That we are more distracted than ever is a truism. It is more difficult today to sustain focus on any one thing than ever before. The standard scapegoat for this distraction is technology. With text messages interrupting your flow and the incredible candy-like temptation of time-wasting games and social networking, what else can you expect?
Crawford agrees that we are more distracted than ever—and that technology plays a role in this. This prevents us from being real individuals. Under the onslaught of corporations whose goal it is to take our attention, we flit from thing to thing like everyone else. While we prize the Enlightenment’s gift of individuality, we cease to experience it in any meaningful way.
Rather than blame technology alone, Crawford sees it as a symptom of our real problem. The underlying issue is the influence of Kant’s understanding of the autonomous will. Here’s Crawford quoting Kant:
“Autonomy of the will is the property of the will through which it is a law to itself independently of all properties of the objects of volition,” Kant writes. “If the will seeks that which should determine it … in the constitution of any of its objects, then heteronomy always comes out of this.” In such a case “the will does not give itself the law but the object through its relation to the will gives the law to it.” Autonomy requires that we “abstract from all objects to this extent—they should be without any influence at all on the will so that [the will] may not merely administer an alien interest but may simply manifest its own sovereign authority as the supreme maker of the law.” (73)
Crawford’s disagreement with Kant on this point sets the agenda for the entire book. Kant (challenging the scientific determinism of his day) tried to maintain human free will by removing human will from the objects humans interact with. For Kant, we don’t deal with things, but with abstractions of things.
The World Beyond Your Head is a passionate, articulate, and philosophically astute book that argues for a direct re-engagement with actual things—not mere representations. He backs his argument up with examples from many different places—the world of high speed motorcycle racing, the fatalistic goals of slot machines, and even the tyranny of Micky’s Clubhouse.
The final chapter describes the author’s trip to George Taylor and John Boody’s organ making shop. These craftsmen know what its like to develop a skill in working with real objects that only come through years of apprenticeship and sustained attention. While they don’t disdain technology, their engagement with the real allows them to use it as a tool rather than to be mastered by it.
This is the best book, of any genre, that I have read in years. Crawford not only diagnoses our problem accurately, he offers inspiring solutions to the autonomous perils of our day.
—Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2015).