A Brief History of the Corporation: understanding what an attention economy is and where it comes from

Venkatesh Rao's tour-de-force blog-post, "A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100," is an attempt to synthesize several accounts of economic trends and the institutions that fuel and benefit from them, primarily corporations. Beginning with the age of mercantilism and the East India Company's many bubbles and busts (not to mention ruthless conquests and brutal consolidations); Rao moves onto the "Schumpeterian" era where growth was driven by innovation and the "colonization of time" in the form of "labor-saving" devices that let corporations capture more value from their workers. Rao concludes with a brief section on the current era, the "Coasean" period in which individuals, coordinating among each other, are at center stage -- basically, maker culture. Part history lesson, part economic speculation, Rao's essay is provocative, a little esoteric, well-written and challenging.

Take an average housewife, the target of much time mining early in the 20th century. It was clear where her attention was directed. Laundry, cooking, walking to the well for water, cleaning, were all obvious attention sinks. Washing machines, kitchen appliances, plumbing and vacuum cleaners helped free up a lot of that attention, which was then immediately directed (as corporate-captive attention) to magazines and television.

But as you find and capture most of the wild attention, new pockets of attention become harder to find. Worse, you now have to cannibalize your own previous uses of captive attention. Time for TV must be stolen from magazines and newspapers. Time for specialized entertainment must be stolen from time devoted to generalized entertainment.

Sure, there is an equivalent to the Sun in the picture. Just ask anyone who has tried mindfulness meditation, and you'll understand why the limits to attention (and therefore the value of time) are far further out than we think.

The point isn't that we are running out of attention. We are running out of the equivalent of oil: high-energy-concentration pockets of easily mined fuel.

The result is a spectacular kind of bubble-and-bust.

A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100

(via Futurismic)

(Image: Red Wing Shoes Factory Tour, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 94693506@N00's photostream)

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