Piketty for Attention

In between reading swathes of Peppa Pig to our youngest, I’ve started reading Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, the book that’s taking the economic and political spheres by storm.

If you want some quickfire synopsis pieces on it, try Paul Krugman in the New York Review of Books, or the Economist’s ‘Capital summarised in four paragraphs‘.  The book is changing the way that everyone is having to think about capital, wealth, and the widening inequality gap between richest & poorest.

Largely, of course, because it’s based on a lot of hard-graft data work, rather than messing about with theoretical models; as Piketty puts it, “the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for the purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences… this obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearence of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we  live in”.

There’s a lesson in that alone for planners and strategists of any discipline.

Rather than get into the economic and politics of the book though, I’ve been thinking about the main assertion that Piketty puts in the book, and wondering how it plays out in the media world.


Piketty’s point is neatly summed up by a very simple equation: r>g, where r is the rate of return on capital across the system, and g is the rate of economic growth.  The data suggests, say Piketty and team, that having money is greater than earning money.  You can make more money just by having a big pile of it than you can by starting from scratch and trying to earn it, taken across the board at the macro level.

This is the status quo of the capitalist system; through the twentieth century, there are decade long shocks (The two World Wars, with the great depression in between for instance), but we’re now return to the ‘norm’ of this system, and in some countries Voctorian-era levels of inequality.

What I’ve been wondering is if the same pattern plays out at the media level, with attention.

(I’ve been thinking a lot about this across the last year, with the Fracking the Social Web stuff, and if you haven’t read Matt Locke’s terrific thinking in his Empires of Attention then do so now.)

These aren’t answers, of course, but questions.  They’re probably questions that could be answered with data, too, but consider this a formative post to start thinking about the area.


In short, is the best way to grow attention to have lots of attention in the first place?

By having a big pot of users that people will hand over money in advertising money to access, do have ready access to capital that allows you to acquire more users more quickly than if you were starting from scratch?

This could either be in the form of spinoffs (unbundling one big service in to more smaller services), or just simply buying the rapidly growing competition.  The arms race between the technological giants to buy services which will now never grow to rival them; if they continue to be successful, great, more money for the pot.  If they stagnate, shrink, or even disappear, then fine, there’s one less gunslinger in town.

In the same way that the events of the mid-twentieth disrupted Piketty’s r>g, did the internet disrupt the media only in the short term, when the previous media giants suddenly found themselves exposed to the rapid growth of competitors.  In the medium and long term, are we settling back down into the previous pattern; the only way to get significant attention is to have significant attention?  Are these media giants the ones we’re now stuck with?





6 responses to “Piketty for Attention”

  1. Isn’t that just Byron Sharp restated?

    As for Piketty, it’s fine stating an equation that applied at some points in the past, it doesn’t mean it will in the future.

    1. john v willshire avatar
      john v willshire

      In a way, yes, there’s elements of Sharp. But (from memory) there’s no suggestion of the short term shocks in Sharp that allow the status quo to be disrupted – “things are always like this” seems to be Sharp’s position, in order to guide what people do. I’m more interested in Piketty’s approach looking at that data across time, and what it suggests.

      1. I’m sure you’ll write more about this. But, personally, I can’t get past Piketty’s r=5% assertion. It seems to have been plucked out of thin air.

  2. Read NN Taleb’s take on the research and methodologies underlying Piketty

  3. Not quite sure there’s quite a read across between the book and the attention economy, but at it’s most basic it’s a reminder that success breeds success.

    And I do think there’s something (a bit sad) about how mass media will constantly re-assert dominance, even despite the rise of self-publication etc. (Have a read of Tim Wu’s The Master Switch for a look at how ‘independent’ media channels are inevitably subsumed into big beasts because of the significant attention they can hold/generate). Really good, accessible book about the history of mass media. Which finishes just before the end of net-neutrality. And when that happens, we certainly will be stuck with the giants we’re now stuck with…

  4. power law distributions are so common in societies that it makes sense. it applies to money and it applies to attention, but what’s really powerful is when there’s organisations that have the majority of *both* money and attention i.e. apple, facebook, google etc. a prime example is when facebook witnesses another org getting more attention, they can just buy them up i.e whatsapp, intragram etc. facebook is no longer a social network, it’s an attention seeking monster. there’s some stuff in davenport’s attention economy but it’s a bit dull.