The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction
by matthew b. crawford
farrar, straus and giroux, 320 pages, $26

It is not the labor that is divided; but the men,” complains the author. Society produces “morbid thinkers, and miserable workers” because we have separated thought from labor in pursuit of a destructive freedom. What we need instead is a countercultural submission to the patterns of creation, for “the power and glory of all creatures, and all matter, consist in their obedience, not in their freedom. The sun has no liberty—a dead leaf has much.”

The author is John Ruskin, the evangelical reformer of industrialized Britain, but it could just as well be Matthew Crawford, a writer who has made stops at the University of Chicago, a D.C. think tank, and a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. His realization that “there was more thinking going on in the bike shop than in the think tank” led to the 2006 article “Shop Class as Soulcraft” that became a celebrated book, and now to a second volume, The World Beyond Your Head.

Crawford, too, complains of our vaporous notion of “freedom.” He analyzes the evolution of gambling, including the machines with auto-play features for the “mature ­player.” Crawford even extols the very glassmakers that Ruskin admired, and laments with him the “death of reverence and obedience.” Does our new Ruskin succeed?

The World Beyond Your Head excels especially in its diagnosis. Complaining of music and television in airports, gyms, and waiting rooms, Crawford posits that “silence is now offered as a luxury good.” He pleads for “attentional commons” and our “right not to be addressed.” “Distractibility,” furthermore, “might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity.” The subjectivism of ­Thomas Hobbes bequeathed to us “moral autism.” Immanuel Kant, Crawford argues, “ignore[d] the mutual entanglement of will and world, or posit[ed] their segregation an ideal.” Choice, which for Kant was a “pure flashing forth of the unconditioned will,” has now become the “central totem of consumerist capitalism.” Choosing has thereby replaced doing, making us “more pliable to the choice architects presented to us in mass culture.”

And so we became the subjects of Silicon Valley. A world controlled by mouse clicks is the “fulfillment of the thinned-out notion of human agency.” De-contextualized workers with generic rather than skill-based intelligence are expected simply to “perform,” and are thereby afflicted less by guilt than by weariness and depression: “The question that hovers over your character is no longer that of how good you are, but of how capable you are.” But the ennui can be offset by ­disciplined engagement with the world. “The clearest contrast to the narcissist I can think of is the repairman,” writes Crawford, “who must subordinate himself to the broken washing machine, listen to it with patience, notice its symptoms, and then act ­accordingly.”

This is more than a mere appeal to the dignity of manual labor. ­Crawford shares the diagnosis of modernity on offer in works such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Enlightenment rationality has crippled our self-understanding. This led MacIntyre to posit a “coming age of barbarism and darkness,” and Crawford sees it as well. His analysis of luxury cars even leads him to suggest we have created “the engineering equivalent of the last, desperate days of the Roman Empire,” making us “ripe for conquest and slaughter.” But unlike MacIntyre, Crawford doesn’t look to past wisdom for a solution. Instead, he looks mainly ahead. In a world that has lost its moorings, we are waiting less for Benedict than for behaviorists who have outsmarted the philosophes by discovering “new ideas about embodied perception and cognitive extensions, which connect thinking to doing.”

At the same time, Crawford claims to dig into the “historically sedimented geological structures of our age of distraction.” Why, then, does he stop digging six inches down? The near total absence of thinkers before 1600 seems ­initially to betray the very “idolatry of the present” Crawford sets out to criticize. Might the reason be a hesitation about broaching the topic of religion? His celebration of manual arts and practices is aimed at those who “rely on effort of the will rather than divine grace.” Simone Weil is harvested for her astute writing on attention. Crawford quotes approvingly her famous insistence that “every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves,” but he dismisses her mysticism as “existential melodrama.” Crawford favorably cites Iris Murdoch’s idea of “authoritative structures” that do not come from “the law of a punishing Jewish god, nor the promiscuous love of a Christian one.”

What must one do to be saved? Become a motorcyclist, short-order cook, hockey player, or organ maker, I suppose, or a member of any profession where your brain will elegantly extend into the respective working arena beyond your head. Which is to say, there is not as much soulcraft in this shop class as one might hope.

Still, as the book continues, ­Crawford’s satisfaction with the purely new and secular appears to fade. Kierkegaard makes his appearance to mount an attack on the American individualism of Emerson and ­Whitman. Nietzsche, a positive source for most of the book, comes in for some criticism.

This left me wondering if the book is deliberately framed so as to slowly lead the secular reader along to something richer. The transformation takes place with Crawford’s visit to a pipe-organ shop. The organ builders he encounters have a “yearning for roots.” They rejoice that for every congregation that has yielded to the guitar, another is reviving the organ. Such a change only came by ­resisting an obsession with “whatever is currently ascendant,” a rebellion “against the self-satisfaction of the age.”

Surely Crawford knows that a “high regard for the testimony of the more distant past, as against the more proximate past” applies not only to organs, but to ethics, anthropology, and metaphysics. As the book concludes, he admits that “the most creditable of religious intuitions is available within a this-worldly ethics of attention.” I’m grateful for that, even if Crawford’s brief concession to the great faith traditions seems inadequate to address the problems he so effectively diagnoses. If we are worse off than Victorian Britain—and we may be—we need a remedy at least as potent as The Stones of Venice, and certainly not less. And so, to sup­plement Crawford’s personal anecdotes that illustrate our predicament, I offer one of mine.

I once found myself part of a group of Princeton graduate students and professors sequestered for research in a mountain monastery in Greece. A week into our visit, just as some of us were settling into the rhythms of the liturgy, reports that the nuns had managed to install a faint wireless signal rippled through our ranks like the good news of the Gospel. We scrambled to the computer room to refresh our online identities. What good is it being somewhere exotic if no one knows? Over the coming days we noticed the effect that this had on the tranquility of the monastery, which was palpable and embarrassing. Some of us joked about St. Demetrios emerging from his icon in the nearby sanctuary to pierce the router with his spear—but it didn’t stop us from constantly checking our phones.

One evening around midnight, a group of us sat outside the computer room enjoying the summer evening while still getting some of the wifi signal. Down the cobbled courtyard came one of the English-speaking nuns on an evening stroll, smiling serenely (as she always did), fingering her prayer beads. Though I imagine she knew, she innocently asked what we were up to, and we sheepishly confessed we were online. Drawing on antiquated web lingo, she gestured to her beads, sweetly replied, “I’m surfing the other internet,” and strolled on.

Perhaps, to borrow the subtitle to Crawford’s book, I had just witnessed what “becoming an individual in an age of distraction” entails. Thinking back on this now, I wonder if, absent a steady appeal to something transcendent, our ecology of attention will improve. ­Aristotle knew well that manual dexterity without metaphysics is incomplete. “Someone who wants to be an expert in a craft . . . should progress to the universal, and come to know that, as far as possible.” And Ruskin’s ­prophetic mantle was woven with the rhythms of the King James ­Bible. “Things done ­delightfully and rightly,” he insisted, marveling at Veronese’s Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, “were always done by the help and in the Spirit of God.”

Matthew J. Milliner is assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College.