scarce throughout the time. He claims we’re wrapping up having as our central defining scarcity, capital, and moving on to an age in which attention is most scarce.
Since reading the book a year+ ago this idea has stuck with me, bouncing around in the back of my head. Probably because I work in tech and have worked in startups that have fixated on raising money from venture capitalists, oh, and because Dr Wenger himself is one I suppose, I start to wonder about that role in society and through this transition. What do venture capitalists do? At the highest level, they allocate capital. More particularly, they allocate capital to riskier “ventures”. (Note: throughout the book Wenger clarifies that by capital he means roads and buildings and materials and not simply money, so I’m loosely representing his argument here.)
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Picture us a hundred years hence and we’re firmly in Wenger’s “Knowledge Age” in which attention is most scarce. Who allocates scarce attention? What does risk/venture look like in this age? Is there even an equivalent? In Part Three: Attention is Scarce, in his section on Attention, he differentiates between Individual attention scarcity and Collective. The risk in the first is that we attend to meaninglessness resulting in too many suicides and overdoses and lost potential/purpose in general. Instead of seeking out and living out a purposeful life we numb and surf channels, interwebs, TikTok algos. The risk in the second is we fail to attend to the greatest existential threats. Instead of problem solving how we might avert humanity-threatening risks like unaligned AI, asteroids, and climate change we’re all agonizing over Trump’s latest legal battles.
Venture capitalists, in theory, wisely allocate capital to the better risky options out of many possible investments. Feed this space or organization and not that one. Across the risk spectrum, these risky bets are better than those. They help us to not waste money. Help us to avoid “throwing good money after bad.” All in theory of course. (We can assume this is true of the best and there might be a long tail of just so so VCs).
So, do we need the help of “Venture Attentionists” to help us wisely allocate our attention to the better risky options out of many possible attentions? To help us to feed better objects of attention over others? While we don’t have venture attentionists, I argue we do have very aggressive Attentionists who allocate attention and live and die by it. Netflix being a great example of an organization that is constantly working to draw in everyone’s attention. The game of SEO is an arms race for attention. Just these two examples alone should bring to mind a million others. So many so that it’s hard not to see the extent to which we’re already living in an “attention economy”.
To avert the risk that humanity drives off a wasteful attention cliff in which we attend too much to meaninglessness and shirk our responsibility to solve problems threatening us as a species, Wenger suggests we maximize economic, informational and psychological freedoms. Economic being something like a universal basic income to exit what he calls the “job loop”, informational being internet access and wiser intellectual property laws, and psychological being moving beyond our addiction to consumption and keeping up with the Joneses. Taking these suggestions at face value we have to assume we don’t need individual, professional “Venture Attentionists” helping us individually and collectively better allocate our attention. Maximize freedom and wiser allocation will happen naturally. Don’t go with a planned economy. Let freedom reign. Invisible hand and laissez faire and all that.
There is a saying in VClandia, “If you want money, ask for advice. If you want advice, ask for money.” I’ve never raised or invested so this is pure hearsay but it does betray another role or value VCs often add to their portfolio companies, advice. It gets me thinking, what if people like coaches are the new VCs? Coaches are people you can talk through questions of breathwork, mediation, purpose, healing, new habits, etc. with. They can skillfully help you to fine tune your attention allocate your attention more wisely as an individual. (One of my favorite coaches to read used to be a VC actually Steve Schlafman.)
I think this Your Reading Life project can help individuals and collectives to more wisely allocate their attention too, even in groups. Retreat for a deep dive into great literature that brings meaning and deeper understanding of the human experience. You might tackle Tolstoy’s War & Peace in which Pierre is constantly cycling through existential crises. Not enough time to retreat? Do the same but over brunch in your city. As the board of a company, you have to work and think together so practice this by reading and dialoguing together. As a leader of humans, better explore the unavoidable human dilemmas that come with going first among a group. While Your Reading Life might not be allocating attention itself, it can inspire all of us to more wisely allocate our scarcest resource.
What are you reading at the moment?