the world beyond coverCrawford, Matthew B. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, 2015 (305pp.$26)


“distracted from distraction by distraction…”

“Burnt Norton”

T.S. Eliot

Distraction and worry are the default modes of human consciousness, wariness hard-wired into our brains from two million years on the dangerous savannas of Africa. In these noisy postmodern times when late consumer capitalism and life in the cities is the organizational norm, attention and silence are hard to come by, corporations having turned both the space we inhabit and our minds (read “clicks” and “searches”) into profit centers and potential resources for exploitation by marketers. Corporations are bent on mining every square inch of public space, restaurants are crowded with television screens, airport concourses bustle with messages, phones, pads and computer terminals; people text while doing eighty on the Interstate. Even eye contact is rare, having been grabbed off long ago by television and smart phones; dog walkers on early spring mornings plug buds into their ears in order to hear loud hip-hop instead of birdsong. Concertgoers take phone calls in mid-Beethoven and raise their I-pads to take photographs as the pianist hits high C. Given these cascades of distraction, what’s in short supply these days is individuality based on attention, focus and practice. This is the ideational fulcrum of “The World Beyond Your Head”, Matthew Crawford’s intellectually exciting new book.

Crawford is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He’s also a trained motorcycle mechanic. His 2009 classic, “Shopcraft as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work” was a sustained philosophical and psychological investigation of the ethical connection between attention, focus and work in light of the de-skilling of American workplaces and the resulting loss of craft in factories, homes, and workshops. Based upon an epistemological theory claiming that knowledge is a form of embodied cognition (as opposed to classical Enlightenment theory that held knowledge to come from sense data alone), Crawford advanced a view of labor based on the idea of “flow” in psychology, “mentoring and authority” in education, and “excellence” in practice. Like its early ancestor “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Crawford’s approach to knowledge rejected the passive relation between observer and observed, positing instead the idea that nothing easy is likely to lead to skill.

“The World Beyond Your Head” takes these initial ideas and works them into an advanced philosophical, ethical, and practical take on postmodern life, a life that more and more looks untethered to “real things”, “skilled activities” or “attentive practices”, and instead finds itself overwhelmed by images and representations. In everyday terms, it means that the average teenager is more likely to play air guitar than to study music, more likely to bet on fantasy sports than learn to hit a great serve, more likely to porn-text than to write a poem. At base is an amazing fact: Human beings are capable of astonishing feats of understanding and creativity, yet few of us are able to sustain but a few seconds of real concentration. Most people on earth could no more stop the flow of their mindless thoughts than build a rocket ship.

Crawford begins his journey of philosophical exploration with an idea of excellence that involves the real world, a world of things that resist our manipulation. Things are “afforded” to us in life and are not useful, artful or pleasing to most of us without effort. The role of attention for Crawford is to bring the self into a relation of fit to the external world, part of a broader anthropological assertion running through the book that we find ourselves situated in a world that is not of our making, and that this “Being-in” is what makes us human. Encountering the world as real (and not as a video game, computer screen, I-pad or smart phone) can be a genuine source of pleasure despite the travails incurred when things “push back” (like guitar frets), revealing manufactured realities as pale counterfeits. As Crawford writes, “The cultural crisis of attention provides an occasion to…revisit the question of how we stand in relation to the world beyond our heads. Anything less far-reaching would be inadequate to the challenges we face.” The challenges are economic, social and political.

Crawford cites machine gambling in casinos as a prime example of distraction, brought to the fore by the design of the machine and its environment. Here, “choosing” replaces “doing” (as in mouse-clicking), an environment in which capitalism and its corporate avatars design products to create disengagement. Gamers, gamblers, cell-phone addicts, text fiends, television junkies, all exhibit a kind of autism of spirit by escaping to a zone of “pseudo-action” which has an acknowledged sort of ritual appeal. Take a look sometime at the football spectators in Dallas Stadium who are staring at the Jumbo-Tron overhead while a real game is taking place on the field below. In this regard, advanced economies are said to be moving away from producing goods or delivering services in favor of creating experiences. The present assault on our “attentional commons” means fewer social contacts among members of society, fewer skilled workers producing real products, and more isolation and anxiety in and among people in general.

Crawford’s noble effort in this brilliantly argued, artfully constructed, and deeply intelligent book is to give a positive account of action in its full human context, in which the actor is in touch with the world and other people. He gives the example from Iris Murdoch of the process of “learning Russian”. One is confronted by an authoritative structure that commands respect. “The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something that exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by the knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.” Learning piano is painful and difficult, as is learning to write poetry, repair motorcycles, or fashion a mortise joint. But it is the pain of pride and joy. Crawford’s insights, drawn largely from the epistemology of Husserl, Murleau-Ponty and Hegel, and the cognitive psychology of Lawrence Shapiro and others, offer up a serious proposal for the re-organization of education, economics, and social life in the Western World.

We must recognize our peril and lead ourselves away from the distraction of representations toward the clear clean light of attention, focus and skill. It will always be easier to log-on to “Garage Band” than to study flamenco guitar under a master. But the farther we wander from skill and attention into screen representations, the more disengaged, malleable and distracted we become. Corporations, politicians, Internet billionaires, dictators, and the NSA are counting on us to continue numb to reality. That guy walking in a rose garden staring at his smart phone is their bread and butter.