The World Beyond Your Head

On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction

"In the darker precincts of capitalism,” warns Matthew B. Crawford, “things are being designed to foster disengagement, to the point of inducing a kind of autism.” Consider Las Vegas. The rows of video slot machines, with their blinking dollar signs and promises of mega-jackpots, seem to offer unlimited choice and chance, but they are actually insidious traps. These slots are less likely to give big payouts than the old mechanical machines, yet their screens project the illusion of near wins. The old levers have been replaced with push buttons, the mechanically spinning reels with video screens. The result is that the “rate of play” has increased to over a thousand games per hour, which “makes the experience more absorbing, and hence also tends to extend the duration of play,” Crawford writes. Casino designers call this “player-centric” design, as if it somehow empowers gamblers, yet Crawford tells stories of how some become so absorbed that they urinate in their pants, while others impede EMTs rushing in to help heart-attack victims.

Vegas has figured out that the most valuable resource is its gamblers’ attention, but video slot machines are only an egregious example of the growing “attentional economy.” In The World Beyond Your Head, Crawford catalogues the omnipresence of flat screens in airports and restaurants, the advertisements that now pop up after you swipe your credit card in the grocery store, the Korean subways that release the scent of coffee right before the Dunkin Donuts stop. Crawford says that we often blame our diminishing attention spans on technologies like smart phones, and there is some truth in that, but it lets the main culprits off the hook. Focusing only on the technological device veils the agency of the companies that decide to inundate us with images, sounds, and smells. Blaming technology doesn’t cut through the myth of “techno-inevitability,” our pervasive “readiness to regard technology as a force with its own magical imperatives, rather than as an instrument of human intentions.”

Crawford claims, therefore, that our problem is more political than technological. Unfortunately, we don’t even have the political vocabulary to protest the invasion of our daily lives: “Our annoyance dissipates into vague impotence because we have no public language in which to articulate it.” To fix this, Crawford suggests, we “need to sharpen the conceptually murky right to privacy by supplementing it with a right not to be addressed. This would apply not, of course, to those who address me face-to-face as individuals, but to those who never show their face, and treat my mind as a resource to be harvested by mechanized means.” But the problem is not just our lack of an appropriate political vocabulary for our desire to be left alone. Crawford argues that our reigning political vocabulary actually facilitates the assault on our attention. Corporate bombardment is reinscribed in our public discourse as the expansion of “choice,” which is by default a good thing. Arguing about good and bad ends is too “judgmental” for a liberal democracy, so our public morality makes choice an end in itself. But making freedom of choice an ultimate value is actually an abdication of value altogether, for a choice is always a means to an end. In the case of video slot machines and a never-ending cascade of intrusive advertisements, the end is decreased agency and greater alienation. “To capital,” Crawford writes, “our moral squeamishness about being ‘judgmental’ smells like opportunity.”

Crawford is not afraid to be judgmental. He castigates casinos, video games, automatic braking systems, MOOCs, and the new Mickey Mouse Club. He is equally withering about the type of people they aim to form—unskilled, undisciplined, narcissistic, fragile, more comfortable in virtual reality than the real world. Nietzsche’s last men are not mentioned by name, but Crawford’s “pliable choosers” bear a family resemblance. Even so, Crawford is ultimately as constructive as he is critical. His 2010 bestseller Shop Class as Soulcraft offered a provocative defense of working with one’s hands, and this new book elaborates a similar solution to our current woes—“skilled practices” that build up both our attention span and our physical and mental competence. Such practices draw us out of the digital ether and into contact with the tactile world and other human beings. Crawford balances his depictions of slot machines and intrusive advertising with vividly rendered case studies of skilled practices, such as racing motorcycles, playing ice hockey, playing guitar, blowing glass, and building organs.

Crawford uses these case studies to articulate a revisionist model of human action. He argues that modern science unleashed the terror of determinism. Free will became an illusion, and there emerged a picture of humans batted around by forces outside their control. Kant countered this with his ideal of autonomy, of self-ruling rationality abstracted from external influences. Crawford argues that we still live in a world shaped by this Kantian ideal of autonomy. Kant’s view is problematic, though, because it overcompensates: it makes external reality a categorical threat to agency. Freedom becomes a feature of our inner mental life, not something acted out in the world. Crawford rejects the false dichotomy of determinism and free will, drawing on dissident strands of philosophy, cognitive science, and psychology to argue for a model of embodied agency. According to this model, the outside world certainly limits and shapes us, but the development of skilled practices allows us to navigate it in ways that ultimately focus our attention and expand our competence and agency. And since we usually learn these practices alongside others, often under the guidance of experienced teachers, they draw us into relationships with people as well as things. To learn a skilled practice like carpentry you have to humble yourself. You must endure failure, frustration, heckling, and perhaps injury, but you end up with expertise, confidence, and objective standards for judging your work and the work of others—all of which entail a truer and more enduring individuality than today’s hollow consumerist self-fashioning. This individuality also provides a surer foundation for democracy.

It is worth noting that Crawford seems to see a potential ally in religion. He mentions in passing that liturgy is another way of disciplining attention. Diminished attention spans present a problem to the church—especially if Simone Weil is right that the capacity for sustained attention is the prerequisite for prayer—but Christianity has significant resources, especially in its contemplative traditions, to address this problem. Perhaps one way, then, that the church can act as a field hospital in the modern world is to marshal those traditions to help resist the hegemony of distraction.

The World Beyond Your Head covers a lot of territory in three hundred pages. And while it certainly holds together, that coherence has a hard-won feel in places, with some strands of the argument reading like loose ends or hastily tied knots. Likewise, while Crawford is a lucid writer, the speed with which he moves through his argument can be a bit disorienting. The terms and concepts—“ecologies of attention,” “hyperpalatable stimuli,” “jigs,” “nudges,” “cognitive extension,” “affordances”—come fast and frequently. The book could perhaps stand either a little more philosophy (Kantians will undoubtedly have a bone to pick with Crawford, and a wider engagement with ancient and medieval philosophy and modern phenomenology would bolster the arguments for embodied agency) or a little less to make the book easier on the lay reader. Overall, this is not as accessible a book as Shop Class as Soulcraft.

But it is also a more ambitious book, and it deserves the same wide audience. The World Beyond Your Head confirms Crawford as an incisive and original cultural critic. He offers the kind of rare argument that cuts through stale political categories in order to address a pressing issue. Crawford’s attack on the insidious workings of capitalist marketing would seem to align him with the left, but his discussions of character, judgment, and standards of excellence sound more like the concerns of a conservative. An intellectual maverick, he at times comes across like a sort of motorcycle-riding Christopher Lasch. Both take sardonic aim at the moral flabbiness and narcissism that are fostered to keep us in line. Both hark back to an old republican political tradition that sees virtue and toughness as the prerequisite for either real democracy or radical resistance.

Published in the May 1, 2015 issue: 

Steven Knepper is assistant professor of English at Virginia Military Institute.

Also by this author
Liturgies of Loss

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion