Deep dive

What is the world’s scarcest resource?

Is it some precious metal forged over fiery eons in the heart of the earth? Gold, platinum, titanium? Is it a flawless gemstone, perilously extracted from subterranean mines and carved with microscopic precision into a thousand glimmering facets? Diamond, emerald, jade, or black opal?

Is it some life-sustaining commodity we, the fortunate few living in the land of abundance, take for granted every day? Drinkable water, farmable land, clean air to breathe? Is it Rh-null blood supply, stem cells, pangolin scales, moon rocks, da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi or a cantata written in Bach’s own hand?

I submit to you that the world’s rarest and most valuable resource is attention.

Attention fuels the global economy. It is the $360 trillion industry—the sum and source of the world’s wealth. Everything hinges on attention. Buying, selling, trading, inventing, cultivating, conquering, creating. It all depends on an 8-second blip of mental focus called the attention span.

Every company on earth exists to harvest your attention. They are competing for the world’s scarcest resource.

The Internet Changed Everything.

Attention was not always rare or valuable.

The global scale of this competition is an entirely new phenomenon. Until very recently in the course of human history, attention was hyper-abundant, cheaply extracted, and divided among a vanishingly small number of competitors (relatively speaking). 

Fewer direct competitors meant a lower premium on attention. Simply put, your attention wasn’t worth much when you had no options. The internet changed everything. 

Consider how this attention-competition plays out in your everyday life.

You want to catch up on the news?

Thirty years ago, you had one local newspaper and maybe three major channels on television. Today, it would be impossible to calculate the endless news mediums at your immediate disposal. You have instantaneous access to the newspapers, journals, and local broadcasts of the entire world.

You can view live, on-the-ground video feeds from the decimated streets of Aleppo to the sprawling, golden-roofed palaces of Tibet. Journalists can bypass the gatekeepers of public information and upload their content directly to Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter or websites they independently own and operate.

The competition has exploded from a handful of companies to millions of contributors publishing billions of pieces of news content every day. That’s just one example.

You want a new suit?

Twenty years ago, even the most fashion-forward city had only a couple of real competitors. Today, you can have your suit expertly tailored in Bangkok, Accra, or Milan—without leaving your living room.

You can buy gently used (and authenticated) vintage Versace attire from someone halfway across the country, just by tapping the screen of your iPhone.

Feeling generous?

Ten years ago, you could count on your hands how many nonprofit organizations you’d ever seen in action. Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, your local arts endowment or animal shelter—maybe your place of worship. Today, you can browse GoFundMe or KickStarter for millions of campaigns generating billions of dollars in donations.

You can finance micro-loans, instantly trade ETFs that pay out profits to charity, or disburse funds from your DAF with the click of a button. More importantly, Facebook and Google have engineered algorithms that target you for donations to the causes you are most likely to support.

The list goes on.

The internet lowered the barrier of entry for companies and organizations hoping to harvest your precious attention.

Goodbye, overhead—brick and mortar retail space, commercial property insurance, prohibitively expensive advertising channels.

But the internet did more than just add new competitors to the game. It changed the game entirely. The advent of the internet didn’t just create bigger, more crowded markets. It created a single, global, digital attention Agora.

Everything is now competing in the same space, for the same prize—your attention.

A news article isn’t just competing with other news articles. It’s competing with Careceni suits and Charity: Water’s fundraising appeal. It’s competing with cat memes, photographs of your best friend’s vacation to the mountains of Norway, Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, Richard Brody’s critique of “Paris Calligrammes”, a recipe for pan-seared duck breast in a port wine reduction, tomorrow’s weather forecast, real-time global market indices, and the two dozen unread emails haunting your inbox.

The entire concept of “direct competitors” has been transmogrified by the internet. Everything is in competition with everything online.

Attention is the new global currency. It’s the resource that powers the world’s first truly universal market, the internet.

It’s the treasure everyone is after. Right now, millions of terabytes worth of digital data are locked into a 24/7, zero-sum competition for your attention. And now, that globe-spanning, trillions-of-dollars attention war all takes place in the palm of your hand.

Read Part 2 of this series to learn how smartphones are rewiring our attention spans and transforming the competition for the world’s scarcest resource.

Need Help Finding Your Way in the Digital Space? 

SBA Small, Disadvantaged, Minority-Owned Business
NAICS: 541613, 519130, 541910, 541618, 541820, 561422
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