The World Beyond Your Head
On page 13 of this book, Matthew Crawford, writer and motorcycle engineer calls for a "right to not be addressed". This struck your reviewer as such an astonishingly good idea (she cherishes her share of not being addressed), that it will probably never catch on. Crawford is, actually, complaining about the freedom that anonymous corporate forms enjoy to treat one's attention as something to be harvested if she hasn't the skill to direct it herself. But he is also likening silence (in a broader- than-audio sense) to clean air: a commons that authority should protect. Yet because it has to a large extent been given away free, or simply appropriated and monetised, one has to pay to get it back (such as for the ad-free app, or the quiet zone in the business class lounge). This isn't good ethics: attention is a finite resource that is very much our own. But we owe some of it to others, and the world, as well as not having firmly enough exercised our rightful claim on it.
That is, though, just the start of Crawford's book and not the main course, the sub-title "how to flourish in an age of distraction" doesn't really address what most of this is about, which is a somewhat polemical complaint that liberal purity (stemming from Enlightenment trappings of autonomy, rationality and individuality) has lowered public spiritedness and deadened the good life, while purporting to have enabled it by freeing us from repression. Such complaints are not new but Crawford's approach is novel. It's a great read.
Attention is the faculty that joins us to the world. That probably makes it quite valuable to most (not everyone: autism works the other way). But attention--in respect of the rational autonomous self--is apparently a source of un-freedom in Enlightenment philosophy and libertarian doctrine. Because these ideas centre around the (negative) pursuit of freedom from stuff. In the rational ideal then, attention should all be directed inwards. The source of self is: we think therefore we are. Nothing is added by looking outside. Or if it is, you are intellectually deficient. The author extends Kantian and Lockean strictures about the illegitimacy of authority (monarchy or state for Locke, teachers and parents also for Kant) to a conclusion that this requirement of rational autonomy must discard other people, and discard one's experience of the world. Thus, anything outside our mind plays a wholly adverse role in the effort to grasp reality and achieve intellectual independence.
Few readers would accept such a mindset as representing cultural convention, so Crawford's protests seem to be aimed off target. But the foregoing have nonetheless enabled a detachment from outside ourselves such that the pursuit of individual autonomy has gone astray. Perhaps we are supposed to be able--in a state of rational utopia--to judge everything for ourselves, but since we can't, and since taking heed from authority is not the hallmark of individuality, we instead copy the average of everyone else. Ironically the too-high demand of ideal individualism leads to paradoxical conformity and swapping out of a supposedly sovereign individual to what the author calls a statistical self--where the wisdom of the crowd is revered and a wiki mentality is supposedly the highest pinnacle of knowing.
But in the absence of someone forming a view of the world by directing where her attention goes within it, her critical response is left neutralised, to be grabbed by those whose interest it can serve instead. Public squares are filled with muzak nobody would choose and advertising nobody wants. Luxury cars are designed with so much tech to insulate drivers from what they are actually doing--controlling a high speed hunk of metal powered by lighting flammable liquid--that their value proposition is "blow jobs to the affluent". At an extreme of this, slot machine addicts gamble to extinction merely so they can stay in the zone where play begets comforting external response, and winning stops being the objective (and corporate interests handily see to it that this zone has max comfort)
But there are other ways to interact with the world. A pro hockey player only stands a chance of achievement if she treats her stick as though it is part of her body, rather than an object she can manipulate after making some calculations about how to. So does a motorcycle racer. And a student of Russian is submitting herself to conformity with something (the language) which was already there. More importantly these folks are discovering more reality as they go further outside themselves. What this means is that the limits of human agency are external to one's brain, and body, and refusal to countenance this "situated self" (which is no longer an autonomous self) will lead to falling short in most endeavours beyond tying shoelaces. The author researched what becomes a long penultimate chapter about some pipe organ makers in Pennsylvania, to breathe fine granularity into his thesis on the high value of pursuing narrowish skill. Generic smartness, of the kind that can supposedly be garnered by credentialling at an appropriately regarded business school, is phoney fictional currency, supposedly. As is Imanuel Kant's unencumbered self.
Rather, the pursuit of high skill in any field requires an acceptance that knowledge is communal, or social, and out there not in here, and existed before we did. But through what is initially the deep conformity of apprenticeship, it then becomes possible to understand individuality differently. By bumping up against things and people in cooperation and in conflict. And not by what appears to be a trending aversion to face-to-face contact, and today even voice-to-voice, as ever more engagement beyond one's mind becomes electronic media. Not that everyone should become an organ restorer, or a motorbike mechanic. But education (from educare; educo; to lead forth) is something Matthew Crawford would like to see restored to its rooted position of pulling our non-situated selves into a world where we can re-claim the real, hopefully playing music somebody actually selected in the gym (or nothing if nobody did)