The ghosts of many philosophers haunt the pages of Matthew Crawford’s new book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. Rather than embracing the standard coffee-mug view of philosophy as a repository of sage aphorisms to be summoned while sipping warm beverages, Crawford respects past thinkers enough both to argue with them and to notice their legacies in diverse cultural strata. He clashes with Kant while considering children’s cartoons; he sees an idea from Kierkegaard lurking behind the generic Muzak at a university gym; he uses Hegel to diagnose the contradictions of New Age concepts of self-realization.
These examples might suggest that Crawford’s book is a cranky critique of popular culture with a gilding of erudition to justify its curmudgeonly elitism. They might also suggest a fashionably postmodern swirling of disparate cultural elements into an undifferentiated swarm of allusions. Neither description is accurate. Crawford includes German philosophy, cartoons, cognitive science, gambling, hockey, advertising, organ-making, and many other heterogeneous subjects in his book for a good reason: all are relevant to his argument.
Summary diminishes the subtlety and power of the case Crawford makes, but it’s fair to say that his new book examines the political, cultural, cognitive, and ethical dimensions of attention. The resistance of his ideas to paraphrase reflects the craftsmanship of his arguments. A lack of extraneous content makes it hard to represent his thoughts with anything less than the paradoxically pointless map that Borges once imagined in a short story: something with a one-to one scale to the terrain it depicts. Given the impossibility of reprinting his entire book here, I offer the following in the spirit of an incomplete highlight reel.
One basic aspect of his argument is that the specious equation of individual freedom with consumer choice allows attention to be commandeered by corporate design. The saturation of public spaces with ubiquitous advertising superficially appears to promote agency: ads remind us of the dazzling range of goods from which we have the luxury of selecting. It may genuinely feel like a choice when your head swivels in the direction of a life-size picture of a provocatively posed lingerie model or a flashing sign spelling brand names in neon letters. Of course we are not literally incapable of ignoring these stimuli, but many attentional landscapes—from airport advertisements to casino slot machines—are engineered to exploit certain features of human cognition.
Just as our palates evolved to prefer sugars, fats, and salts, our minds are also predisposed by natural selection to notice attractive naked people, sudden movements, flashing lights, etc. Crawford argues that distractibility is the mental equivalent of obesity: the result of consuming too much of a certain class of “hyperpalatable” stimulus. Americans may still be most familiar with visual enticements, but advertisers have also begun colonizing other sensory modes: in South Korea, the scent of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee wafts through the ventilation system of some buses just before they stop outside a franchise.
Rather than being the default, public spaces that lack perpetual bombardment by advertisers are now themselves commodities for purchase: the business lounges at many airports feel relaxing and exclusive precisely because they are quiet and visually uncluttered. For the right price, your attention can be your own.
Crawford’s solution is not that we retreat into soothing sensory deprivation tanks; he advocates engaging with the “the brute alien otherness of the real” as apprentices and eventually masters. His ideals of focused attention are activities in which we exercise freedom not by purchasing products to express our will, but by submitting to the intrinsic demands of the external world in some restricted domain and accommodating its realities in skillful and intelligent ways. This sounds far more obscure than it actually is: playing ice hockey, practicing glassblowing, learning Russian, working as a short-order cook, building pipe organs, and playing an instrument are some of the examples he gives.
Nietzsche once said that joy is the feeling of one’s power increasing. Crawford appropriates the remark to argue that getting good at skilled actions fulfills a fundamental human need that our culture often neglects by offering instant technological solutions. In one fascinating section, he compares Mickey Mouse cartoons from the early and middle 20th century to children’s television today. The older shows present the physical world as a source of menace and humor: one thing that the constant collisions, crashes, explosions, and general slapstick show is that characters are subject to immutable laws of physics. Nature does not pander to its denizens; it follows that it’s a good idea to pay attention to the world and try to understand how it works rather than how you would like it to work.
In the contemporary Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, by contrast, a Handy Dandy machine solves problems by presenting pre-approved options on a screen menu. Technology has conquered risk and peril, and material reality meekly obeys the wills of characters, provided they have the appropriate gadgets. “The hope seems to be that we will incorporate a Handy Dandy machine into our psyches at a basic level, perhaps through some kind of wearable or implantable device, so that the world will adjust itself to our needs automatically and the discomfiting awareness of objects as being independent of the self will never be allowed to arise in the first place.”
His evidence ranges from neuroscience research on embodied cognition to the philosophical literature on “affordances.” And his proposed solutions would affect everything from the nature of education to the design of public spaces to the engineering principles behind automotive manufacturing (he does not approve of the BMW feature that pipes fake engine noises through the audio system to “enhance” the experience of driving.)
However modern its implications, Crawford’s critique has ancient philosophical roots. Plato’s Socrates often contrasted the fraudulent pseudo-knowledge of Sophists to the genuine knowledge of craftsmen such as potters, masons, brick layers, or horse trainers. In his first book, Shop Class As Soulcraft, Crawford painted a similar contrast between intellectually vapid white-collar jobs and cognitively rich manual trades such as motorcycle repair. Members of these latter professions can appeal to a standard outside of themselves as evidence for their expertise. Sophists, like advertisers, use only persuasion as a standard of truth: if you believe something, then surely it’s true.
Any image of seductive representations that prevent the apprehension of reality evokes Plato’s allegory of the cave. Crawford sounds quite Platonic when he describes our minds extracting constants from the flux of the sensory world, or when he praises the philosophical capacity to love the truth more than one’s current state of understanding. He probably would not agree with Plato that we should abandon the illusions of the perceptible world and inhabit a purely intellectual realm in which unchanging moral and mathematical truths are contemplated. He shows instead the more Aristotelian belief that the truth is best apprehended by close study of many particular and contingent details. Aristotle once compared morality to medicine and sailing: each domain has general principles, but a true expert will always take account of local and situational conditions. Crawford offers a compelling general framework for the ethics of attention in this book; it’s up to each reader to test the wind, study the ocean currents, and learn the art of navigation.