Profiting from neural congestion

October 9, 2007

Some years back, Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London introduced congestion charging for road vehicles wanting to occupy Central London’s road network during working hours. This makes sense since the supply of Central London roads is inherently limited and the demand for central London roads keeps increasing. Economics 101 suggests that congestion charging merely reflects Central London’s overall scarcity value. And although there is some debate about how successful congestion charging has been, it has now been extended to the west of London. Viewed from the perspective of someone (ie, me) who spend on average a week a month in Central London and does not own a car, the congestion charge has been a godsend.

The experience got me thinking: Is the concept of congestion charging generalizable? Would it find any application, for example, in the information economy? Consider the following. I am experiencing a growing number of claims for my attention – from my wife, my creditors, my students, from pop-up ads on the screen of my laptop, etc – but as with London’s road network, my ability to supply the required volume and quality of attention remains strictly fixed by the density of connections in my brain (my friends tend to stress the density rather than the connections). To cope with this imbalance, it would make sense for me to establish a schedule of neural congestion charges for those who aspire to enter my neural network. The schedule would be based on two criteria: 1) How far into the network does the intruder want to penetrate? 2) At what time? Taking each in turn:

  1. My wife, my son, and cognitive neuroscientists all agree that getting through to me is a multi-layer process. Some of the messages don’t get beyond the five senses, leaving my cognitive apparatus blessedly undisturbed. They represent purely experiential stuff – a fistful of Qualia. Benign titillations of my senses would be charged at a lower rate than those that require thought and mobilize those parts of my data processing apparatus currently mothballed. (If you are unsure which parts of your system are mothballed, try this test: look at a photo of Paris Hilton. Does it set you thinking?).
  2. At what time? The highest congestion charges would be incurred between 11pm and 7am when I am likely to be fast asleep. In the world of Atoms, these correspond to the times in Central London when there is little or no traffic entering the road network and minor road repairs can be carried out. In the world of bits it is the time when dreams are repairing faulty neural connections, and when I also want no external traffic clogging up my brain. The lowest charges would apply to those messages received between 6pm and 9pm for which mental alertness is not required. Say hi to Paris.

I am not the first one to suggest that in the attention economy, you will be paid to pay attention. But I may be the first to suggest that in the attention economy you can calibrate the process of attention-giving so as to maximize the value of your neural processing. Between 6pm and 9pm Paris Hilton trumps George Soros.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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