The Chronicle Review

Can Matthew Crawford Deliver Us From Distraction?

Adam Ewing

Matthew Crawford’s new book, “The World Beyond Your Head,” expands on his idea of what constitutes good work, and why.
April 08, 2015

Matthew B. Crawford burst upon the scene in 2009 with a compact, powerful book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (Penguin), a macho denunciation of the contemporary world of cubicle life and an ode to the joys of mechanical dexterity and productivity. Having grown up for a time in a California commune, and having filed off (some of) his rough edges while earning a Ph.D. in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, he found his deepest satisfactions in solving engine problems for motorcycle riders, those who took up what he called the "kingly sport that is like war made beautiful." He doesn’t sound like somebody who has much acquaintance with war, but no matter. When his customers rode off, he knew — and they knew — that the problem had been solved.

Now, in his new book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Crawford expands on his notion of knowing and problem-solving to offer a critique of contemporary manipulated attention and self-formation. Shop Class contrasted skill-based, craft-oriented knowledge and the satisfaction it brings with the kind of understanding he acquired studying physics as an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Barbara or philosophy at Chicago. The certainties of physics might establish an intellectual foundation, and philosophical ambiguities may delight, but not much compares to the roar of a bike.

In both books, Crawford writes in the tradition that defends crafts and guilds while denouncing the evils of mechanization and alienation, free trade and modernization. You can find conservatives and radicals in this tradition, and Crawford has expressed delight at having been called both a Marxist and a neocon. In Shop Class he went for grit, and it mostly worked. He talked "craft," but it was noisy, scruffy craft with tough old masters and eager, reverential apprentices getting grimy while sharing dirty jokes. Kelefa Sanneh, in The New Yorker, ungenerously but not inaccurately called the book "in large part a treatise on the joys and frustrations of manliness in a postmanly age."

But we would miss much by using identity politics to mock Crawford’s gendered vision. His critique of our so-called knowledge economy is a thoughtful extension of the powerful 19th-century Romantic rejection of the triumphs of modernity. John Ruskin, writing in the 1850s on "The Nature of the Gothic," emphasized that all classes require a "right understanding … of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy." Looking around industrializing England, proudly preening in disruption, he wrote: "It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure." Although he doesn’t cite Ruskin, Crawford is his heir.

Charlie Mahoney for The Chronicle Review

Good work, like fashioning a pipe organ, is about being embedded in a tradition, Crawford writes, and about “a mode of thinking that helps us get at the truth about things.”

William Morris rang out a similar war cry in the 1850s and 60s. For Morris, the medieval workshop was the touchstone for building his case against the smokestacks and the factories. Like Crawford, Morris created a small business, the Firm, dedicated to making right objects in the right way. But eventually he came to despair that the impact of his Arts and Crafts movement alone would defeat the industrial regime. In the last decade of his life, Morris became a leader of the Hammersmith Socialist Society.

Both Ruskin and Morris generated a critique of the present and a vision for the future from their perspective on labor in the medieval world. The form of that labor, they argued, could produce beauty as well as a culture worth living in. They wanted not to imitate the past but to use principles from a particular period of history as a framework for criticizing society. Ultimately their political and aesthetic visions were intertwined.

Crawford’s perspective in Shop Class is also fundamentally aesthetic. Instead of Gothic cathedrals or well-proportioned houses, he just loves the ways guys and machines look when they take those tight turns. There is great skill, danger, noise. But are those principles for critique? For political action?

Shop Class clearly tapped into a deep vein of discontent about the reigning knowledge economy: that so-called knowledge is separate from how one wants to live when not working; that labor’s tasks are growing to encompass an ever greater percentage of one’s life. After all, who hasn’t felt alienated on the job?

Crawford’s book hit the country in the midst of a financial crisis engineered by "knowledge workers" whose avarice and disconnection from public concerns helped bring economic devastation to millions around the globe. He was suggesting that we could engage in a different kind of work, which would put us in touch with our own capacities and communities. Work was educational not in the sense that you got better at doing something for somebody else (your boss), but because through labor you grew to recognize yourself and others. Motorcycles happened to be Crawford’s thing; other people should find theirs. Through work they could become situated in community — meaningful labor moves from the personal to the political.

Crawford’s new book is far more ambitious. In Shop Class, he asked, "What is good work"? In The World Beyond Your Head, he examines how it is we come to interact with, or flee from, the world around us in the first place, and how perception and the self prepare one for participation in a world of work. Having already noted that labor affords a certain form of perception, in his new book he digs into the range of "affordances" — modes of skillful perception. When a great chef looks around a kitchen, she or he sees things as potential tools (or obstacles) in ways that others don’t. With skills, our very comprehension of the world is enhanced. It’s philosophy as an intervention in issues of the day.

