Income Inequality: Attention Inequality

In an earlier post, I agreed with another author that the most motivated complainers about Inequality are the rich people complaining about the very rich: the 1% complaining about the 0.01%.   Going down the income ladder from those lofty heights, income inequality is lower in priority.

The earlier suggestion was that there was a competition among the luxury goods and opportunities.   Those are in short supply and are being hoarded by the extremely wealthy, leaving the merely wealthy unable to attain those same goods.

But why does that really matter so much?   The stuff available to the median income group is pretty good stuff.    A wealthy person should be able to own more of that stuff, and that should account for something.   Why is it so much more important to own fewer but rarer stuff?

Perhaps it is not about income at all.    Perhaps it is about access to attention.    The extremely wealthy have less attention to give the merely wealthy (who in turn have little attention to give the rest of the population).   Perhaps what really bothers well compensated people is that they can’t mingle with the extremely well compensated people.

I was thinking about experiences using the local subway system or flying across country.   In those environments we mix randomly with many different income levels including the high income crowd (though perhaps never the extremely high income crowd).   But in those environments we are all equal.   For the duration of the trip we are likely to start up conversation merely because of close proximity and a general feeling of comfort with each other.  Ok, that doesn’t happen much on the DC subway, but it does happen on planes.

On airline flights it is not uncommon that an unemployed person may be seated next to a corporate CEO flying coach.   If the mood is right, there may be lengthy conversation.   During the flight the income disparity means nothing, they are equals.

One way to complain about the extremely wealthy is to exaggerate this example by pointing out that they never fly coach or even first class.    The popular interpretation is that they are showing off their great wealth.   I suggest an alternative interpretation that they are not making their attention available to others.

To be honest, I was thinking about this inequality for a different reason until I thought I’d tie it to income.   I started thinking about my limited access to corporate leaderships (boss’ boss’ boss kind of level).   Given the difference in status, there was certainly an income differential, but that doesn’t really matter in an office environment.   The example I was thinking about was one where I frequently encountered this executive in the hallway.

The problem came up when I wanted his attention about a topic concerning the business.   I had been thinking a lot about what I was working on and how it could be the basis of a business model.   This was where the inequality becomes apparent.

I finally had the opportunity to present my case.   It was not a formal presentation so I rehearsed what I wanted to say from memory.   The meeting included some other managers.  It was my turn to talk, thinking I had a good chunk of that half hour to make my case.   45 seconds into my presentation, he interrupted me with a question: “what is it”.    I thought that is what I was trying to tell him.   Instead I got a lesson about the elevator pitch.   When you have access to someone at that level, you have about a minute to impress him what it is that makes your idea so compelling of his time.   The elevator analogy is imagine meeting such a person by chance taking the same elevator.  You have to make the pitch before reaching the floor when one of you have to leave the elevator.

I had a half hour slot of his time, and yet really I only had a minute.    I stumbled from that point and it is safe to say that he never learned what my it was.    He instead took the opportunity of the meeting to discuss related topics with the other managers.

I say he gave me the lesson of the elevator speech but I never really learned.   That scenario continued to repeat throughout my career including just a few months ago.   Actually, I was trying to make the same point with a different boss’ boss’ boss.   I had more time to think about it, and again I had a half hour slot but only single minute or so to hook the audience.   I’m just now comparing the scenarios separated by over a decade.  It played out pretty much the same way.   In this most recent case, I was droning on while my audience was busy whispering to each other, but loud enough so I can tell they were talking about something completely unrelated.

In this scenario, income inequality doesn’t matter at all.   There was a completely different and more forceful inequality going on.  That was an inequality of attention.   In both cases, my entire attention was theirs for the half hour but their attention was exhausted after a minute or so.

I extrapolate from that experience to what it may be like to be rich and resentful of the very rich.  I can imagine being in some exclusive social event.   Everyone in the room is rich, but there are some who are extremely rich.   Among the merely rich, there are lengthy and entertaining discussions.   In the unlikely event that there is an opportunity to meet the extremely rich, the encounter is extremely short and permanently ended for the remainder of the event.    This is not a resentment about wealth, it is resentment about the extremely wealthy having a reason to have have so little attention to spare.

Going back to the work example, allow me to compare the truncated experience with the executive with the experience with coworkers.  In an office environment, there is a wide range of staff with different levels of experience and expertise.   There is obviously a wide range of income disparity.   In a government office, this disparity is public knowledge in the form of GS-level.   Yet, there is little sense of inequality.   At least none that I could detect.   We all gave each other lots of attention, often all the attention each of us wanted.  If someone had something to say to me, I would give him all the time needed to say it.  Likewise if I had something to say, often I would get the chance to fully say it.

Equality is not always measured in terms of income.  Equality can be in terms of attention.   Attention equality means getting as much attention from someone as I would give to them.   Attention inequality can be very annoying.

