In this volume, Crawford is interested in exploring the “economy of our attention,” most notably the fact that we seem to be increasingly distracted, harried and hassled. We’re the sort of folks who complain about the unrelenting hailstorm of email, yet spend our free time hunting and pecking through our inboxes.
A few years back, Matthew Crawford had a modest bestseller on his hands with the provocative Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. An erstwhile philosopher trained at the University of Chicago, Crawford had forsaken a fat stack of cash working for a think tank for a motorcycle repair shop. Shop Class as Soulcraft was a meditation on that move, the nature of work in the 21st century, and a passionate manifesto for the dignity and importance of working with your hands.
Crawford continues developing these themes in his newest book, The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in the Age of Distraction, published this spring by Allen Lane. His motivation to write is slightly different this time around, however. In this volume, Crawford is interested in exploring the “economy of our attention,” most notably the fact that we seem to be increasingly distracted, harried and hassled. We’re the sort of folks who complain about the unrelenting hailstorm of email, yet spend our free time hunting and pecking through our inboxes.
There are rather well-circulated theories about the source of this distraction, and most seem to place the blame on those electronic devices that chime, buzz, and otherwise interrupt a good old-fashioned tête-à-tête. Who hasn’t sat awkwardly at the pub, waiting for one’s conversation partner to relinquish their gaze from a sleek glass and silicon gadget?
We love complaining about our smart phones almost as much as we love caressing them, but Crawford thinks the source of our distraction runs much deeper. He locates it in Enlightenment notions of autonomy – the idea that we have no master other than ourselves. We may flatter ourselves with our supposed independence, but that independence may in fact be the actual grounds by which the “ecology of our attention” is coopted and colonized by advertising and corporate interests. We invoke autonomous choice “as a content-free meta-good,” but all choice is made in an environment lousy with noisy advertisements that, like salty junk food, shape our appetites and actually warp that sense of authentic, autonomous choice we think we might actually have. “The resolutely individualistic understanding of freedom and rationality we have inherited from the liberal tradition disarms the critical faculties we need most in order to grapple with the large-scale societal pressures we now face.”
Assiduous readers may quarrel with Crawford’s shotgun-blast approach to our Enlightenment inheritance. Surely the Enlightenment and its occasionally cacophonic choir of voices has given us a self-understanding that is more complex and nuanced than the one under scrutiny here. Yet his point remains well-crafted and well-taken. In fact, it – perhaps unwittingly – evokes some deep Biblical wisdom about the kind of creatures we are. His description of the perils of autonomy reminded me of one of theologian Stanley Hauerwas’ dictums: “the biggest lie we’re told these days is that we have no story but the story we chose for ourselves when we had no story.” We are creatures who crave some purpose, some story bigger than ourselves, and Crawford contends that we thrive under discipline, submission and tradition, despite the fact that our modern sensibility would consider those to be dirty words.
The bulk of Crawford’s book is built around elaborating what discipline, submission and tradition may look like for distracted folks craving a “well-ordered ecology of attention.” Unsurprisingly, he has high praise for the sort of work that requires disciplined focus and skilled hands: the habits and techniques of short-order cooks, jazz musicians, glass blowers and organ makers are all lovingly described. His elaboration of the concept of cognitive extension – the feeling of oneness that a hockey player has with his stick or a musician has with her instrument is particularly compelling. Crawford gathers in less tangible trades too – he writes of how the best scientific inquiry happens in cultures where young scientists are trained in submission to a mentor who places high importance on tradition.
We may inhabit a distracted culture, but lately I’ve noticed a renewed attention to questions of vocation and calling among Christians. Maybe it’s because of an unpredictable job market, or because we often find work that feels rather insubstantial, but we’re up for great discussions again about the nature and purpose of work and about the sort of things that are worthy of our attention. Those conversations compel to consider what sort of creatures we are, which means they can’t help but be theological. I couldn’t detect whether Crawford has any particular religious affiliation, but either way, The World Beyond Your Head has much to offer those sorts of conversations.