The World Beyond Your Head begins with a terrific introduction, "Attention as a Cultural Problem." The concern isn’t just the technological appendages like computers or iPhones that we’ve come to depend on; it’s that we can’t control our own responses to them. "Our distractibility indicates that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value," Crawford writes. Everywhere we go, we are assaulted by commercial forces that make claims on our mental space, so that "silence is now offered as a luxury good."

That isn’t just inconvenient. It destroys independence of thought and feeling: "Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will." And they have gotten very good at manipulating our environment so that we are turned in the directions that can be monetized. But it’s really bad for us. "Distractibility," Crawford tells us, "might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity."

We have become more vulnerable to this regime of manipulated attention, he argues, because we have only individualism as a defense. The Enlightenment quest for autonomy leaves us powerless against those who mount noisy appeals to our personal preferences, in service of manipulating us. Against this tendency, Crawford argues for a situated self, one that is always linked to (not independent of) the environment, including other people. We may not be in a bike-repair shop, but we are always somewhere.

Long sections of The World Beyond Your Head deal with encountering things and other people. There’s even an interlude on "a brief history of freedom." I told you this was an ambitious book!

Crawford first shows how highly skilled people learn to develop an intelligent use of space, filtering out what they can afford to ignore. Part of developing one’s skill is to know where to look, to "jig" the space to pay attention to what’s most important. And you learn what’s most important by paying attention to people whose skills are much more developed than your own.

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Creating a pipe organ, writes Matthew Crawford, is one of those “ordinary activities” that represent the good life.

In that framework, perception is pragmatic, more a social than an epistemological process. Skill develops through conversation and criticism, not through the discovery of an epistemic foundation. This is, Crawford emphasizes, an "erotic" process, a restless striving to be more at home in the world: "We are drawn out of our present selves toward some more skilled future self that we emulate." As we develop our skills, he says, we are "brought into a relation of fit to the world."

Here is the nub of Crawford’s difference with a dominant theme in the Enlightenment tradition: He wants fit with the world, not independence from it. His antagonist is Kant, whose insistence on autonomy Crawford reads as a denial of "mutual entanglement." This is ground gone over many times before. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Richard Rorty wrote, "Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey are in agreement that the notion of knowledge as an accurate representation, made possible by special mental processes and intelligible through a general theory of representation, needs to be abandoned."

Rorty grouped those (and other) thinkers together in the service of creating "a post-Kantian culture." Once we abandon language and ideas as pictures of reality, we can think of them as more or less useful tools. Philosophy, as Rorty famously said, becomes a "conversation" about the world, not a methodology for cleaning up our pictures of it. Although Rorty goes unmentioned in his pages, Crawford shares the same goal.

Education looms large in The World Beyond Your Head. From Crawford’s perspective, it wakes us up not to autonomy, but to cultivating our ability to learn from others and from materials. He wants to abandon the Enlightenment notion that "everything located outside your head is regarded as potential sources of unfreedom," and to encourage instead a concept of "joint attention." Only with other people can individuality be achieved. John Dewey (unmentioned in Crawford’s book) made a similar point almost 100 years ago, in Democracy and Education. "From a social standpoint, dependence denotes a power rather than a weakness; it involves interdependence," he wrote. Personal independence "often makes an individual so insensitive in his relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to stand and act alone — an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remediable suffering of the world."

Crawford has plenty of examples of contemporary suffering engineered to manipulate our attention and to profit others. His pages on modern machine-based gambling ("autism as a design principle") are harrowing and revelatory. Ranging from Freud’s ideas on the death instinct, to neuroscience, to the ethnography of machine addiction, Crawford powerfully shows how repetitive pseudo-actions create patterns of satisfaction that progressively disconnect us from the world. We find ourselves doing things of no intrinsic interest or value. We don’t know why we do them, again and again and again.

Crawford champions a specific kind of dependence: apprenticeship. This is dependence with a purpose: "Acquiring the tastes of a serious person is what we call education," he writes, and the model of a serious person is the person with great skill, the apprentice’s master.

In Shop Class, he was critical of traditional higher education, mostly because it relied on providing familiarity with abstract representations of the world. The abstractions can be manipulated with more or less discipline-specific acumen (in physics, in literary theory, in computer science), but they often tell us nothing about how the piece of the world with which we interact is going to respond to what we do. Higher education provides sophistication, Crawford laments, while often having a debilitating effect on the authentic capacity to work with others or with objects.

In The World Beyond Your Head, he focuses on education as a process of "being led out." The cave from which we emerge is not the Platonic sphere of shadows; it’s the abstract sphere of representations. Education must be not only the acquisition of discrete methods for analyzing data but also the joint practice of acquiring context and tradition. He provides many compelling examples, like Iris Murdoch’s discussion of learning a foreign language: "Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself toward something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make un­real." Crawford emphasizes that learning a language gives the individual new powers of expression, but that those powers exist only within a culture with its own rules and traditions. You don’t gain autonomy through a language; you gain the ability to participate.

