Staying Human in the Age of Distraction

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 Tara Moore / Getty Images


It seems hard to imagine now, but just over a decade ago there was no iPhone, no Facebook, no Twitter. Back then, the average American mobile user sent or received just five text messages a day; now, it’s more than 40. Multiple studies show that we check our phones at least 150 times a day, and according to the aptly-named mobile-analytics firm Flurry, this includes 57 minutes on gaming apps and an additional 30 on social media. In 2015, availability is the prevailing virtue, even if it’s nothing more than punching a clock that never stops ticking.

But what, exactly, are we making ourselves available to? That’s one of the fundamental questions Matthew Crawford asks in his tough-minded new book, The World Beyond Your Head. Crawford, a custom motorcycle mechanic based in Richmond, Virginia, is the author of the best-selling Shop Class as Soulcraft, which suggests that skilled manual labor is one means of defying an increasingly abstract and alienating work existence. In his new book, he reasserts the importance of hard-earned skills, but his subject matter is our basic, daily acts of consciousness. Crucially, the 49-year-old is not engaged in a doomed war with technology, but rather an inquiry into how we utilize our resources of attention (and how we allow them to be used), which, in a practical sense, determines what we value.

The subtitle of your book is On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. That seems to be saying that we’ve become something less than individual people. Do you think that’s true?
Well, I can feel that pressure on myself. I remember back when I was in grad school, going to the library and spending 10 or 12 hours at a stretch with my head buried in some challenging book, usually philosophy or something like that, and now I open a challenging book and I find that after a page or two I’m kind of getting antsy. Then I realize it’s Tuesday night and my favorite show is on, and I end up watching Sons of Anarchy or something. If I had gotten absorbed in Aristotle my head would still be churning in a kind of spiral of strange thoughts the next day. But they’re not. I had some basis for chitchat with other people because I’m tuned into the same stuff. So I think what that means is that maybe we’re becoming more similar to one another.

The word chitchat is good. It seems 90 percent of the conversations you have, especially now, are based on TV shows everybody’s watching.
Let’s face it, TV has gotten damn good. But that’s kind of the point, that there’s so much hyper-palatable mental stimuli out there, and to be able to concentrate on things that aren’t immediately engaging — it seems like that’s really at risk. And what that means, I think, is that the independence of thought maybe requires certain conditions, but those conditions are changing or being eroded as we’re all getting tuned into a sort of centralized culture industry.

In the book you talk about the role of technology, and that maybe we shouldn’t be so comfortable with it. Is it possible that for younger people who are so used to this, that their mental life isn’t nearly as disturbed as you think
Well, I guess if you grew up with this stuff, you don’t know any other situation. Any time you start to get into this generational stuff, people’s backs really get up. Digital natives, I guess they’re called — “You’re talking about my generation.” So I avoid doing that. But it does seem like we’re being addressed with this really appealing mass media. And it gets darker than that, because you think about Candy Crush and various mobile gaming apps that have really taken their business model from the gambling industry to create this addiction by design, and that’s some fucked up stuff right there.


But if that’s a problem, isn’t it our own?
Let me back up. On the one hand, we feel beset by these external forces that are appropriating our attention, and it’s usually for someone to make money, and we feel like our mental freedom is taken, and I think that’s right. But on the other hand, we have not just unwanted intrusions like ads. There are also these things that we willingly invite into our lives, whether it’s porn or mobile gaming, stuff like that, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. So we reach for this other ideal — not freedom, but self-control. And it does seem like strategies for self-regulation are having a renaissance in the culture, people trying to figure out ways to get themselves unhooked from the stuff. But I tend to think that we’re neither going to liberate nor self-regulate our way out of mental fragmentation, and that really what’s needed is to become absorbed in some worthy object that has intrinsic appeal, and that elicits your involvement in such a way that your mental energy gets gathered to a point.

It seems to me that in this fragmentation there’s a kind of generalized thoughtlessness, even in something so inconsequential as the endless stream of text messaging. Is something being devalued here?
There are some sociologists that try to dig into this, and they suggest that one reason texting has kind of displaced phone calls is that, when you’re texting, you feel like you can control your self-presentation more, you can craft the perfect little witticism or whatever, and that in having a phone call, apparently younger people who grew up texting, they feel too exposed, like it’s risky somehow. 

