The world outside our heads

Matthew Crawford’s new book, THE WORLD BEYOND YOUR HEAD: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, is a good follow-up to Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries.

Crawford attacks what he calls “freedomism”—the idea that individuals can or should be free not only of external coercion, but of external influence of any kind.

This is the philosophy of thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant, who sought to free people from the moral authority of kings and priests.

51YMx.crawford.worldbeyondyourheadThe fact is, Crawford said, is that human beings are born into a world of people and things which are objectively real, and which can be understood only after a long period of learning and apprenticeship.

The fact that one’s individual desires do not, in and of themselves, change things is the first thing a baby learns, but which 21st century Americans sometimes forget.

Crawford makes custom motorcycle components as a business.  His work involves individual creativity, but is based on mastery of pre-existing knowledge of materials and technique, and is expressed in solving real-world problems.  He feels validated only when a customer—especially one who understands motorcycles—willingly pays his bill.

In different parts of the book, he discusses techniques by which people master arts and vocations—hockey player, martial arts fighter, short-order cook, glassblower, motorcycle rider, racing car driver.

Masters in all these fields have the ability to focus their attention on what is important, and to train their reactions, in ways that can’t necessarily be articulated, so that they respond appropriately to the situation at hand.

For Crawford, we are what we pay attention to.  Freedom consists in the right to choose to focus our attention on worthy objects.

Matthew Crawford: 'taut scholarly prose best read in a a soundproof chamber'.

Matthew B. Crawford

Meditation can be good training in attention management.  Ritual can bring attention back to worthy objects..

Being forced to pay attention to advertising and propaganda is an infringement, in his view, on a basic freedom.  Even worse are the advertising techniques that encourage people to retreat from the real world and embrace a world of wish-fulfillment fantasy.

Crawford’s ideal is to learn a real-world art or skill that you love.  Learning begins by submitting to a teacher or master.  But eventually you reach a point where possibilities open up, and you have real choices.

Our high-tech 21st-century society offers, along with its real benefits, a lot of seeming options that allow you to be freed from the constraints of the real world.  Increasingly there are options that allow you to be free from the constraints of having to deal with other people.

But this seeming freedom can be the right to choose among options others have selected for you, or to be subject to subtle manipulation for others’ purposes.

Two chapters—one on pipe-organ makers in the Shenandoah Valley, the other on slot-machine addicts in Las Vegas—illustrate his ideas of true and false freedom.

The pipe organ makers follow a craft that is centuries old.  They can hear things, and make changes, that are imperceptible to anyone not trained as to what to listen for.  They find the traditional materials of wood and leather are superior, and more likely to meet the test of time than the newer materials—usually, but not always, because they use carbon filament.  They love organs and organ music, but have to meet the challenge of satisfying customers and making a profit.

The slot-machine addicts in Las Vegas are not even engaging in a satisfying fantasy.  They are like laboratory rats conditioned by stimulus and response, pulling the lever over and over again.   The casino owners and machine manufacturers have carefully designed the product and the environment to re-enforce the addiction, so that some players don’t even leave the machines to go to the bathroom.  Yet libertarians say the addicts are merely exercising their freedom of choice.

The World Beyond Your Head  is a readable but profound book full of insights.  John Dewey is nowhere mentioned by name in the book, but I think Crawford does a better job of expounding what Dewey was getting at than Dewey himself ever did.


The Jig, the Nudge and Local Ecology, an excerpt from The World Beyond Your Head.

The World Beyond Your Head, an interview with Matthew Crawford by Ian Tuttle of National Review.

The World Beyond Your Head – philosophical inquiry that demands your attention by Iain Morris for The Observer.

No One Asks To Be Buried With His i-Pad by Tim Wu for The New Yorker.

Preserving the Self by George Scialabba for Boston Review.

Can Matthew Crawford Deliver Us From Distraction? by Michael S. Roth for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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