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J.A.A. Purves

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (2015)

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(A&F links to The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010) by Nicholas Carr and The Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction (2011) by Alan Jacobs.)

 

This book just came out on March 31st.  If you haven't read Crawford's first book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2009), then I can highly recommend it as well.

 

Rod Dreher, The American Conservative:

“... Reading Matthew Crawford’s new book ‘The World Beyond Your Head’ is, I think, going to be a game-changer for me, because he’s making me realize how much I really do live within my own head, and how thoroughly mediated is my engagement with the world.

In ‘How Dante Can Save Your Life’, I write this about Sloth:

‘Sloth means laziness, but it also means apathy, or a sense of dejection that causes you to lose interest in the world beyond yourself. Before reading the Commedia, my idea of slothfulness was the sluggard who won’t get off the couch and mow the lawn, or the teenager who would rather play video games than do his homework. It’s far more complicated than that, says Dante, who approaches the subject through a discussion with Virgil about love.

    A certain unhealthy indifference to the world beyond yourself is an effect of depression. That’s a medical condition that is not the same thing as sloth, which requires a moral choice. My doctor had told me that I was depressed. But that did not let me off the hook for sloth, because in my case the separation was not as clean as I thought.’

I’m realizing that you can be slothful while at the same time being extremely busy. This is how I live, because it’s my natural disposition. But it is wrong, and I have to change. This isn’t news to me, but it seems that I have to keep learning it. My impulse to live online, and not in the real world, is overwhelming, in part, I think, because it’s how my brain is constructed, but mostly because, well, it’s what I prefer to do. But my preferences are not justifiable. To put it in Crawfordesque terms, I am not free, because I don’t assert control over my deep, almost compulsive, desire to live online, avoiding the unmediated gaze of others ...”

 

Michael S. Roth, The Chronicle of Higher Education:

"... 'The World Beyond Your Head' begins with a terrific introduction, 'Attention as a Cultural Problem.' The concern isn’t just the technological appendages like computers or iPhones that we’ve come to depend on; it’s that we can’t control our own responses to them. 'Our distractibility indicates that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value,' Crawford writes. Everywhere we go, we are assaulted by commercial forces that make claims on our mental space, so that 'silence is now offered as a luxury good.'

 

That isn’t just inconvenient. It destroys independence of thought and feeling: 'Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will.' And they have gotten very good at manipulating our environment so that we are turned in the directions that can be monetized. But it’s really bad for us. 'Distractibility,' Crawford tells us, 'might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity.'

 

We have become more vulnerable to this regime of manipulated attention, he argues, because we have only individualism as a defense. The Enlightenment quest for autonomy leaves us powerless against those who mount noisy appeals to our personal preferences, in service of manipulating us. Against this tendency, Crawford argues for a situated self, one that is always linked to (not independent of) the environment, including other people. We may not be in a bike-repair shop, but we are always somewhere ..."

 

Gracy Olmstead, The American Conservative:

“... ‘The World Beyond Your Head’ isn’t about technological distractions, it’s about another kind of virtual reality and its deceptions—about the epistemological frauds we have believed since the Enlightenment. The premise of Crawford’s book is that our distractedness is merely symptomatic of a deeper cultural defect, a misrepresentation of the self that has permeated our society. He traces this back to Enlightenment philosophy, especially the thought of Immanuel Kant. Enlightenment thinkers of the late 17th and 18th centuries presented a view of the person that contrasted drastically with medieval and ancient thought: they put unprecedented emphasis on the rational individual as separate from society or community. They posited new theories about freedom founded upon reason and self-determination, with epistemological roots in ideas such as Descartes’s famous claim that ‘I think therefore I am.’ Kant believed that knowledge and ethics must necessarily be situated within the mind — that existence must be interpreted through the autonomy of the individual.

In advancing this claim, Kant built a ‘high wall between the empirical world and the purely intellectual, where we discover a priori moral laws,’ writes Crawford. ‘Reasons to act must come only from the latter if we are to be free, and the will is to remain pure, ‘unconditioned’ by anything external to it.’ This has led to a society in which individuals can never fall back on real-world authorities, traditions, or supports. Rather, we are constantly striving to develop lives of meaning without any outside recourse. The soul is increasingly insulated from the world outside our heads. Whereas in the real world, Crawford writes, ‘we are subject to the heteronomy of things; the hazards of material reality,’ what Kant has given us is our modern identification of freedom with choice, in which choice is a ‘pure flashing forth’ of the individual will.

This association set the stage for today’s culture, in which choice ‘serves as the central totem of consumer capitalism, and those who present choices to us appear as handmaidens to our freedom.’ ...”

 

Alan Jacobs, Text Patterns:

“... I have been reading and enjoying Matthew Crawford’s ‘The World Beyond Your Head,’ and I’ll have more to say about it here later. I strongly recommend it to you. But today I’m going to talk about something in it I disagree with. On the book’s first page Crawford writes of ‘profound cultural changes’ that have ‘a certain coherence to them, an arc — one that begins in the Enlightenment, accelerates in the twentieth century, and is perhaps culminating now. Though digital technologies certainly contribute to it, our current crisis of attention is the coming to fruition of a picture of the human being that was offered some centuries ago.’

With this idea in mind, Crawford later in the book gives us a chapter called ‘A Brief History of Freedom’ that spells out the philosophical ideas that, he believes, paved the way for the emergence of a culture in which lengthy and patient attentiveness is all but impossible.

Since attention is something I think about a lot — and have written about here and elsewhere — I’m deeply sympathetic to Crawford’s general critique. But I am not persuaded by his history. In fact, I have come to believe — as I have also written here — that the way Crawford tells the history has things backwards, in much the same way that the neo-Thomist interpretation of history gets things backwards. I don't think we have our current attention economy because of Kant, any more than we have Moralistic Therapeutic Deism because of Ockham and Duns Scotus.

To make the kind of argument that Crawford and the neo-Thomists make is to take philosophy too much at its own self-valuation. Philosophy likes to see itself as operating largely independently of culture and society and setting the terms on which people will later think. But I believe that philosophy is far more a product of existing social and economic structures than it is an independent entity. We don't have the modern attention economy because of Kant; rather, we got Kant because of certain features of technological modernity — especially those involving printing, publishing, and international postal delivery — that also have produced our current attention economy, which, I believe, would work just as it does if Kant had never lived. What I call the Oppenheimer Principle — ‘When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you've had your technical success’ — has worked far more powerfully to shape our world than any of our master thinkers. Indeed, those thinkers are, in ways we scarcely understand, themselves the product of the Oppenheimer Principle.

So while it is true that, as I said in one of those earlier posts, ‘those of us who are seriously seeking alternatives to the typical modes of living in late modernity need a much, much better philosophy and theology of technology,’ we also need better history — what I think I want to call a technological history of modernity ... Those of us who — out of theological conviction or out of some other conviction — have some serious doubts about the turn that modernity has taken have been far too neglectful of this material, economic, and technological history. We need to remedy that deficiency. And someone needs to write a really comprehensive and ambitious technological history of modernity. I don't think I’m up to that challenge, but if no one steps up to the plate ...”

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