“Trying to Concentrate in a Digital Age”

30 Apr

That is how MPR has titled a conversation I was a part of with Kerri Miller and Matthew Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.

You can listen to the entire conversation hereCrawford The World Beyond Your Head.

Crawford is the author of Shop Class as Soul Craft, where he argues for a return to valuing work in trades where skills are developed.  Crawford is himself a motorcycle mechanic and a philosopher, and he sees those two worlds as bound together.  This first book “grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized ass ‘knowledge work.” Perhaps more surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually.”

In the new book, Crawford takes this thinking a step further, arguing that to become fully realized individuals in today’s world we must (a) engage in the world with an understanding that we become complete individuals through our interactions with others.  In order to do this we must (b) rid ourselves of Enlightenment notions of the individual as a rational actor who independently decides what is best for herself in the world. And (c) one path toward achieving this true individuality is through learning skilled crafts, as one becomes skilled only in relationship to other practitioners and the community of knowledge they create with each other.

That is how I would distill this admittedly quite dense book.  I found the thread of political philosophy particularly engaging.  Crawford essentially argues that the rugged individual that has stood for the American “character,” was born of an Age of Enlightenment where the philosopher juxtaposed the rights of the individual to the rule of the despot.  In that context, the rational individual who can decide for himself what is right was a radical and necessary concept.  What the advance of capitalism has created, however, is the ironic situation where we define “freedom” as the absence of any regulation — which in turn has created a world where large corporations increasingly take up all of our attention.  He gives the example of an airport.  The bins TSA provides to place your belongings through the scanner now have ads at the bottom of them. There is sound all around you at all times.  Ads in every space that can take one — except if you happen to be in the Admirals Club.  There, the room is quiet.  Silence has become a commodity available to the privileged.

We see the way corporations have taken control of our attention in sometimes creepy ways.  I have had the experience of shopping on Overstock.com for a briefcase and then, for weeks after, visiting other websites an ad would pop up for that very same bag I had browsed (and, ironically, by this point had actually bought).  Crawford’s point is that what looks like freedom today — the multiplicity of options available to us at all times — is actually the opposite of that.  Corporate gather enormous amounts of data about our habits and likes and then take every opportunity they can — the ad you see between games of Words with Friends or Trivia Crack — to cater to those desires.

While the philosophical argument I found both intriguing and empowering, I found the argument about skill-building craftsmanship as the path to individuality less comfortable. I do agree that learning to make things with our own hands — cooking, mechanics, gardening, etc — is something we have lost and that there is an inherent value to regaining it.  And I love the idea that the individuality one creates while becoming an expert in something is an individuality that is built in conversation with others and by working together.

Crawford’s argument, however, depends on a definition of the present where the author finds virtually nothing redeeming, including and especially technology.  He is dismissive of the capacity we have today to build knowledge in cyberspaces through crowd sourcing:

Now we are fascinated with ‘the wisdom of the crowds’ and ‘the hive mind.’ We are told that there is a superior global intelligentsia rising in the Web itself.  This collective mind is more meta, more synoptic and synthetic than any one of us, and aren’t these the defining features of intelligence?  Of course all of this crowd-loving lines up pretty well with silicon Valley’s distaste for the concept of intellectual property, and with the fact that is a lot more money to be made a an aggregator of content than as a producer of it.

In being dismissive of the concept of crowd sourcing, Crawford confuses, or over-simplifies, issues.  Aggregation is not the only thing the web is used for–yes, there is that.  But think of the crowd sourcing project that is the “It Gets Better Project,” where thousands and thousands of people have told their stories about living past childhood rejection and onto fuller lives.  The project was born out of the crisis of LGBT youth suicide, and that bank of stories has literally saved lives, as testimonies bear.  Occupy Wall Street, in a few short weeks, changed the national and international conversation about income inequality.  For decades in the United States wealth has steadily moved from the middle class to the wealthy, but that fact was hidden in our culture by a myth of mobility (“The American Dream”) and a rejection of any description of greed as “class warfare.”  Occupy changed that conversation, it seems permanently.  The occupations in town squares have long gone by, but years later even conservative candidates –those who would defend the deregulated markets that have created obscene wealth for the very few–are taking on income inequality as an issue to talk to voters about.  I believe that the tools we have available to us today, particularly social media, allowed Occupy to fundamentally transform our cultural conversation, in a matter of weeks, not years.  Yes, that gadget in my hand feeds me all those Overstock.com ads – but it also helps me organize to a scale that was not possible before. (I wrote some about decentralized or “leaderless” organizing in “#Pointergate and the People of the Internet”).

In short, I do not think that Crawford’s call for a reevaluation of our concept of the individual — his push for understanding individuality as coming from our lives as social beings — depends on such a uniformly negative portrayal of the present. In fact, if we are able to harness both the power of the present and the tools we have now  and also learn from.


This obviously isn’t a complete review of the book, just some thoughts I had that we weren’t able to fully discuss on the show.  Give it a listen if you’re interested in more and definitely give the book a try if this write-up is at all compelling.

I read The World Beyond Your Head while sitting by myself in a small hermitage in the middle of the woods.  The setting went well with the author’s argument for where we can focus on something other than the constant messages corporations are throwing in our direction.  I’d recommend a similar setting if you’re going to take on this book.

I also just have to say what a great experience it was to be asked to discuss this book on MPR.  Kerri Miller has had me on her Friday Roundtable several times, and I have noticed and been grateful for the fact that the show’s invitations have never pigeon-holed me as a labor guy, a Latino, or anything really.  I left the world of academia — where I used to read books like this all the time — in order to work in organizing and feel more connected to the world as it is and work side by side those seeking to change it for the better.   It was a treat to bring to a conversation about political philosophy that experience I now have.


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