A Note on Book Notes: In an effort to get a little more out of my reading I’m posting what I’m calling Book Notes. These won’t be reviews in any strict sense, but I hope to share key concepts and some of my impressions. Hopefully these short reflections encourage some to pick up and read more good books.
When I picked up The World Beyond Your Head from my local library I expected arguments against smartphones and algorithms but got something very different. The subtitle, “on becoming an individual in an age of distraction,” primed me for familiar polemics against the attention economy, and I would’ve been receptive to that book. I’m happy to say, however, that I got more than that standard (albeit valid) critique of technology.
Crawford works the vein of thinking that sees human beings as more than brains on sticks, thinking thoughts and manufacturing meaning. I came across this assertion first in the work of James K.A. Smith, particularly You Are What You Love, which although it was published after Crawford’s book, itself popularizes Smith’s 2009 Desiring The Kingdom, and I’m happy to see its influence grow. Because it’s fairly self-evident humans behave in ways not governed by explicit rational thought. Like Saint Paul, I often do the things I hate, the very things of which I think, “I ought not to do this.” And while Crawford isn’t concerned with spiritual questions, being reminded that there is a world beyond our heads — out there, solid and real — might make us reflect on where exactly Saint Paul’s Powers and Principalities dwell.
Turning back to the book’s actual subject, it explores questions of individuality and agency using a kind of narrative philosophy. I can’t recall if he uses that exact term to describe what he’s doing, but it fits. Crawford presents attention as a way of being and acting in the world, rather than as a resource to be managed. The point is simply to be attentive to worthwhile subjects, to safeguard our ability to attend to the rewards of deep engagement with the people and things “out there.”
“The point of being aware of the attentional commons is not to make it happen but to refrain from damaging it; to be aware of the valuable absence that creates space for private reverie, and indeed for the possibility of those episodes of joint attention that arise spontaneously and make cities feel full of promise for real human contact.”
Private reverie, a wandering mind, chance encounters — all are foreclosed on by “architects of attention.” This is Crawford’s name for the designers of dark patterns in software, to casino slot-machines, to whatever monster approves mall bathroom Muzak. I’ve written on topics around digital distraction a lot so I was pleasantly surprised to get something more from the book. Crawford’s discussion of how developing skill, especially manual skill, transforms the world by offering new affordances — opportunities to act — struck a chord with me.
As a knowledge worker who mostly manipulates symbols which are then encountered on a screen, I often feel as if what I do doesn’t exist. Obviously my writing is here; it gets read, readers send me messages, and some even pay to support my work. But I almost never hold my work in my hands. The whole process can feel something like corralling smoke into a box, and then trying to convince people to take a look. Crawford’s narration of the work of a short-order cook or motorcycle mechanic is something else, and it says something about why I enjoy baking bread, and why I fell in love with gardening during the pandemic. Skilled, manual pursuits are the opposite of the “nervous stimulation” that constitutes our digital consumer capitalism.
“... if consumer capitalism can go on only by continuing to accelerate the ‘intensification of nervous stimulation,’ there would seem to be a fundamental antagonism between this form of economic life and the individual who inhabits it. That is, we may have a problem.”
I greatly appreciated Crawford’s attempt to name the problem and begin to offer paths towards a more human order, where, instead of being deskilled by our technology, people have opportunities (and viable careers paths) to act concretely in the world. The invisible hands at the local diner belong a wizard, and maybe if I learned to covet his job more than the op-ed writers at The New York Times, I might go to bed satisfied.
Want to help? You can spread good words by sharing this post with a friend or support the work by subscribing (there's a free option). It's also possible to buy me a beer.