On Being Human in an Age of Distraction

Gracy Olmstead reviews Matthew Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction:

The subtitle to his latest book promises a look at our “age of distraction.” There have been a plethora of articles on this topic of late—they bemoan our lack of “mindfulness” and diagnose the ills of our attention-deficit society. A book on this age of distraction would perhaps reflect upon the mind as affected and shaped by technology. It would consider televisions and smartphones, Twitter and Google. But in fact, Crawford’s book takes on an immensely grander project. The World Beyond Your Head isn’t about technological distractions, it’s about another kind of virtual reality and its deceptions—about the epistemological frauds we have believed since the Enlightenment.

The premise of Crawford’s book is that our distractedness is merely symptomatic of a deeper cultural defect, a misrepresentation of the self that has permeated our society…

While I’m hesitant to fully indict Descartes and Kant the way Crawford does, it seems to me Crawford’s critique of the Enlightenment’s concept/metaphor of an ‘enclosed’ self is very similar to the phenomenological turn initiated by Husserl.

Less controversial is Crawford’s linkage of Enlightenment-borne individualism to the modern trajectories of hyper-individualism, ever more pervasive consumerism, and technologically abetted narcissism:

Crawford spends a good deal of the book arguing that an Enlightenment approach to epistemology leads to narcissism: an understanding of the world that revolves entirely around the self. The narcissist “treats objects as props” and struggles to comprehend them as objects with a reality of their own. The fantasy of autonomy, when full-grown, results in a “project of open-ended, ultimately groundless self-making.” Interestingly, Crawford identifies our treatment of others as the root of online narcissism in the age of Facebook: “We increasingly deal with others through representations of them that we have,” he writes. “This results in interactions that are more contained, less open-ended, than a face-to-face encounter or a telephone call, giving us more control.”

…Our relationships are ever more removed from reality by layers of virtual media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat become substitutions for real-time interactions…

Individualism, defined as an Enlightenment doctrine about how we acquire knowledge, was meant to “liberate us from authority” via “radical self-responsibility.” Yet this enforced self-sufficiency has resulted in slavery to consumer culture and public opinion. In contrast, “it is by bumping up against other people, in conflict and cooperation, that we acquire a sharpened picture of the world and of ourselves, and can begin to achieve all the earned independence of judgment.” Individuality—with all the intellectual freedom it brings—stems from our integration into a tradition, a place, and a skillset.

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