In his best-selling book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford explored the ethical and practical importance of manual competence, as expressed through mastery of our physical environment. In his brilliant follow-up, The World Beyond Your Head, Crawford investigates the challenge of mastering one's own mind. We often complain about our fractured mental lives and feel beset by outside forces that destroy our focus and disrupt our peace of mind. Any defense against this, Crawford argues, requires that we reckon with the way attention sculpts the self. Crawford investigates the intense focus of ice hockey players and short-order chefs, the quasi-autistic behavior of gambling addicts, the familiar hassles of daily life, and the deep, slow craft of building pipe organs. He shows that our current crisis of attention is only superficially the result of digital technology, and becomes more comprehensible when understood as the coming to fruition of certain assumptions at the root of Western culture that are profoundly at odds with human nature. The World Beyond Your Head makes sense of an astonishing array of common experience, from the frustrations of airport security to the rise of the hipster. With implications for the way we raise our children, the design of public spaces, and democracy itself, this is an audiobook of urgent relevance to contemporary life.
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Do Androids Dream of Electric Things/Aware People?
I read Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work years ago and loved it. I was enamored of his story. His last book was about excellence, work, education, and engaging in a philosophy of work and empowering the type of education that enables students to have choices beyond the Ivory Tower.
In this his newest book, this PhD in political philosophy, motorcycle repairman, looks at our attention. And how we can get beyond our own heads and the active distractions that jockey for our attention through things (tools, interactions with the world) and people (real people, not their representations). He argues that the individual can't be viewed removed from her environment. Unlike Kant or Descartes, Crawford doesn't believe man can be moral or an individual without others, without in fact interacting with things and others.
Best parts of this book are the sections on virtual reality. I recently returned from a trip to MIT's Age Lab where I saw first-hand robotic seals used to treat patients with Parkinson's and Alzheimers. I drove MIT Agelab's AwareCar which they use to measure how different things make drivers distracted (think iWatch vs. iPhone). It was weird to think of the overlap between car's being manufactured to remove our need for attention (remote controlled breaking and paternalistic cameras) and studies being done to help us to make cars that at once are less distracting and at the same time allow us to distract ourselves more. It becomes a weird circle that ends in oblivion or a car wreck.
Another chapter I loved was the chapter on Vegas and gambling. How addictions and our attention interact and how big corporation feed off of that interaction. I loved the section he focused on David Foster Wallace, especially his books This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life and The Pale King. Books that looked at how we use our attention and the bliss we can achieve through boredom. I though his take on Wallace was certainly worth the price of admission on that section.
Finally, I loved the long pre-epilogue chapter on the Organ Maker's Shop. I have an uncle, or actually my wife has an uncle, who makes and repairs organs and this chapter seemed to be a good illustration and summary of his whole thesis. The shop was interesting and it served well to summarize his thesis and his solution to how to achieve individuality in this world of multiple, hard-core distractions.
So, in general, I liked this book. Unfortunately, I wanted to like it even more. If you are going to try to write a book that engages with a critique of Kant, Descartes, and the liberalism they created, you are going to need to bring your A-game. Crawford brought his B-game in my opinion. There were, however, moments of genius (or wicked genius), like this quote:
"The basic design intention guiding Mercedes the last ten years seems to be that its cars should offer psychic blow jobs to the affluent. Just sit back, relax, and think something pleasing. The eyes take on a faraway glaze. As for the other drivers, there is a certain ...lack of mutuality."
So, despite the genius of sentences like this, I just wanted MORE from it. I wanted a bit more depth, a bit more precision, a bit more time. This pipe just seemed like it was blown too soon.