The World Beyond Your Head

The liberation of the individual from the shackles of tradition and the shift from a physical towards a digital life promise ultimate freedom. Yet, anxiety and helplessness tend to follow that path. Matthew B. Crawford exalts the primacy of physical reality and suggests that by recognising and embracing our placement in it, we can achieve creative success and personal fulfilment.

Attentional commons
If we walk through a city, we find ourselves bombarded with signs and advertisements, all aggressively vying for our attention. They try to steal our focus away from ourselves, and also away from other people. This is even more pronounced in places like underground stations, which have screens capturing our gaze.

In the construction of our public spaces, communal attention belongs to whoever can afford the advertising space. Silence, or the absence of distraction, can be marketed to niche audiences, like in private lounges, but is increasingly evicted from the public sphere at large.

There is an escape to this unwanted appropriation of attention: Directing our focus to a stronger attractor. We could, for example, put in headphones, or read a book. We are then tuned out from the communal experience of the location. Independent of the attentional crowding of public space, people are also tuning out voluntarily. Nowadays, few young people are walking the streets without headphones or looking at their phones. What they do is directing their attention away from the here-and-now.

This behaviour dulls our experience of city life:
“A public space where people are not self-enclosed, in the heightened way that happens when our minds are elsewhere than our bodies, may feel rich with possibility for spontaneous encounter. Even if we do not converse with others, our mutual reticence is experienced as reticence if our attention is not otherwise bound up, but is rather free to alight upon one another and linger or not. To be the object of someones’s reticence is quite different from not being seen by them; we may have a vivid experience of having encountered another person, even if in silence. Such encounters are always ambiguous, and their need for interpretation gives rise to a train of imaginings, often erotic. This is what makes cities exciting.”

Embracing limitations
Limitations are helpful, and nothing is more limiting than physical reality. There is a tremendous difference between leveling a character in a video game, increasing his strength, and training to make your own body stronger. The latter is hard, and you feel the resistance at every step. There is at once pride at the small, incremental successes, and humility in the face of the difficulty of the task.

A wood carver has to work with the wood, understand and follow the limitations given by the grain, and submit to the reality of the material he is working with. But this apparent loss of the will is not as negative as it may sound: There is a deep satisfaction in working with reality, working with what is there, and doing the best one can do, given the constraints of the material.

Effective learning entails a similar pattern, where a teacher who knows more than the student provides helpful constraints. The apprentice follows the master’s instructions and trusts his experience to guide him through the learning process, even when he initially doesn’t understand every step. In observing the master, the apprentice not only learns the craft, but the culture of craftsmanship particular to their trade. Science is learned and transmitted in a similar fashion. This mode of learning is different to the theoretical ideal of Western civilisation: The rational individual that rejects custom and builds everything from his own foundation.

Culture of performance
The modern individual has been liberated from many long-standing shackles: “from the authority of parents, teachers, bourgeois laws, the uterus, the draft, the bra”, and recently even from the need to present as man or woman. Against expectation, this great liberation has not resulted in never-ending happiness, but instead in a tremendous rise of depression.

Crawford locates a common cause for depression in the failure to measure up to the expectations set by the endless possibilities available to the liberated individual. Instead of using their freedom to become a generation of Übermenschen, people have become anxious and weary. “Once upon a time, our problem was guilt.” This has changed: “The question that hovers over your character is no longer that of how good you are, but of how capable you are, where capacity is measured in something like kilowatt hours – the raw capacity to make things happen.”

The flattening
Paradoxically, the great liberation of the individual has not resulted in a heightened expression of individual character. “The demand to be an individual makes us feel anxious, and the remedy for this, ironically enough, is conformity. We become more deferential to public opinion.” Now that people are no longer forced to fit in, they reassure themselves with their closeness to a statistical average.

This has been beautifully observed after the publication of the Kinsey Reports, which presented statistics on the sexual behavior of Americans. This elicited “thousands of individuals seeking and finding statistical reassurance.” Sexuality was no longer the private problem of couples, now you could point to statistics that proved that your behaviour was perfectly normal, or how someone else’s sexual behaviour deviated from the norm.

There is great psychological release in letting go of the exhausting claim to individuality, and becoming a number, a mere statistic. It is a different kind of liberation: Submitting to statistics, whether they be right or false, relieves one from thinking for oneself, from having views and standards and tastes.

This flattening of the human experience is further facilitated by the mass production of human culture. Everybody watches the same videos, movies, and news. It requires directed effort to go against the strong currents of mainstream culture, and it comes at a price: You will not be able to discuss the latest movie with your colleagues or acquaintances, you may not nod in agreement at their display of indignation at the latest political charade, you may earn a skeptical look when you shrug in ignorance as they ask you “Have you heard about that earthquake?!”

Reclaiming the real
What we need is “affection for the world as it is”. We would do well to seek adventures in the real world, instead of consuming manufactured experiences on screens. Instead of loafing under the reign of the lowest common denominator, we should recognise excellence, admire it, and find an area where we can strive towards excellence ourselves.

We would be wise to let go of the delusion that we are rational beings who strive to better the world according to abstract principle in a desinterested fashion. As humans, we can only make sense of and meaningfully engage with the world insofar as we are situated and physically involved in the world. This principle should also guide our approach to education: It is fatuous to expect that a child would be interested in trigonometry as an abstract science. It may, however, become interested in trigonometry if it tries to build a tube frame chassis for a race car.

We should also not allow ourselves to indulge to much in the comfort of a world where almost any urge can be immediately satisfied, and where experts relieve us from the necessity of becoming active and acquiring skills. There is a deep satisfaction gained from doing some of that work ourselves, especially manual labour that connects us to the real world.