Preserving the Self
The Political Economy of Attention
Jun 22, 2015
11 Min read time
Matthew Crawford reflects on the political economy of attention in The World Beyond Your Head.
Photo: Angie Garrett
The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction
By Matthew B. Crawford
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (Cloth)
Aristotle and Marx may not have agreed on much else, but they agreed on the purpose of life. Aristotle defined the highest happiness as "the pursuit of excellence to the height of one’s capacities in a life affording them full scope." For Marx, the mark of a rational, humane society is that free, creative labor has become “not only a means to life, but life’s prime want.” Not leisure, not entertainment, not consumption, but creative activity is what gives human beings their greatest satisfaction: so say both the sage of antiquity and the prophet of modernity.
How much creative activity does work life in the contemporary United States encourage or allow?
"Creative” is not a well-defined word, so no precise answer is possible. But it’s hardly controversial that the "de-skilling” of the workforce has been the goal of scientific management since the beginning of the industrial age, and is accelerating. In his invaluable Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans (2014), journalist Simon Head tracks the rapid spread of Computerized Business Systems (CBS): job-flow, business-process software designed to eliminate every vestige of initiative, judgment, and skill from the lives of workers and even middle managers. CBS, he writes, “are being used to marginalize employee knowledge and experience,” so that “employee autonomy is under siege from ever more intrusive forms of monitoring and control.” Head cites a 1995 report that “75–80 percent of America’s largest companies were engaged in Business Process Reengineering and would be increasing their commitment to it over the next few years,” and a 2001 estimate that 75 percent of all corporate investment in information technology that year went into CBS. They’re expensive, but they’re worth it: insecure, interchangeable workers mean lower labor costs.
The end result of de-skilling was foreseen nearly 250 years ago by one of capitalism’s earliest and most penetrating critics:
The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgement concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. . . . But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it. (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations.)
Prescient though he was, Smith did not foresee the degree to which the state would become a largely-owned subsidiary of business, with no interest in preventing the stultification of “the great body of the people.”
In recent years de-skilling has been joined by omnidirectional saturation advertising in a pincer movement aimed at turning our non-work as well as our work lives into profit centers. Matthew Crawford’s brilliant and searching new work of social criticism begins with a familiar modern ordeal: boarding an airplane. Those plastic bins you put your shoes, wallet, and keys into? It dawned on some marketing genius that the insides of them could be plastered with ads. The tubes of lipstick advertised on the bottom of Crawford’s bin resembled flash drives, so he almost failed to retrieve the flash drive containing the lecture he was flying somewhere to give. Once past security, he looked for a quiet place to sit and think. Forget it—shops, huge ad posters, TVs, “the usual airport cacophony.” Virtually every inch of this public space made a claim on his attention for private commercial purposes. Except one: the business class lounge, the only place in the airport quiet enough to work, where the samurai of commerce sit devising the innovative marketing and business-process strategies that appropriate and direct the attention of the poor shlubs in the rest of the terminal.
De-skilling of the workforce has been joined by omnidirectional saturation advertising to turn our lives into profit centers.
These banal frustrations give rise to some original reflections on the political economy of attention in The World Beyond Your Head. Though we rarely think of it this way, control of our attention is both a public good—a commons—and an individual right. In public places like airports, subways, buses, stadiums, streets, and schools, and even more in quasi-public spaces like television, newspapers, and social media, our attention is sold to advertisers in ever finer increments. This is, Crawford suggests, strictly analogous to environmental pollution and the plundering of public resources.
There are some resources that we hold in common, such as the air we breathe and the water we drink. We take them for granted, but their widespread availability makes everything else we do possible. I think the absence of noise is a resource of just this sort. More precisely, the valuable thing that we take for granted is the condition of not being addressed. Just as clean air makes respiration possible, silence, in this broader sense, is what makes it possible to think. We give it up willingly when we are in the company of other people with whom we have some relationship, and when we open ourselves to serendipitous encounters with strangers. To be addressed by mechanized means is an entirely different matter.
(Encouragingly, two other new books arrive, in their own idiosyncratic ways, at similar political insights: David Bosworth’s The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America: The Moral Origins of the Great Recession (Front Porch Republic Books) and Craig Lambert’s Shadow Work: The Unseen, Unpaid Jobs That Fill Your Day (Counterpoint).) But for those who hold to the psychological model of rational choice that underlies neoclassical economics, it is not a different matter. On that view, decisions are made by ranking all available options on a single, unidimensional scale of utility or desirability. Ads, however seductive, are simply information, and the more information we have, the better—the freer—our choices. Consumers have a right to be bombarded with solicitations, however distracting, just as workers have a right to accept any conditions of employment, however degrading or unhealthful. Any government interference between seller and buyer or employer and employee is paternalism, the bane of American liberty.
Although even economists are beginning to abandon these simplistic notions of individuality and freedom, they continue to inform the official ideology of our governing party and are entrenched in law and policy (to the advantage, not coincidentally, of sellers and employers). Crawford proposes a different model of individuality and choice, at once traditional and radically new. Expounding it, with richly informative excursions into neuroscience, experimental psychology, intellectual history, mass culture, skilled crafts, and sports, is the main business of The World Beyond Your Head.
