The Value of Human Attention Has Just Shot Up…

Posted 1 year, 2 months ago | Originally written on 2 Apr 2023

1996 was a seminal year. It was the year that I began life away from home. This was the year that I began high school.

As you can imagine, I was as excited and my mid mind filled with all the possibilities of what life away from home would be. By this point I’m my life, I had spend each and every night under the watchful gaze of my parents. But in the space of a few weeks I would begin the protracted journey towards independent life culminating in my present life in England.

A new life would mean the need for a fresh set of everything. Actually, there would be many items that I would own for the first time. Like most high schools, mine would require that students would have to procure a metal box—the confluence of security and storage: a secure cache for one’s meager earthly possessions. One of the items I most looked forward to was a fresh pair of shoes.

I recall walking along Kenyatta Avenue with my father knocking off one item after another from his todo list. In retrospect, we didn't have any particular schedule in mind but I'm sure he had a clear list of goals on his mind for the day. In any event, we found ourselves in front of a Bata shoe store and he thought it suitable to find a pair of new school shoes for me.

We had always bought school shoes from Bata. They were renowned for producing local, high quality leather shoes so this time would be no different. Well, I was wrong.

Over the preceeding months, any time we would pass by city shops, I noticed a surge in the number of alternative shoe establishments sporting a far greater variety of designs than I had seen at any Bata shoe shop. What's more, these shoes were dirt cheap. In response, Bata had itself secured a line of shoes just as fancy, with every hope of being able to compete. What I also noticed was that the price of a decent pair of leather shoes had shot up two-fold. In effect, consumers were now being forced to opt for what appeared for a greater deal as familiar value moved upstream.

Eventually, we secured my new pair of shoes. I can still remember how excited I was at being able to own such a pair, which appeared to exude a quality that had previously been beyond our reach. It turned out that I had not been the only one because my good friend James, who would join me at my alma mater similarly bought a pair.

Unfortunately, these shoes ended up being a pain to own. First, they were notoriously difficult to clean. Shoe polish never clung on well enough and they even began to fade along the part where my shoe brush would rub the most. Then, I recall having very sweaty feet and literally slipping in them either because they had facilitated a fungal infection or because they became the breeding ground for one. They lasted for the better part of one of a possible three terms and owning them was such a painful experience that it has since shaped my understanding of what I now know to be Gresham's law: bad money drives away good money. In the same way, low quality products 'drive away' high quality products and it takes some time before the market is able to catch on. In the meantime, poor souls like mine end up having to experience low quality driving up demand for good quality hence the move upstream.

Unbeknowst to me was that, for whatever reason or by whatever stroke of misfortune, Kenya had been infiltrated by an influx of very cheap plastic shoes. Some shrewd entrepreneur had discovered a source of ultracheap shoes of such varied designs that local producers would never be able to keep up and would ultimately be forced to follow a similar vein of stocking up on such products. Bata never quite recovered from this and I would not be surprised if this marked their decline. They were able to sort of reinvent themselves but only by charging far higher prices than they previously did.

Hence the plastic shoes I acquired from them. To be honest, to call these shoes is to misattribute them with noble value. As far as I am concerned, and the same applies to other similar products, these were designed only to complete the transaction in the name of shoes. They couldn't stand up to the name of being actual shoes. I would not be surprised if the introduction of these cheap shoes also coincided in a boom in sales of used shoes. It only dawned on me, years later, that some of my school mates had simply resorted to used shoes and had thus been able to own very high value shoes at very low cost with brands such as Clarkes, Reiker or Ecco.

So, what does this have to do with cocoa growing in Ghana?

Like everyone else, I've been trying out ChatGPT and I've been impressed at some of the responses I've received. I'm not quite sold on Bard though I expected it to be far smarter given Google's access to more than the Internet. These tools are heavily disclaimed to occasionally make mistakes, perhaps in an effort to absolve their parent companies from any liability. If you ask me, this strikes me as having your cake and eating it: benefiting from the glory of how they work while simultaneously distancing themselves from the errors they generate. So, while we are all impressed at what they can accomplish, we know that they can be wrong even though we can't put our finger on what is wrong in their responses.

That bothers me a lot. Why should I rely on them if they can be mistaken? What proportion of time are they mistaken? Are there any topics on which they never get mistaken? I feel like there is a great big chasm left open and I cannot fully trust that I can rely on the veracity of their responses. Which leads me to my point...

Human attention has just shot up in value.

Just as cheap plastic shoes flooded the Kenyan market in the mid 90's (for all I know) leading to the value of leather shoes shooting up, conversational AI (CAI) tools have raised the value of human expertise. Hence Gresham's law. (I'm not sure it fits commodities other than money but you get the point.) While a CAI can have orders of magnitude more knowledge that a human, the fact that they can be wrong is annoying enough to devalue them. Put it another way, now it pays so much more to be an expert in something even though ChatGPT or Bard can know so much more with the slight chance that lurking in its response is a fib that's made it through the machine.