The attentional economy

“Silence is now offered as a luxury good”

By Molly Flatt 8 May 2015

In his new book, philosopher-mechanic Matthew Crawford asks what it means to be free in a distracted world.

It is with great relief that I watch, from between the heads of a sell-out audience in a humid room in Bloomsbury, Matthew Crawford pull an iPhone from the back pocket of his jeans.

A man in the audience has just asked how, considering that he has just written a book called The World Beyond Your Head: How To Flourish In An Age of Distraction, Crawford himself copes with the attention-dissipating demands of modern technology. Crawford’s iPhone, waggled in the air, is intended to serve as an ironic mea culpa.

“I struggle,” he smiles, tucking it away.

Bright lights, big city

Crawford reiterates the point, looking a touch overwhelmed, when I sit down with him the following day in Penguin Random House’s sexy HQ on the Strand.

He’s over in London for a few days to promote the book, with a packed schedule of events including the previous evening’s packed School of Life talk and a speech at the RSA, and admits that he hates talking about himself.

He should be used to it by now considering that his 2009 debut, Shop Class As Soulcraftwas a cult hit, winning places on lists as eclectic as the New York Times Book Review Notable Books 2009, Vanity Fair Top Ten Books of 2009 and Popular Mechanics Editor’s Choice.

This wide appeal was reflected in the book itself, a sophisticated but accessible study of human excellence and the nature of good work which drew on Crawford’s dual experiences as a heavyweight thinker (a Ph.D in political philosophy from the University of Chicago) and a petrolhead (he fabricates specialist parts for custom motorcycles in a workshop near his home in Virginia).

Crawford’s new release, which builds on these themes while focusing on the particular challenges posed by our distraction-glutted digital age, seems likely to prove even more popular, and may elevate him from word-of-mouth hit to mainstream phenomenon.

“I can’t offer myself as a guru,” he says as, despite his comment, I start begging him to tell me how to live a fully present, coherent life in a world filled with flashy shiny things.

Sure, he avoids social media (“it seems like such a time suck”) and his use of the internet is “extremely narrow”, but he’s as addicted as the rest of us when it comes to YouTube—although his video crack of choice tends towards how-to’s on metal fabrication techniques.

“Sometimes it almost seems like it doesn’t matter what the content is. It just has to be flickering lights on a screen, like the medium in itself is the important thing. It’s a little disturbing.”

More than a little.

The World Beyond Your Head is the sort of book that makes you look up, blinking, from your e-reader at lunchtime, and realise that you are surrounded by dozens of weird and wonderful strangers similarly buried behind screens.

So why are we so determined to shut out the very things that drive us to live in cities—serendipitous encounters, vivid images, half-scented stories—even as we seek them out so hungrily online?

The ideology of distraction

One reason, Crawford argues, is the colonisation of our public spaces by brands; so much so that the silence required to think clearly has become a business-class luxury.

Another is the design of the devices and platforms that surround us, from the addictive ‘random reinforcement’ pattern of email, to the autism-inducing operating systems of Vegas slot machines.

But the third reason goes far beyond those easiest of easy targets—marketers and technologists—to address our deepest assumptions about what it means to be free.

“Technology is not really the main focus of the book,” Crawford explains.

“I’m trying to get at what I take to be a more fundamental issue that is in play when we talk about technology: how we understand the self and its relationship to the world.”

From Enlightenment to embodiment

According to Crawford, the so-called Enlightenment has a lot to answer for.

The prevailing Western belief that an individual’s true identity can only be realised within his or her mind originally stemmed from an understandable eighteenth-century urge to reject arbitrary authority. Today, Crawford believes, this ideology has been appropriated by other, less visible authorities eager to feed us the rhetoric of individualism through purchasing power.

“The prevailing idea of freedom is that it consists in maximising your choices,” he says. “But it is precisely this proliferation of choices that makes for maximum dissipation of your energies.”

It’s an idea which he also believes to be scientifically outdated. Since the 1970s, psychologists and biochemists have been gathering evidence that our cognitive processes are tied to both our physical experiences of the world and our interactions with things outside ourselves.

“We think through the body,” Crawford summarises. “That’s why I have recourse to this idea that it is only by adopting a skilled practice, by submitting to something exterior to yourself, that you can get away from this ‘autonomy talk’, this flattering language of marketing.”

So are all those eager young brand managers, loaded with their soft skills, vague vocabularies and hunger to ‘disrupt’, basically screwed?

“I think there’s a good case to be made for exposing students to more and different work,” he suggests diplomatically. “They never get a sense of what it looks like to see someone who’s truly master of their craft. Instead we have a sort of ideology of entrepreneurship and creativity and self-expression which make us more pliable to very smarmy forms of management that present themselves as self-realisation. You know; ‘I’m not a boss, I’m a coach.’ How about you just give me the rules?”

Articulating the problem

Crawford might value rules, but he’s not about to offer any of his own. Those who come to his book seeking ideas for how to flourish might find themselves a tad frustrated by the promise of the title, but they shouldn’t underestimate Crawford’s achievement.

The World Beyond Your Head is an unmissable articulation of the great crisis of our times, written with the understated ease and humour of the motorcycle mechanic as much as the intellectual rigour of the academic.

As Crawford so rightly says, “just getting a clear view of the problem is liberating.” And now that he has articulated it with such eloquence, he admits that he might just explore a few more of those elusive solutions. “Now that the damn book is finished I feel like I have a little space where I can try out these things that people talk about, like…” He pauses. “Mindfulness?”

I have a feeling that, once he gets off the plane, he’ll be straight back into his workshop. After, perhaps, an hour or two of YouTube welding porn.

The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction by Matthew Crawford is out now from Viking in ebook and hardback, £16.99