And yet everything goes up on Facebook.
But maybe there’s a connection there. I’m just speculating here, but in curating your self-presentation on social media, you’re crafting this representation of yourself just as you do with texting. In other words, you’re still free from the back-and-forth and give-and-take that removes things from your control a little bit. This gets into one of the big points in the book, that we actually need other people to sort of triangulate off of in order to get reflected back from them an adequate picture of ourselves, and without that you can become a self-deluded, fantasy version of yourself.

ALSO: How Technology Is Affecting Our Relationships

You talk about the two types of people — one who apprehends the world as it is, and another for whom the world is a projection that they’ve created.
That’s about right. Those are obviously two possibilities or types. It’s not like anyone actually corresponds to these, but the attentive self is one that is brought into a relation that fits to the world. Especially in doing any kind of skilled-craft work, it lets you know if you get something wrong — it kicks you in the pants. As opposed to dealing with the world entirely through representation, which if you think about it, representations are always addressed to you in some way, whereas nature is just dumb nature. It’s there in the world. It doesn’t care about you. So in dealing with it, you have to bring yourself into conformity with whatever it requires, whether it’s hitting a slap shot or cornering a motorcycle.

You talk about the idea of cars with all these additional electronics — “psychic blow jobs to the affluent,” you call it. It seems like all the trends are removing that element of skill and putting more distance between us and direct experience.
I think that’s totally true. It’s funny, because the way this stuff gets presented or marketed is all about the progress of technology. But if you think that technology is simply about function, there’s no clear reason why having everything go so automatic and disconnected is really increasing the function in any way. It’s more like a fetish of disconnection that somehow makes us feel freer or something, where we don’t have to contend with things or become skilled at using them. And all this comes together beautifully in the fact that Mercedes named their system for doing all this Attention Assist. Like I made that up. But I didn’t.

You write that the ultimate goal is an “ethics of attention.” How does a person go about acquiring an ethics of attention?
Well, we can stick with driving for a minute. I’m a motorcyclist, and it really matters to me when people are sealed up in four-ton SUVs texting. They’re so sealed off that I don’t exist. So I think one element of an ethics of attention would simply be the kind of readiness and habit of looking around for other people and the claims that they have on your attention in public places.

There seems to be a fear of paying attention is some general sense. But among people I know, there seems to be a great interest in, say, becoming a very good cook or brewing beer, which might be along the lines of what you’re saying. 
Yeah, and it’s not that in becoming skilled at something like that you suddenly become immune to distraction, but it at least lets you carve out some hours where you’re not simply a kind of object of social engineering, of commercial forces. And also, when you start to unpack what’s going on when we are doing a skilled practice at a high level, you have so many interesting insights about how the mind works. For example, when a bartender gets an order for, say, a mojito, a glass of house red, and a martini up, what he does is he arranges the different kind of glass that each drink requires in a row on the bar. More orders come in, so he puts out more glasses next to it, and then he has not only the content of each order but also the sequence of the orders all visible at a glance so he doesn’t have to remember it. And that’s good, because there’s only so much room available in your head. So that’s just one example of how you can use your environment to support and scaffold your cognitive abilities rather than taxing them needlessly.

But what happens when you’re trying to be an individual, and people think it’s strange you’re no longer as involved in the general distractions that you and everyone around you were previously into?
One good thing about skilled practices is they’re generally social. It’s something like sports, something where you’re bumping up against objects and other people, that gets you out of your head. Or think of jazz musicians. They’re all steeped in these tunes that they all know backwards and forwards, and the whole history of jazz is in the background as they play together, referring to it and alluding to it. The thought is that it’s in some social setting with other people that creativity usually emerges. But even a more solitary activity works. Surfing used to be a big part of my life. There you’re dealing with waves. Every one is different, and you just have to react and do something beautiful with it. You’re following and the wave is leading, and it’s really freaking hard. It’s an art form, it’s very creative, but it’s not just up to you.

 I don’t know if we enjoy distractions or not, but maybe we’re used to them. How long does it take to move from that to paying attention to something that requires thought and attention?
It takes awhile to become competent in anything, and it’s only when you start to feel your competence increasing that it becomes pleasurable. Getting it off the ground is the hard part — excluding all the other things that grab at your attention long enough to begin that process. But ultimately, I think it’s pleasure that keeps it going, not discipline. Once you feel your powers increasing, it feels more like abandon than self-control.