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A worker adjusts a keyboard at an organ factory in Gloucester, MA.

That is very much like participation within a musical or scientific culture. In his account of the development of artistic excellence, there is no creativity without belonging, without the embodied learning of being part of a conversation with a long, rich history. In his discussion of scientific inquiry, he depends on the great Michael Polanyi, who emphasized that scientific work depends much less on abstraction and autonomy than on a form of inquiry involving trust, authority, and learning through examples.

In today’s colleges and universities, there is increasing recognition of the importance of cultures of learning that rely on cooperation and skill building rather than on individual modes of assessment. Project-based learning, for example, as championed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, aims to create exactly the kind of "joint attention" Crawford values, while reinforcing students’ knowledge by insisting that they translate what they hear in the classroom into forms that matter beyond the campus. At Wesleyan University, we have come to see that learning in every discipline can be improved by integrating projects into courses.

Although he has been sharply critical of undergraduate education, Crawford worries that we are in danger of seeing universities become part of the "great flattening," a process through which intermediate structures of authority are dissolved. A University of Everywhere, to use the education researcher Kevin Carey’s phrase, would be a disaster. If the heterogeneous sector of colleges and universities becomes technologically homogenized through participation in the educational cloud (All MOOCs, all the time!), then the very local ecologies of attention Crawford promotes would disappear under the rubrics of progress and efficiency. "The survival of our traditions of intellectual apprenticeship," he writes, "should not be taken for granted." In his Tocquevillian account, disruption leads to the soft despotism that has always been the flip side of American individualism.

Crawford is often incisive in his critique of contemporary culture, work, and politics. In rejecting the Kantian epistemology of representation and technological homogeneity, he embraces a specific "ecology of attention." But what makes a particular ecology preferable? That question was mostly ignored in Shop Class but is taken on in The World Beyond Your Head: "If we have no robust and demanding picture of what a good life would look like, then we are unable to articulate any detailed criticism of the particular sort of falling away from a good life that something like machine gambling represents." Crawford presents five "ordinary activities" as examples of good lives: those of the short-order cook, the hockey player, the motorcycle rider, the glassmaker, and the organ maker. All involve modes of attention that bring one into attunement with the world through the development of skills in context.

Adam Ewing

Matthew Crawford.

The organ makers get most of the attention, and Crawford acknowledges that he risks being accused of sentimentalism. Like Ruskin and Morris before him, he will surely be criticized by those who think they must somehow accept what the latest phase of industrialization has left at our doors. Instead he offers "a story about the progressive possibilities of tradition," with "overlapping lineages of apprenticeship" and a productive dynamic of reverence and rebellion. Use the past to make the future. George Taylor and John Boody’s team of craftspeople make some of the best pipe organs in the world, and in doing so they are looking back hundreds of years while trying to envision how music will sound centuries into the future.

As with motorcycles, organ making involves pipes and seals, but the culture of Taylor and Boody feels very different from the scenes described in Shop Class. Crawford’s example makes the point that good work isn’t only about "kingly sports;" it’s also about being embedded in a tradition as a form of alertness and vivacity, about "a mode of thinking that helps us get at the truth about things." By "truth about things," Crawford just means noticing "that an action seems to be working … until some skillful person comes up with a better idea, and the conversation starts again."

If the pipe-organ ethnography expands the category of good labor, one still has to ask what might be excluded from it. What about a shop of skilled apprentices serving a master craftsman making not pipe organs but pipe bombs? Would that count as good work? Crawford never takes up those kinds of issues, about the intrinsic good of what you make, because like most moderns he is focused on process and culture, not outcome. Perhaps he hopes that by putting us squarely in the world, the "ecology of attention" will make us less likely to destroy it.

For all the vitality and ambition in his prose, Crawford is well aware that he has raised more questions than he has answered. He tells us he is writing "in response to a keenly felt irritant peculiar to a historical moment."

Well, distraction and manipulated attention are not as peculiar as all that. Crawford is really part of a long-term philosophical workshop, all of whose apprentices have tried to find better terms for joining the world than what have been offered by their contemporary socioeconomic regimes. Ruskin and Dewey are part of the shop, as are William James and Jane Addams. I am confident they would happily offer whatever their equivalent would be of a vroom-vroom bike-engine sign of acknowledgment. Through philosophy and storytelling, Crawford has joined their project of loosening the grip of alienation and designed inhumanity.

That’s a job well done.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and the author, most recently, of Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past (Columbia University Press, 2012) and Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014).

Correction (4/9/2015, 11:15 a.m.): This article originally misstated the name of an organization that champions project-based learning. It is the Association of American Colleges and Universities, not the American Association of Colleges and Universities. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.