The Inattention Game

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction BY Matthew B. Crawford. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 320 pages. $26.

In 2010, when houses and jobs and retirement accounts were vanishing in a vapor of financial abstraction, Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, a book about the pleasures of skilled manual labor, seemed more epochal than he’d probably anticipated. It pled a straight and lucid case: In our obsession with the “knowledge economy” we denigrate the trades, but the trades instill their own kind of knowledge, teaching reverence for the physical world. A motorcycle mechanic with a Ph.D. in philosophy, Crawford appeared in the New York Times wearing rolled-up sleeves and looking uncannily like Dominic West. One hundred and fifty thousand copies sold.

The credibility of Shop Class derived partly from Crawford’s biography. He was acquainted with collars of both colors. Years before the doctorate, he’d worked as an electrician and in a California speed shop, and after completing his dissertation he spent five months writing abstracts of scientific papers for InfoTrac, a company that maintains databases of academic journals. Then he signed with a think tank in Washington. Of all of these positions, repairing motorcycles pleased him most. “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence,” he wrote, “have been known to make a man quiet and easy.”

There could be no less apt description of the mood of Crawford’s follow-up, The World Beyond Your Head. If the subject of Shop Class was a specific current in the culture, the subject of this book is the ocean in its entirety. I regret to report that the water is not so fine. We are living, Crawford informs us, through a “crisis of attention”—to each other and to the physical world. Instead of facing reality, we retreat into “representations,” a word that Crawford applies to phenomena as diverse as text messages and slot machines.

What these so-called representations have in common is that they’re formulated to give us the illusion that we are unique and at the center of the universe: That is, they play to our ideals of individualism and nonconformism. But living in thrall to representations has reduced our ability to function in the “real” world—we’re able to use an iPhone but not pilot a ship or wrestle an alligator or blow glass (to draw three examples from the book). Since it’s precisely in moments of skillful interaction with the physical that we become most human, Crawford suggests, the dream of American self-determination dead-ends paradoxically with dehumanized, fragile, narcissistic individuals, dependent on manipulative environments engineered by corporations.

That’s the InfoTrac abstract of Crawford’s thesis, but it doesn’t really give you an idea of the tone of this book, which isn’t cool and theoretical but rather personal and aggrieved. The project occurred to him in a supermarket, where he got annoyed by ads on a credit-card terminal. Later, in an airport, he got annoyed by an advertisement on an escalator handrail (is no surface sacred?) and then was further annoyed by a TV playing CNN. “The colonization of life by hassle,” he writes, encouraged him to consider attention and agency more broadly.

Here is a partial list of Crawford’s complaints: advertising on children’s report cards and hotel key-cards, the automated phone system they use at Verizon customer service, the song selection at his gym, old people who piss themselves while playing slots, the new Mickey Mouse Club (he likes old episodes), new BMWs (he likes old ones), new Mercedes (he likes old ones), women who “accuse you of not taking [them] seriously, not really engaging,” women who make “standard porn noises” in bed, women who don’t return eye contact on the sidewalk, the credit-rating service TRW, music based on “sampling and referencing,” and the 1984 movie This Is Spinal Tap, which is the reason no bands in 2015 are as good as Led Zeppelin was.

It all amounts to a dystopian portrait of the contemporary scene. “If you were to regularly air-drop Cheetos,” Crawford writes in an early chapter,

over the entire territory of a game preserve, you would probably find that all the herbivores preferred them right away to whatever pathetic grubs and roots they had been eating before. A few years later, the lions would have decided that hunting is not only barbaric but, worse, inconvenient. The cheetahs would come around eventually—all that running!—and the savannah would be ruled by three-toed sloths. With orange fur.

In other words, reliance on representation isn’t only undignified, it’s an illness. It turns your coat the wrong color. On safari for some orange-furred specimens, Crawford cites the anthropologist Natasha Schüll, whose research on machine-gambling addiction he admires. In particular, he likes Schüll’s comparison of slot players, who lose themselves passively in screens, to autistic children, who may seek self-contained sensations like “rocking or swinging.”

