Why we should charge for reading free stuff

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In 1971 – 1971! – Herbert A. Simon – participated in a discussion about the problems of an information rich world.

He reminded the audience of how economics works. Let’s say we have rabbits – and we end up with lots of little rabbits as a result.

Our world has an abundance of rabbits – we’re literally swamped by them.

But, abundance is always accompanied by scarcity.

In our rabbit rich world, there isn’t enough lettuce to go around – so we have a lettuce poor world.

And it’s the same with information. In a world where there is lots of information there will be a lack of something – the something that information consumes.

And what is that? Information consumes attention.

So, to properly value our attention, we should really price up how much our time costs and charge ourselves for the lost attention.

In simple terms, if we make $20 an hour – reading a magazine costs the $5 it takes to buy it and the $20 it takes to read it.

Even if the information is free, it isn’t costless, using this approach.

So, the second point Simon makes is that we should choose how we allocate our attention very carefully. We need filters. We need ways of taking lots of information and only paying attention to what matters.

That means we need processes to filter information. Analysts who take it all and put out only what matters.

Too many analysts thing that their job is to feed people with information. That’s just wrong.

Their job is to hack away at the information and leave only what matters.

And the same thing applies to how we store information.

In a world where we can find information on almost anything on the internet, there is simply no need to keep it.

We need to move from storing information to being able to find it when needed.

That’s where computers come in. Used properly, they help us. Used poorly they become gigantic sinks of unprocessed, unfiltered information.

According to Simon, we need to make a simple change.

We need to change from thinking that we need more information – that more information is better – to thinking of our attention as being a scarce resource that must be preserved.

Our focus should be on less but better.

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