Jun 16, 2017

Matthew Crawford: 'Distraction Is a Kind of Obesity of the Mind'

Does your phone, the TV and advertising demand your attention everywhere you look? All this stimulation is triggering a social crisis, says writer Matthew Crawford. He talks to Ed Cumming about how to reconnect with reality
By Ed Cumming / theguardian.com
Matthew Crawford: 'Distraction Is a Kind of Obesity of the Mind'
Ticking over: Matthew Crawford, academic and motorcycle mechanic, in Richmond, Virginia. Photograph: Rob Adamo for the Observer

Before I met Matthew Crawford I loved air travel. I loved how everything was laid out for you, how the delineated stages of the airport gave way painlessly to those of the plane: check-in, security, boarding, take-off, drinkmealsleep, land. The closest you came to a choice was chicken or fish. (Part of me preferred it when there was just one movie that everyone was obliged to watch simultaneously, like the state broadcast of some eccentric despot.) Your phone didn’t work. You couldn’t refresh your feeds. The plane was a haven of monotony, and not having to think made those liminal hours, ironically, a great time to think.

But on the flight to Washington I noticed that the forces of distraction are winning the war in the air just as they are on the ground. There was a large selection of films, before which adverts were shown. Marketing slogans were written on the teacups: “Twinings – get you back to you”. Someone in front of me was playing Candy Crush, a game to which I had a short but debilitating addiction in 2013. Not only are you now allowed to use your electronic devices in the air, you can charge them, too. When the internet is available on international flights, as it is on some local routes, the game will truly be up.

This creeping clamour for our eyeball time is the starting point of Crawford’s new book, The World Beyond Your Head, a kind of philosophical treatise on how to cope with modernity that starts with annoying ads and ends with a critique of the whole of Enlightenment thought. He was inspired to write it when he was out shopping and noticed that ads popped up on the card machine during a delay of just a few seconds while he entered his pin. Ads were everywhere: on hotel-room key cards, on X-ray trays at airport security, on the handrails on escalators.

“I realised how pervasive this has become, these little appropriations of attention,” he says. “Figuring out ways to capture and hold people’s attention is the centre of contemporary capitalism. There is this invisible and ubiquitous grabbing at something that’s the most intimate thing you have, because it determines what’s present to your consciousness. It makes it impossible to think or rehearse a remembered conversation, and you can’t chat with a stranger because we all try to close ourselves off from this grating condition of being addressed all the time.”

He points out that the only quiet, distraction-free place in the airport is the business-class lounge, where all you hear is “the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china”. Silence has become a luxury good. “The people in there value their silence very highly. If you’re in that lounge you can use the time to think creative, playful thoughts; you could come up with some brilliant marketing scheme that you would then use to determine the character of the peon section. You can think of it as a transfer of wealth. Attention is a resource, convertible into actual money. ”

We meet on a bright day in March at Shockoe Moto, a red-brick garage on the south side of Richmond, Virginia. When he is not thinking about how we ought to live, Crawford works as a motorcycle mechanic, a job he turned to after growing disillusioned with office life in Washington thinktanks. His first book, The Case for Working With Your Hands, released in 2010, was a quiet masterpiece about the benefits of the manual trades, a 21st-century update to Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.


The brightly lit adverts at Piccadilly Circus.
Advert overload: the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus. Photograph: Paul Brown/Rex


When he greets me, Crawford is wearing biker boots and a hoodie, with glasses on top of his head that he flips down like a welding visor when he reads. He shows me an Italian bike with a voluptuous orange fuel tank that he is hoping to copy for custom designs of his own. It is easy to see why motorbikes – complex but understandable and material – hold such an appeal. As our conversation veers towards Kierkegaard, a circular saw occasionally shrieks in the background.

“We increasingly encounter the world through these representations that are addressed to us, often with manipulative intent: video games, pornography, gambling apps on your phone,” he says. “These experiences are so exquisitely attuned to our appetites that they can swamp your ordinary way of being in the world. Just as food engineers have figured out how to make food hyper-palatable by manipulating fat, salt and sugar, similarly the media has become expert at making irresistible mental stimuli.” Distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind, in other words, with results that could be just as hazardous for our health.

Crawford is not the only one who is worried. Everyone knows that office worker who complains about emails all day and then spends their free time doing email. Studies have shown that our attention wanders if a phone is merely visible on the table – a familiar phenomenon to those of us who have sat bored at dinner, feeling the gravitational draw of the black square in their pocket. A ringing phone makes you more likely to crash the car, regardless of whether you pick it up or not. (Having a real person in the car, to talk to and to act as a second pair of eyes and ears, makes an accident less likely.) There’s no scientific evidence yet on whether our attention spans have been affected – there have been fears of this kind since the telegraph was invented. But it is indisputable that we are more aware of other things we might be doing.