The detached, autonomous self of rational choice theory assumes the possibility of what philosophers call “the view from nowhere.” In the quest of epistemological certainty, we “take a detached stance toward our own experience, and subject it to a critical analysis from a perspective that isn’t infected with our own subjectivity.” Analogously, moral autonomy requires (paraphrasing Kant) that we “abstract from all objects … they should be without any influence at all on the will, which should not bend to outside forces or attractions but rather manifest its own sovereign authority.”
These formulations did much useful work historically, asserting and defining human freedom against oppressive traditional authority. But they don’t, when pushed to the limit, hold up. There are always initial conditions, presuppositions, things our previous experience has primed us to notice or overlook; there are always pre-existing appetites, values, commitments. We can’t abstract from all these things when making judgments or choices, because they are, taken together, us. Our selves do not exist apart from circumstances, accidents, constraints. We are situated beings. “How we act is not determined in an isolated moment of choice; it is powerfully ordered by how we perceive the situation, how we are attuned to it, and this is very much a function of our previous history of shaping ourselves to the world in a particular way.”
On the rational choice model, consumers have a right to be bombarded with solicitations, however distracting.
What this means in practice is illustrated by Crawford’s superbly detailed, psychologically astute descriptions of motorcycle riding and repair (the subject of his previous, best-selling Shop Class As Soulcraft), glass blowing, short-order cooking, organ-making, and other demanding skills. In each case, a beginner submits to the rules and traditions of some practice. A sustained narrowing of focus and intensification of discipline gradually yield a wider vision of possibilities and an increase in freedom of action. Internalizing the past of the activity and identifying with the community of its practitioners make one capable and desirous of carrying it forward—of creating something new. The joint attention required by any shared effort creates a new viewpoint, in which our genuine individuality is more accurately perceived and more reliably confirmed. Rootedness, obedience, and self-limitation are thus the conditions of autonomy and mastery. Crawford summarizes:
Genuine agency arises not in the context of mere choices freely made (as in shopping) but rather, somewhat paradoxically, in the context of submission to things that have their own intractable ways, whether the thing be a musical instrument, a garden, or the building of a bridge. … When we become competent in some particular field of practice, our perception is disciplined by that practice; we become attuned to pertinent features of a situation that would be invisible to a bystander. Through the exercise of a skill, the self that acts in the world takes on a definite shape. It comes to be in a relation of fit to a world it has grasped.
But does individual character matter in a liberal democracy? On the neoclassical model, work, culture, and politics are mutually independent. In the political marketplace as in every other, we are presented with an array of options, inform ourselves about them, compute our preferences, and select one. We decide in much the same way as IBM’s Deep Blue decides on chess moves: we start from scratch every time and calculate. Of course the analogy is imperfect: computers don’t have habits, prejudices, impulses, or memory lapses; and their capacity for attention is virtually unlimited. The neoclassical model needs quite a number of simplifying assumptions, like pre-Copernican epicycles. But the alternative—to acknowledge that humans are not simple utility maximizers with arbitrary preferences and unbounded desires, but rather that there is a hierarchy of human goods, with limits on the scale and rhythms within which we can flourish—would upend our current political economy.
It would mean, among other things, revulsion against what work has become, or is becoming, for all too many of those Americans lucky enough to have jobs: not merely ill-paid and insecure but also repetitive, stressful, and wholly scripted. The only way workers can resist this degradation is (as Adam Smith pointed out) collectively. But neoclassical economics frowns on unions, committed instead to the fiction that fully autonomous individuals can negotiate freely and on equal terms with large corporate employers; and likewise to the dogma that the only proper subject of this negotiation is the price of the employee’s labor, not its meaning.
Seeing past the liberal model of individual autonomy might also mean recognizing that consumerism can have civic consequences. Just as atmospheric fine particles can clog our lungs and impair our society’s physical health, an unending stream of commercial messages, some overwhelming and some barely perceptible, can clog our minds, fragment our attention, and in the long run, impair our society’s mental and civic health. Even intelligent and straightforward ads, in sufficient quantities, might do this to us; the dumb and manipulative ones we are daily subjected to are surely accelerating our moronification. “Please," Crawford pleads, at once jokingly and in earnest, “don’t install speakers in every single corner of a shopping mall, even its outdoor spaces. Please don’t fill up every moment between innings in a lazy college baseball game with thundering excitement. Please give me a way to turn off the monitor in the backseat of a taxi. Please let there be one corner of the bar where the flickering delivery system for Bud Lite commercials is deemed unnecessary, because I am already at the bar.”
This—and no doubt a great deal more of The World Beyond Your Head—is just what John Ruskin, William Morris, Ivan Illich, Christopher Lasch, Wendell Berry, and other great conservative radicals, or radical conservatives, would say to our over-managed, ad-choked, out-of-scale society. They were all skeptical of inevitable progress, alert to the costs as well as the benefits of new technology, able to distinguish the blessings from the cruelties of tradition, and as anxious to preserve the former as to abolish the latter. We’re lucky that Matthew Crawford has updated this invaluable dissenting thread of cultural commentary. But our ecologies—of attention, of imagination, of civic virtue—are eroding ever faster. All too soon, it may no longer matter what anyone says.
June 22, 2015
11 Min read time