stuff vs. fluff


Do we have an economy of stuff or an economy of fluff? This is the question posed by Richard Lanham in his new book The Economics of Attention. Although I haven’t yet finished the book, the thesis is clear. Lanham argues that in an economy where stuff (i.e. the material or information goods that have utility for human existence) is becoming increasingly accessible to nearly everyone, the fluff (i.e. the packaging of the stuff) determines which stuff disseminates. We no longer live an age of resource scarcity, he argues, but rather the economy is characterized by attention scarcity. The winners are those who can best capture the attention of the public through effective packaging.

Lanham’s thesis, if you buy it, has important implications for organization theory.

The automobile business is not the only business to experience this change of focus from stuff to fluff. The triumph of brand recognition across the world of consumer productions testifies to the same reversal. Firms are beginning to outsource the actual manufacture of their products as tangential to their real essence, which is brand development and recognition. Attention engineering is replacing product engineering at the center stage. The CEO of a handheld computer company recently confessed that she has never even seen the factory in Mexico where her product is made. Stuff doesn’t matter. The manipulation of attention provides the crucial center. Design school, perhaps combined with library school, may be a better preparation for the felt realities of current business life than the MBA mills dedicated to the economics of stuff. Or, perhaps even better, a degree in the history of drama (pg. 19).

Lanham uses strong rhetoric to get his point across, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from him. After all, his whole argument is based on the premise that rhetoric and design are the new capital in our global economy.

Despite his convincing prose, I’m not sold on the idea that stuff no longer matters. What about the oil business? Now, more than ever, it has become apparent just how dependent we’ve become on this stuff. What about the evidence from the dot-com bust? Here was an entire industry based on a new form of packaging, and yet the value of dot-com companies is still questionable. In some ways, Lanham’s argument seems like a resurrection of ideas that were popular during the peak of the dot-com hype.

However, another side of me likes what Lanham has to say. While I remain skeptical, I’m willing to entertain the idea that fluff has increased in importance. As global competition increases in every economic sector, businesses must find new ways to get their products to consumers. Packaging and design are the filters that communicate the relevance of various stuffs out there. Further, net of every other characteristic, wouldn’t we rather consume products or believe information that is packaged attractively. As Teppo suggested, aesthetic form often outweighs functionality. And if there is no difference in function, who wouldn’t choose the more attractive form?

UPDATE: The Chicago Press blog posted an interview with Lanham about the book. Interesting.

Written by brayden king

July 7, 2006 at 3:08 pm

Posted in books, brayden

2 Responses

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  1. Just read chapter two of this book – available here…

    What is meant by form in this book is a kind of anti-form (very different from what I have posted about previously). In fact, form gets expunged as these artists create functionality by drawing attention (Duchamp, Warhol etc.), thus drowning out any kind of aesthetic essence.



    July 9, 2006 at 4:43 am

  2. I don’t take that as his meaning at all. Aesthetic essence is created by drawing attention to meaning that might otherwise be missed by the viewer. That’s the genius of Warhol.



    July 9, 2006 at 5:11 am

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