Attending to reality is a moral imperative

I read Matthew B. Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction .when it first came out in 2015 and reviewed it favorably.  I read it again recently as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Paul Mitacek and found it well worth re-reading.

Crawford’s basic idea is that we are what we pay attention to, so we should be careful what we pay attention to.  He wrote that there is a moral imperative to attend to the real world and not retreat to a world inside your head.

But attention is a limited resource.  You can’t focus on everything all at once, and your ability to focus is depleted over the course of a day.

The book has two themes.  One is the challenge of engaging with reality—the realities of tangible things, of other people and also of tradition—because reality can be frustrating.  It is what it is, regardless of your wishes..  The temptation is to buffer yourself by use of technology

The other theme is the danger of letting your attention be hijacked by people and organizations that want to manipulate you for their own purpose.  Attention comes in two kinds, purpose-driven and stimulus-driven.   The more you are forced to respond to stimuli, the less you are able to focus on your own purposes.

In the contemporary USA, there are billion-dollar industries devoted to capturing your attention and manipulating your perceptions.  It’s almost impossible to get away from this, as Crawford noted.  Silence has become a luxury good.

All this may seem abstract, but The World Beyond Your Head isn’t an abstract book.  Crawford filled the book with reports of skilled practitioners, including carpenters, short-order cooks, ice hockey players, martial arts fighters and motorcycle racers, and how they train themselves to focus their minds and hone their skills.

Crawford himself, at the time he wrote this book, had a job making components for custom-made motorcycles.  There is no postmodern way of making motorcycle parts.  The component is real.  It either functions or it doesn’t.

He said he felt validated every time he presented his bill to a satisfied customer.  But he added that the public are not the best judges of craft work.  The only true judge of a skilled carpenter is another skilled carpenter.

Skilled manual work is devalued.  A good auto mechanic is just as intelligent as, say, a good pharmacist or librarian, but the mechanic is not respected because he gets his hands dirty.

Factory workers are deskilled by design.  Customers also are deskilled by design.  An example of this is the battle over the right of farmers to repair farm machinery, rather than sending it back to the manufacturer for a replacement.

Technology buffers us from the physical world.  It also buffers us from other people.  It’s much less risky to relate to people on social media than it is face-to-face.   There are many anecdotes about college students today demanding to be protected from the discomfort and even fear that they feel when someone expresses a hostile opinion.

Big institutions have rules for how their employees are supposed to behave, all of which involve not expressing personal feelings and opinions and not exercising individual judgment, no matter what the situation, so that they never give offense.  Instead they’re supposed to face the world with a bland, smiling neutrality.

The last chapter of the book is a report on a firm of pipe organ builders.  They’re the inheritors of a centuries-old tradition of organ building.  They’re the masters of an age-old craft.  But they are more than that.  They can’t just be historic preservationists.  The organs they build have to be fit for use not just now but for a long time to come.  They express their individuality not be rebelling against a tradition, but by enriching and adding to it.

Traditions are socially constructed, but they also are objectively real.   They exist because people agree they exist.  But that doesn’t mean they’re not real.  It doesn’t mean they can be anything you want.  A language is socially constructed, but if you want to learn a language, you have to respect its rules and usages.  Then—maybe—you can add something to it.

Modern Western philosophy rests on a principle of absolute individual autonomy.  You are supposed to engage in zero-based reasoning without regard to authority or precedent.  As Crawford pointed out, this is impossible.  Nobody can figure out everything on their own.  You have to be a student and an apprentice before you can be a master.

Matthew B. Crawford

In the absence of authority, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, 19th century Americans took cues as to what to think from public opinion.  They didn’t submit to kings, aristocrats or bishops, but they generally went along with what their neighbors thought.   Later on opinion surveys such as the Kinsey Report enabled Americans to become more sophisticated conformists.

Now the mass media and the Internet provide cues for behavior.  Since Crawford’s book first came out, Jaron Lanier and Soshana Zuboff have written books about how mass surveillance, artificial intelligence and behavioral psychology are combined to manipulate human behavior through the Internet.

Behavioral psychology ignores the inner workings of the human mind.  It simply correlates what stimuli with behaviors.  Artificial intelligence, drawing data from mass surveillance, finds correlations that no human being would ever think of.  They use this information to “maximize engagement” with advertising and propaganda.

Crawford wrote a chapter on how behavioral psychology is used to create gambling addiction.  In slot machine rooms in Las Vegas and elsewhere, everything is done to keep the player’s attention focused on the machines and to prevent distraction that would break his or her addiction.  In the final stages of addiction, the player does not even play to win, but just to go through one more round of responding to mindless stimuli.

The justification for all this is freedom.  The player supposedly has a free choice to play or not to play, so who am I or you to criticize this choice?

Our high-stimulus entertainment media are addictive in and of themselves.  A friend of mine who teaches in a community college told me that many of his students regard the act of reading—any kind of reading—as intolerably boring.  The only thing that they can concentrate are narratives conveyed by moving images.

What this shows is that it is a mistake to think of freedom as simply a matter of making choices to satisfy preferences.  What matters, according to Crawford, is agency, the ability to act to carry out purposes.

This means resisting those who are trying to distract you for your own purposes.  If somebody is trying to take something away from you that has value, namely your attention, and using it to make money for themselves, that is exploitation.


Many arguments can be made against the details in The World Beyond Your Head.

The weakest part is a section on dissidents.  Crawford’s advice to people who don’t fit in is to find a sub-culture where they do fit in.  But what of a Socrates or an Alexander Solzhenitsyn who goes against a whole society in the name of what is right?  What about somebody such as George Orwell, who dissented from every political clique he ever belonged to.

He wrote that progress comes through mastering a tradition and making improvements within that tradition..  But what of breakthroughs such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, developed while he worked alone in the Swiss patent office?  What of breakthrough technologies, such as the printing press or the internal combustion engine?

A very common experience of people my age is finding myself in situations where my old habits and beliefs don’t apply

Individual autonomy can be taken too far, but I don’t think Crawford would want live under infallible churches and kings who rule by divine right.  De-skilling can be taken too far, but I don’t think Crawford and his wife would want to have to grow their own food, weave their own cloth and make their own soap.  Not everything can be learned hands-on.  The Internet is indispensable for certain purposes.

I’m an example of what Crawford thinks is wrong with the world.  I spent much more time sitting in front of a screen or with a book in my lap than I do talking to people face-to-face or doing physical chores.  I don’t claim the way I live is the best way to live, even for me, but, like most things, it has its own merits.

And so on.  There are possible answers to each of these objections.  The bravest dissident and innovator usually has friends and always is working out of a tradition of some kind. And no break with the past is ever a complete break.

The overall answer to these objects is that The World Beyond Your Head is not presented as a philosophical system that is true for all times and places.  It is a profound criticism of certain trends in American society at a particular point in time.  It also is highly readable.   I recommend it.


Virtual Reality as Moral Ideal, an excerpt from The World Beyond Your Head.

The World Beyond Your Head, an interview of Matthew B. Crawford for National Review.

Privilege by Matthew B. Crawford for The Hedgehog Review.

Algorithmic Governance and Political Legitimacy by Matthew B. Crawford for American Affairs.



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One Response to “Attending to reality is a moral imperative”

  1. whungerford Says:

    This reminds me of Jesus’s admonition in Mathew 6:19 and 6:20:
    19: Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth
    and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
    20: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:


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