Crawford sees Schüll and raises her. “Perhaps we are all becoming autistic,” he writes. Perhaps we are all overwhelmed by the demands of the world as it is, and as a result retreat into “autostimulation.” In Crawford, the “autistic ideal” comes to stand for the false dream of a mode of virtual living in which desire is always met. Technology has accustomed us to reliable gratification in our Matrix pods, where physical laws don’t pertain.

Sons of Sawdust

You can see where this is headed. Siri loves unconditionally, but a level can’t bend reality to save a carpenter’s feelings. A motorcycle’s starter motor catches or it doesn’t. The light switch at the end of the electrician’s circuit—it turns on, or he tries another fix. And so on. In each case, the backstop of hard fact instructs the craftsman in humility and objective truth. This is what Crawford means when he writes that his project is to “reclaim the real.”

After driving from his home in Richmond, Crawford visits a pipe-organ repair shop in Afton, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge foothills. There, he’s in his element. Real skills are in evidence. The men—there are scarcely any women in his books, except for the annoying ones who accuse him of not taking them seriously—enjoy obvious camaraderie. They have employment that is both meaningful and financially rewarding. And the testosterone flows freely: A tool chest “sported some Harley insignia and a bodacious swimsuit model.”

It’s easy to dismiss Crawford for overdoing it on the macho stuff. (This tone is everywhere, once you look. In Shop Class, old Volkswagens “tend to get passed around like cheap whores.”) But at least the macho stuff is honest—he confesses plainly where he stands. The bigger problem with The World Beyond Your Head is that of an author trying to wring a social theory from a set of personal grievances, no matter how accurately he perceives what Marilynne Robinson called “the sadness so many of us feel at the heart of contemporary society.”

The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord’s work of anticapitalist critical theory that influenced the strikes and protests of May 1968, made many of the same arguments that Crawford does. In fact, the first sentence of Spectacle is like a summary of The World Beyond Your Head: “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”

Debord’s complaints about France were made in the service of a Marxist vision of social reorganization. Absent such a philosophical basis (which obviously need not be Marxism), Crawford’s disgust with representations becomes something much less generous, a disgust for the people who need representations most. It is often this way with elegies for attention to the physical world. The writers who demand that everyone live in the “real” are usually those who are already comfortable there. Consider the example of the woman who’s buried in her iPhone while she walks, and won’t make eye contact with Crawford. “A public space where people are not self-enclosed . . . may feel rich with possibility for spontaneous encounters,” he writes; such a situation “gives rise to a train of imaginings, often erotic.” This is dead accurate to certain moments in a straight man’s afternoon in the city. But a person could also be forgiven for seeking the reassurance of a phone when feeling overexposed on the street.

The beam of contempt is even more visible when it focuses on the slot players, who, despite Crawford’s wish to make them exemplary of the “autistic” strain of modern life, are more likely—visit any casino—to be old people without a ton of money, unluckily susceptible to a certain kind of addiction, exploited by a sophisticated technology. Even Crawford’s basic premise that “representations” are undesirable begins to buckle under scrutiny. An odd teenager in an uncomprehending suburb using Tumblr to find peers who don’t deride her seems unlikely to agree that the problem with America is the prevalence of images.

Reality can be the site of surreal amounts of cruelty, and to mock those who seek refuge from it can be a way of excusing oneself from the labor of improving it. Not everyone accepts the supremacy of the tangible. It’s indisputable that many people prefer screens to the company of humans, but it’s less clear that all of them do so for reasons of passivity and narcissism. The autistic come to mind as examples. Close attention to the social world reveals, in this way, its unlikeness to a starter motor or a short circuit—most problems don’t have universally self-evident solutions.

In the parable of the game preserve, Cheetos fell out of the sky and the lions got complacent and stopped hunting. It’s an offense to the hunter’s aesthetics. But from a zebra’s perspective? Let it rain.

Jesse Barron is a writer living in New York.