Review: The World Beyond Your Head

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of DistractionThe World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction by Matthew B. Crawford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What’s remarkable about this book is the lengths to which Matthew B. Crawford goes in order to draw conclusions that are fairly unremarkable.

What begins as a book about the demands placed on our depleted supply of attention actually turns out to be a book about freedom. Tim Keller has (quite accurately, I think) noticed that modern people value freedom more than goodness. But Crawford points out that our current definition of freedom is one that suggests the human will is the strongest force in the universe. We do not believe we ought to be limited by anything outside of our own heads. By the end, this book is more about the burden that comes from having too many choices in a world that can be both thrilling and frustrating, and the burden that comes from thinking we must abandon all ideas that come from other people. Crawford’s recurring thesis is that when we value our own independent will too much, we actually are easy prey for advertisements that use the language of choice or sell us a world in which we have control over our environment. We like this idea so much that we are entirely too susceptible to advertising’s claims.

He organizes the book around two central ideas: our bodies matter in how we engage with the world, and other people matter as sources of community and insight. Both premises are selected in order to challenge ideas of the autonomous self inherited from Enlightenment thinkers. We do not operate merely as brains in buckets, but we are in an environment that offers us “affordances,” especially for those skillful enough to use them. Also, we do not operate as if time began when we were born, but we are “situated” in a particular time and place in human tradition, and we are better off if we can learn to live within those traditions, benefitting from the wisdom of others rather than going it alone. Crawford draws examples from airport advertisements, hockey players, children’s cartoons, and organ building, and each example helps support and sustain his argument. He is clearly attentive to the world around him, and this pays off in rich illustrations that support his points. His chapter on gambling addiction paints a particularly grim portrait of the heavy burden of choice.

His conclusions–that our bodies matter and we need other people –are actually my basic presuppositions. As a Christian, it was fascinating to watch Crawford reverse engineer the things of the world to discover that true freedom arises from “submitting” (his words!) to the “intractable ways” of real things–for example, in learning the forces at play when riding a motorcycle. He also notices from skilled craftsman that to be in “conversation with a tradition” is indeed a way of learning about the world that helps to get at the truth of things. We do not need to think for ourselves; we need to learn from our elders and peers. This vision of the self as dependent upon fellowship with fellow humans and inseparable from the created world is central to the Christian understanding of what humans are. Even though he sees the world as created by “vast impersonal forces,” Crawford simply concludes by the end that “there is something benevolent in the disposition of things, relative to us” as if the world were created for our very use. Amen!

According to Crawford all this emphasis on our own freedom leaves modern people feeling isolated and insecure. We feel pressure to make our own decisons, but we also feel anxiety in making choices. No longer are we supposed to look to authority or to custom, so we become slaves to public opinion. Crawford points out that we increasingly look to social science surveys (and social media, I would add) for confirmation about what is normal. Crawford suggests that this has replaced religion, saying “the expert of normalcy becomes the new priest, salving our souls with the offer of statistical communion” (199).

He observes that in our hunger for freedom, we have actually only traded our fathers in for new masters who are profiting from our shallow and unquestioning desire for autonomy. We like to think of ourselves as free to choose, so companies are only all too willing to present their products as solutions that offer us choices. Crawford continually circles back to argue that we are seeking technology as a way of avoiding the frustrations of the “real” world and the level of skill it takes to appreciate and navigate the real world. We touch the world with a “data-glove” (I love that phrase!) and that makes us more eager to prefer “designed abstractions” that help make the world more intelligible and navigable.

By the end of the book, there is still no clear solution. He is concerned that we give too much of our attention away to the advertisers who makes bids for it, but many of his observations, though accurate, do not offer strong condemnation or obvious solutions. This book looks deeply into the underlying patterns of the world we live in and draws conclusions that any Christian can agree with, but for all of his concern about living in the realworld among real people, his conclusion is rather ethereal and impractical. Even though he has just spent a great deal of energy explaining how hard it is for the modern person to express firm opinions about beauty (he calls us agnostic about all kinds of value, unable to even assert preferences in music without consulting other people first), his final charge is simply to allow things of beauty to draw us out of our own heads. Throughout the book it seems Crawford has some very specific ideas about what we should and should not find beautiful, but by the end he leaves it up to (by his measurement!) the insecure and easily led reader. It’s a long way to come to end up exactly where you started.

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