At its highest pitch this kind of stimulation can strip people of their humanity. The book’s most shocking passages are about the hi-tech slot machines in casinos, engineered to such a point of perfection that players routinely wet themselves while playing. “It is chilling,” says Crawford. “The people who design these machines are very up to date on cognitive science. The point of the design is to get people to ‘play to extinction’ – that’s their phrase. And the biggest players are not tourists; they are people who work in the hotels. They get their pay checks and feed them straight back into the machines. It’s a social engineering project that has been conducted not by government nudgers but by mind-bogglingly wealthy corporations.”

Screens are only part of the problem. Modern cars are being continually upgraded with features that remove the driver from the experience of being on the road. From the Toyota recall in 2008 came the surprising nugget that there are electronics in the brakes, designed to mimic the feeling you get under the pedal when hydraulic brakes start to wear. Mercedes-Benz has a raft of driver aids, such as Attention Assist, that in total serve as what Crawford calls a reassuring “psychic blowjob” to drivers. Even children’s TV has changed. Rather than using his own ingenuity, Mickey Mouse now enlists a device called the Handy Dandy Machine, which magicks an appropriate solution to his dilemma. We would rather send a text message to a friend, free from the risk of having a conversation, let alone the complex social jungle of a real-life conversation with a stranger.


Three people absorbed in their phone on the tube.
 Game on: Candy Crush on the tube. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/Observer


By only engaging with representations of things rather than things themselves, Crawford argues, we risk losing something fundamental in our society. He gives his gym as an example.

“When I went to lift weights in 1978, music came out of one boombox in the middle of the room, and the music was decided by a kind of natural hierarchy – if the 300lb football player had his music on, you just listened to it. Now it’s this awful generic gym crap. I asked the guy in my local place to put on his own music instead, because anything would be better. He said he didn’t want to impose his choice on others, which is the perfectly respectable answer to give, but it struck me as a little bit slavish, or at least lacking a certain boldness that you want to see in a young person. It also encourages people to listen to their own music on earbuds. At one time I counted 38 TV screens. The gym used to be a social place and it has lost that character. Genuine connection to other people tends to happen in the context of conflict – having a contest of different people’s tastes and working it out.”

Crawford’s proposed solution has two parts. First, we need a kind of “attentional commons”: a regulation of noise and distraction in public space, and government intervention in areas like gambling, where some people are being manipulated beyond their reasonable ability to cope. More importantly, though, Crawford advocates skilled practices as a way of engaging with the world in a more satisfying way. He gives the examples of a cook, an ice-hockey player and a motorbike racer as people whose roles force them to deal with material reality. No representation can replicate the feel of the puck on ice or gravel under your tyres at high speed. Each relies on good judgment of a complicated subject and the ability to manage the presence of others in the same space.

“When you engage with the world this way, manufactured experiences are revealed as pale substitutes for the kind of involvement you have with real things,” he says. “They lose some of their grip.” This is not to suggest that everyone should rush out to chef school; more that it is important to find a way to use your judgment. There are plenty of benefits in addition to professional satisfaction. Constantly resisting distractions can be exhausting and makes you less able to focus on what matters. The practice of paying attention to one thing, by contrast, makes it easier to pay attention to others.

It is tempting to see the advent of this crisis as technological, but for Crawford it’s more that the technology has created the perfect vehicles for our self-obsession. Individual choice has been fetishised to the point where we have thrown away many of the structures – family, church, community – that helped us to make good decisions, and handed more and more power to corporations.

“From the 1960s onwards there has been this great expansion of personal autonomy – the liberalisation of divorce laws, all manner of ways in which we have been liberated from constraints on our behaviour.” A world of constant choice means that our powers of self-control are heavily taxed. Parents want to be friends with their children rather than worrying about their behaviour: “Trying to get your kids to do their homework can be a real source of friction between spouses. No parent wants to be the disciplinarian, because it’s no fun.”

This has a social impact. As well as buying silence, the rich can hire “professional naggers” – tutors for their children, personal trainers – in effect outsourcing their own self-control. Crawford himself fell behind on his own taxes for years before he hired an accountant. At the other end of the spectrum, the poor parent is advertised at constantly and can rely on nobody but themselves to sift out the distracting noise. Schools can help. When Crawford was a child, learning about motorbikes was the only reason he stayed interested in physics and maths. “I went on to major in physics, and I couldn’t have given a crap about it when I was 17. If you’re a boy and you’re making a race car, trigonometry is suddenly interesting. Hands-on education should have a much more prominent role in schools. Sitting at desks staring at books is a fairly specialised activity that only arose late in human history, yet it has become the one-size-fits-all norm in a way that seems bizarre. ”

Crawford believes that it is only by grappling with the world in a concrete way that we can grasp it, and every screen that replaces a real interaction makes this more difficult. In person he has an appealing self-containment that makes you want to agree with him. I leave Shockoe Moto convinced that I need to become a mechanic, or at least learn to rewire a plug and turn off my phone once in a while. “We’re not very articulate about making a claim for our own attention as a finite resource,” he says as I depart. “But we need to be. Because when you talk about attention, you’re talking about the faculty by which you encounter the world.”

The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford is out now (Penguin, £16.99). To order a copy for £13.59, go to bookshop.theguardian.com

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