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The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction Hardcover – March 31, 2015
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“Crawford’s greatest service is to spur our thought, to enjoin his readers to pay attention to the struggle of paying attention. . . . Some of The World Beyond Your Head’s individual chapters approach true excellence . . . In Crawford’s skillful hands . . . examples are far more than irreverent illustrations of philosophy by pop culture; they are illuminations from within of the many ― and often surprising ― connections between philosophy and ideology . . . Books like this gather strands of individual experience, cultural malaise, and philosophical reflection, weaving them together to form braided rope whose tensile strength has the power to lead readers forward, onward, and downward ― from the personal to the cultural to the political by way of the social.” ―Charles Clavey, The Los Angeles Review of Books
“The most cogent and incisive book of social criticism I've read in a long time. Reading it is like putting on a pair of perfectly suited prescription glasses after a long period of squinting one's way through life.” ―Damon Linker, The Week
“[A] brilliant and searching new work of social criticism . . . Crawford proposes a different model of individuality and choice, at once traditional and radically new. Expounding it, with richly informative excursions into neuroscience, experimental psychology, intellectual history, mass culture, skilled crafts, and sports, is the main business of The World Beyond Your Head.” ―George Scialabba, Boston Review
“It's increasingly difficult to pay attention in the blooming, buzzing confusion of the modern world. Matthew Crawford argues persuasively that it's time to fight back . . . Rather than embracing the standard coffee-mug view of philosophy as a repository of sage aphorisms to be summoned while sipping warm beverages, Crawford respects past thinkers enough both to argue with them and to notice their legacies in diverse cultural strata. He clashes with Kant while considering children's cartoons; he sees an ideal from Kierkegaard lurking behind the generic Muzak at a university gym; he uses Hegel to diagnose the contradictions of New Age concepts of self-realization . . . Crawford offers a compelling general framework for the ethics of attention.” ―Nick Romeo, The Daily Beast
“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 Roth, The Chronicle of Higher Education
“Educators, politicians, urban planners, interior decorators, and many others would benefit from thinking carefully about the problem Crawford has identified . . . The World Beyond Your Head is an enormously rich book, a timely and important reflection on an increasingly important subject. Pay attention.” ―Ian Tuttle, The New Criterion
“Crawford's diagnosis of our scatterbrained ennui [is] on target, and [The World Beyond Your Head] is peppered with startling insights. One comes when he contrasts Mickey Mouse cartoons of decades past, in which contraptions invariably break down or assault their owners, to the contemporary universe of 'Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,' where gadgets are error-free servants and faithful friends. It's the kind of technological utopianism that primes a young mind to buy whatever Silicon Valley is selling.” ―John Keilman, The Chicago Tribune
“In its exploration of how we come to know ourselves, The World Beyond Your Head harks back to vital debates between humanists like Joseph Wood Krutch and the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, as well as later works by the agrarian social critic Wendell Berry. Readers who know Robert Pirsig's classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance will also hear its engines purr in Crawford's work. Like Pirsig, he raises thrilling questions about human nature and calls for a more generous, more diverse definition of excellence.” ―Chris Tucker, The Dallas Morning News
“Persuasive, entertaining-and sometimes disturbing.” ―Sarah Bakewell, The Financial Times
“Crawford is deeply interested in how one masters one's own mind, especially in a time of information overload and constant distraction provided by technology. In a manner similar to Malcolm Gladwell, this brilliant work looks at individuals from varied walks of life, including hockey players and short-order cooks, to focus on the theme of how important (and difficult) it is to truly pay attention in our noisy world . . . rich in excellent research, argument, and prose.” ―Publishers Weekly, starred review
“In the gambling addict, dead broke at the slot machine, Crawford finds the surprising terminus of a way of thinking traceable to Descartes, Kant, and Locke. . . Extending themes of his acclaimed Shop Class as Soulcraft, Crawford shows how the short-order cook, the welder, the carpenter, the pipe-organ builder all achieve a free individuality by submitting to the authority of mentors who discipline their minds for full engagement with the complexities of the external environment. Those who never mature into this valid individuality, Crawford warns, disappear into a distracted crowd of mindless consumers unable to recognize the distinctions that sustain a vibrant democracy. Worse, such stunted psyches are easy prey for the corporate strategists who hide their predations behind the faux freedoms of the shopping center-and the casino. A cultural inquiry of rare substance and insight.” ―Booklist, starred review
“[Crawford] takes a unique look at attention, positing that it is a commodity . . . He explains his theories well, with strong writing and citations, and the resulting argument is fresh and extremely enlightening. What is most satisfying is that technology is not blamed for the modern deluge of distractions-it is discussed as the cumulative effect of a number of influences found within Western culture.” ―Library Journal, starred review
“Fiercely intelligent.” ―The Barnes and Noble Review
About the Author
Matthew B. Crawford is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and a fabricator of components for custom motorcycles. His bestselling book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, which has been translated into nine languages, has prompted a wide rethinking of education and labor policies in the United States and Europe, leading The Sunday Times to call him "one of the most influential thinkers of our time."
