The Attention Economy is Now the Location Economy

It's not all unicorns and rainbows in Silicon Valley these days. Already, voices are starting to grumble that it is The End of the Beginning for Silicon Valley, that Startups Are Boring, and that Facebook is the Last Great Company of the Desktop Age. And they’re right -- the wonderful burst of innovation that brought us companies like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Zynga and Groupon is starting to run its course. Each new startup that's touted as the Next Big Thing - like Quora or Color or Pinterest - turns out to be disappointingly derivative rather than anything breathtakingly new. No wonder thought leader publications like The Atlantic are telling us that “the jig is up” for the Internet. We need a fresh new paradigm, and here it is: the Attention Economy is now the Location Economy. 


The Attention Economy paradigm was, in many ways, the fundamental building block for understanding the rise of social media and social networking. This paradigm rested on a simple, but amazingly robust, observation – that the scarce resource in our information overload world was attention. The number of blog posts, of tweets, of YouTube videos, of status updates - you could easily draw an exponential curve to track the growth of any of them. And "Attention" was more than just a buzzword used by digital media types - it was backed up by early work on Attention Economics dating back to the early 1970s. Early on, influential social scientist Herbert Simon recognized the value of attention:

"...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 sources that might consume it."

The Attention Economy was a wonderful paradigm for understanding the desktop Internet era, giving us all kinds of useful heuristics for comprehending the information explosion of the digital age. It gave us the “filter,” the “feed,” the "curator" and the Social Graph. It taught us to think in terms of “second screens” and brainwashed us all into thinking we had to become digital multi-taskers. It helped us to understand why content was getting shorter and pithier every day. It helped us make sense of all the emerging forms of Internet advertising, and how they sought to wrestle away our attention. At a time when we all felt like we suffered from a case of digital ADD, Attention Economics recognized that each of us had only a few minutes each day to drink from the information firehose of the Internet. Our attention was the scarce resource in digital world of full-screen takeovers, blinking banner ads and non-stop feeds, streams and flows.

But attention is no longer the scarce resource in the world of the mobile Internet - it's location. This should be intuitively obvious – you can only be in one place at one time – what could be scarcer than that? And, as more people use their smart phones and tablets to access the Internet, location will become ever more important.

The problem is that the leaders of the desktop Internet era - companies like Facebook and Twitter - continue to play an escalating game of attention economics, viewing everything through the prism of Attention. Each new innovation they have for making money is based on trying to capture our Attention and then selling it to advertisers. They are trying to find ways to get our Attention by inserting content "organically" into our feeds and flows.

However, the leaders of the mobile Internet era – Apple and Google – are starting to view everything through the prism of Location. Why else do you think Apple and Google are waging a battle royale over something silly like Maps? Why do you think they are starting billion-dollar patent lawsuits over operating systems and mobile devices? They've discovered - either consciously or unconsciously - that Location matters a whole lot more than Attention these days. When you shrink the size of the screen, it has an impact on Attention. The smaller the screen, the fewer outlets you have for your attention at one time. You may tolerate scrolling tickers on the bottom of a huge screen, but not on a tiny mobile screen.

Now that smart phones are ubiquitous these days, with people carrying them around 24/7, it changes the economics of the Internet. What does every app ask for these days once you open it up? That's right - they request permission to use your current location. They don't even care if the app is running ambiently in the background, as long as they get your latitude and longitude. That alone should convince you that Location is more important than Attention.

As a result, we’ll start to see radically new types of companies that are built on the basis of Location rather than Attention. Take, for example, Badoo, the fastest-growing social networking service in the world. Instead of forcing you to think in terms of “friends” that you need to keep up with on a constant basis as they clamor for your Attention, Badoo makes things simpler. Badoo asks for your location and finds people around you - right now - that you might want to meet. Or, think of how brick-and-mortar retailers are experimenting with apps like ShopKick that only activate when your location has been detected inside a store. By knowing your precise GPS location, they can impact you at the point-of-purchase. If you're not in the store, they don't want your attention. Or, take for example, the controversial new political app from the Obama campaign. It realizes that relentless spending on TV ads and the creation of non-stop Internet content isn’t nearly as successful as it used to be. Instead, using a house-to-house ground strategy, the Obama team can use a mobile app to identify the location of potential supporters. Think about that for a second - the President of the United States would rather have your Location than your Attention.

What's interesting is that theoretical cracks are starting to form in the “Attention Economics” paradigm, as critiques of the Attention Economy begin to become more common. These theoretical cracks seem to verify everything that we’re seeing and feeling in our digital lives. Don’t believe me? The next time you’re on the subway, or relaxing on a park bench or hanging out at a restaurant, take a look around and notice how people are interacting with their mobile devices. They are laser-focused on a single tiny screen at one time. Ask them how many apps they have open at one time – most likely, it's just one. They're not multi-tasking, they're single-tasking with a single screen while simultaneously beaming out their GPS location. If the "social" revolution that brought us Web 2.0 was all about Attention, then the new mobile revolution will be all about Location.

image: Social Network on a Smart Phone / Shutterstock

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.