An example of attention inequality is a celebrity performing on a stage.   One person performing with the full attention of hundreds.   There is no expectation that hundreds will get equal individualized attention in return.    The celebrity may in fact be on top in terms of income inequality but that doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the celebrity simply doesn’t have enough attention to share.

Among the ways one can characterize the extremely wealthy is the fact that they are so inaccessible.   They have huge mansions on large inaccessible lots.   They travel in private planes.   In general they live lives that are inaccessible to all but the very closest few.  When they are available to a larger crowd, they are sociable but in the same elevator sense.   After a minute it is time to move on.

This post is not really about income inequality.   It is about attention inequality.   I just happen to think a good part of the complaint about income inequality is actually about attention inequality.

I started thinking about attention inequality as I was thinking about how there is this constant struggle of getting an audience to pay attention to something that takes a while to explain.   In particular, I was thinking about how that struggle plays out in the work place.

I remember the introduction to making briefing slides (before the age of power-point).    The entire concept of making slides seemed degrading for someone who knows some material very well and needs a solid chunk of time to talk about it.   I’m thinking specifically of an experience of listening to a senior analyst (who convinced me he knew a lot) complain about having to make slides.    Give him a stage and he could talk for an hour without any notes at all.

Even at that time the attention shortage was evident.   A presentation couldn’t be a speaker speaking from a podium.   It had to have projected slides.  The slides had to have a bullet list of key points.   There should be 3-7 points on the page.  If there are sub topics there had to be at least two for any topic and in either case they counted as part of that 3-7.   The lines had to be in large font and the statements had to fit on a single line.   The words should be spelled out (no abbreviation) but sentence fragments were accepted.  The audience expected the speaker to say out loud every word on the slide and then promptly move on to the next slide.

This is not the kind of detail the presenter wanted to cover.   Sometimes they found rebellion in that they could have a slide of a graphic instead of text.   Before the relatively recent restrictions on graphics, one can cram a lot of information on a single graphic.   In fact,  I recall a briefing where the entire 20 minute presentation was talking to one slide.    It probably didn’t occur to anyone that the presenter rebelled and got the presentation he would have gave without any projection at all.

With the introduction of computer screen projectors, there became the opportunity to add animation to the slide.   The animation gave the expert speaker more time to talk while audience was entertained by the largely irrelevant animation such as flying or fading text.   (Such techniques also gave opportunities for the less expert presenter to be more interesting).

As time progressed, there was more restrictions on information content that can be presented.   The argument was that even though everyone is seated in the presentation room for a full 20 minutes, they have a very limited amount of attention to give.    A ideal slide is one that has a bold color background, some repeated master-slide pattern, and a single line of message of not more than four words.   We are told that that is about the limit of what people can absorb.

We know from experience that people can absorb a lot more.   We know this from our experience in the office where everyone gives each other lots of attention and seem to get the message.   But, we are told, that is not a typical audience.   The typical audience needs the knowledge to be condensed into the absolute minimum needed to get the complete concept across.

Condensed completeness described much of modern conversations, especially in public debates.   Entire arguments are reduced to simple condensed concepts such as “Anti-science”, “Climate Change”, “Pro-Choice”,  “Income Inequality”, “Student Protest”, etc.    These are not words, they are entire presentations.  A twenty minute presentation of Income Inequality can be summed up by the words income inequality.

A more verbose version of condensed completeness is the 140-character messages for Twitter.   For most messages, this seems to be more than adequate, but there is still evidence of rebellion.    The first evidence is the use of extreme abbreviations that never occurred before.   The next was including a URL to a web site that would provide a more extensive discussion.   URL-shorteners became available to allow more of the 140 characters to motivate others to actually go to the URL.   But the best example is the use of an URL to an image file.  A  picture can be worth a 1000 words.   My favorite though is the linked picture is a scanned image of a document with paragraphs of information.     I am not active on twitter so I’m not sure how well these go over, but I can imagine complaints that this is not condensed enough.

There seems to be a conflict between two types of people: one who requests a lot of attention from another who doesn’t have that much attention to give.    There are a lot of cleverness to try to cram more information into narrow attention spans but the trend is for the attention spans to get even narrower.

This becomes an inequality problem when the one with narrow attention opportunity demands and receives extensive attention.

I can only expect a minute of attention from my boss’ boss’ boss.    In contrast, he’ll receive my attention for as long as he feels necessary to convey his thoughts.    That’s annoying.    That’s attention inequality.   Coincidentally, it just happens to correlate with well with income inequality.


2 thoughts on “Income Inequality: Attention Inequality

  1. Pingback: Income inequality and the inequality of patience | kenneumeister

  2. Pingback: Income and wealth inequality are different: income is contingent on conformity | kenneumeister

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