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Top Customer Reviews
by Matthew B. Crawford
This is an age where mental lives become more fragmented. Can one maintain a coherent self when attention, which is so fundamental to our mental lives, is increasingly distracted? In today’s world, a lot of human experience has become highly engineered and manipulated.
Crawford writes that human flourishing takes complete immersion in a particular situation (e.g. short order cook who lines up the ingredients to make the order, motorcycle racing/repair, building a pipe organ to last hundreds of years.) Skilled practices like these “serve as an anchor to the world beyond ones own head”. He envisions a “triangulation” with objects and other people and in doing so one can achieve something like individuality.
Crawford’s description of the cultural reality of distraction could be anyone’s experience in this digital world. He describes the loss of “public space” required for some form of sociability, even if it’s just eye contact. Recently a group of 9th graders talked with me about their own sad sense of non-connectedness because everyone was engaged in their own digital world and they barely talk to each other.
Crawford, who himself dropped out of a Ph.D. program at Stanford to form a motorcycle repair shop, refers to a psychological study where children were told they could have one marshmellow now or two in 15 minutes if they delayed the impulse. Crawford describes today’s well-engineered marshmellows such as ads on the ATM or the gasoline screen slyly designed to break through any weakness the ordinary consumer might have. Resistance may require freakish self-control. (My wife just came in to ask if I wanted to hear President Obama on TV as he presented Medals of Freedom to 21 famous Americans. Freakishly I declined—but we’ll watch the tape later.)
Are our choices/decisions about important matters “free-will” or based on non-rational “chatter” (emotions)? Crawford wants to go beyond that limited choice to included the environment especially in this age with the “ads, jigs and nudges”. Without an anchor strengthened by skilled practice, the individual is at the mercy of a distracting world with commercial impetus.
I particularly enjoyed Crawford’s assessment of David Foster Wallace’s essay “This Is Water”, Wallace’s famous commencement address at Kenyon College. Wallace also talked about what you pay attention to and choosing how to think, that if you really pay attention you can find other options. Crawford would emphasize that, like the “successful” child marshmellow eaters who distracted themselves using their imagination, a shift in attention works better than Wallace’s recommendation to
“decide what has meaning and what doesn’t”.
Crawford’s book is a corrective to the current cultural crisis of attention/distraction. I think he would have us learn by doing as in cooking a meal, woodworking or repairing motors, holding that the very “doing-ness” helps to develop the attentional mental muscles and a sense of real agency and individualism.
Initially, I thought this book was too heavily weighed in a philosophical discussion of Enlightenment thinkers, getting through that chapter was more rewarding and I recommend it to anyone interested in the cultural distractions we all face and how to manage one's own response.
Interviews with the author are easily found online, so I'm not going to go into what the books about in any detail, but instead make a few particular comments.
He places the crisis of attention not at the feet of technology (computers, phones) which is a very nice change for this sort of book. Unfortunately, some public discussions of the book elsewhere have taken it (possibly without reading much of it) and plastered their own technophobia onto it. This is not a Luddite, anti-technology book, but makes more subtle points.
The ending is still rather remote. I have no idea how most people, especially those at the lower ends of the economic system, are supposed to put some of the ideas into practice. His discussion of the boy in school convinced into studying trigonometry by relating it to building a race car is barely a start.
Still, it's very worth the read.
For example, I have no trouble relating to Crawford's description of the effects of noisy attention feats from entities. This was made plain to me when I visited my wife's family in the Philippines. Compared to staying in a condo village in Manila, my stay with her parents who live in a barrio of Manila is a complete drain and wear on my mind and body. Staying in the barrios, by 8 pm I would be drained of energy and most often with a headache. Why? So much of my attention was being asked to perform. Look at this, look at that.
In my teaching, I recall reading an article written about a new problem Kindergarten students were having. They were falling out of their chair. The cause? The lack of time outside kept them from developing the physical ability to maneuver properly.
So, Crawford points to personal and observational experiences I know well. And I am thankful that he gave time to share his thoughts on what he things started it all, what it is doing, and how to fix it.
This book is definitely not light reading. I know that I'll be reading it again. But it has definitely been beneficial. He's given me much to think about.
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