World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction - by Matthew B. Crawford


Capitalism has gotten hip to the fact that for all our talk of an information economy, what we really have is an attentional economy, if the term “economy” applies to what is scarce and therefore valuable.

A public space where people are not self-enclosed, in the heightened way that happens when our minds are elsewhere than our bodies, may feel rich with possibility for spontaneous encounters. Even if we do not converse with others, our mutual reticence is experienced as reticence if our attention is not otherwise bound up, but is rather free to alight upon one another and linger or not, because we ourselves are free to pay out our attention in deliberate measures. To be the object of someone’s reticence is quite different from not being seen by them; we may have a vivid experience of having encountered another person, even if in silence. Such encounters are always ambiguous, and their need for interpretation gives rise to a train of imaginings, often erotic. This is what makes cities exciting.

I would like to offer the concept of an attentional commons. 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. The benefits of silence are off the books. They are not measured directly by any econometric instrument such as gross domestic product, yet the availability of silence surely contributes to creativity and innovation. They do not show up explicitly in social statistics such as level of educational achievement, yet one consumes a great deal of silence in the course of becoming educated. If clean air and water were no longer the rule for us, the economic toll would be truly massive. This is easy to grasp, and that is why we have regulations in place to protect these common resources. We recognize their importance and their fragility. We also recognize that absent robust regulations, air and water will be used by some in ways that make them unusable for others—not because they are malicious or careless, but because they can make money using them this way. When this occurs, it is best understood as a transfer of wealth from “the commons” to private parties.

Attention is the thing that is most one’s own: in the normal course of things, we choose what to pay attention to, and in a very real sense this determines what is real for us; what is actually present to our consciousness. Appropriations of our attention are then an especially intimate matter. But it is also true that our attention is directed to a world that is shared; one’s attention is not simply one’s own, for the simple reason that its objects are often present to others as well. And indeed there is a moral imperative to pay attention to the shared world, and not get locked up in your own head. Iris Murdoch writes that to be good, a person “must know certain things about his surroundings, most obviously the existence of other people and their claims.”

The existentialist writer Simone Weil and the psychologist William James both suggested that the struggle to pay attention trains the faculty of attention; it is a habit built up through practice. Grappling with a problem for which one has little aptitude or inclination (a geometry problem, say) exercises one’s power to attend.

The media have become masters at packaging stimuli in ways that our brains find irresistible, just as food engineers have become expert in creating “hyperpalatable” foods by manipulating levels of sugar, fat, and salt. Distractibility might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity.

One element of our predicament is that we engage less than we once did in everyday activities that structure our attention. Rituals do this, for example. They answer for us the question “What is to be done next?” and thereby relieve us of the burden of choice and reflection, as when we recite a liturgy. But I want to focus on another sort of activity, one that is neither rote like ritual, nor simply a matter of personal choice. The activities I have in mind are skilled practices. Cooking an elaborate meal for an important occasion would be one example. Such practices locate the possible answers to the question “What is to be done next?” outside our own heads, in our relations to objects and to other people. They establish narrow and highly structured patterns of attention—what I shall be calling ecologies of attention—that can give coherence to our mental lives, however briefly. In such an ecology, the perception of a skilled practitioner is “tuned” to the features of the environment that are pertinent to effective action; extraneous information is dampened and irrelevant courses of action disappear. As a result, choice is simplified and momentum builds. Action becomes unimpeded.

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.

The philosophical project of this book is to reclaim the real, as against representations. That is why the central term of approbation in these pages is not “freedom” but “agency.” For it is when we are engaged in a skilled practice that the world shows up for us as having a reality of its own, independent of the self. Reciprocally, the self comes into view as being in a situation that is not of its own making. The Latin root of our English word “attention” is tenere, which means to stretch or make tense. External objects provide an attachment point for the mind; they pull us out of ourselves. It is in the encounter between the self and the brute alien otherness of the real that beautiful things become possible.


To keep action on track, according to some guiding purpose, one has to keep attention properly directed. To do this, it helps a great deal to arrange the environment accordingly, and in fact this is what is generally done by someone engaged in a skilled activity. Once we have achieved competence in the skill, we don’t routinely rely on our powers of concentration and self-regulation—those higher-level “executive” functions that are easily exhausted. Rather, we find ways to recruit our surroundings for the sake of achieving our purposes with a minimum expenditure of these scarce mental resources. High-level performance is then to some degree a matter of being well situated, let us say. When we watch a cook who is hitting his flow, we see someone inhabiting the kitchen—a space for action that has in some sense become an extension of himself.

In the tension between freedom and structure, which shows itself with special clarity in skilled practices, there is something important to be learned about human agency in general.

This is consistent with a shift currently taking place at the frontiers of cognitive science, in the (still somewhat dissident) movement toward a picture of human beings as having “extended” or “embedded” cognition. Andy Clark, one of the leading figures in the extended-mind literature, writes that “advanced cognition depends crucially on our ability to dissipate reasoning: to diffuse achieved knowledge and practical wisdom through complex structures, and to reduce the loads on individual brains by locating those brains in complex webs of linguistic, social, political and institutional constraints.”

The point is that to understand human cognition, it is a mistake to focus only on what goes on inside the skull, because our abilities are highly “scaffolded” by environmental props—by technologies and cultural practices, which become an integral part of our cognitive system.

The left’s project of liberation led us to dismantle inherited cultural jigs that once imposed a certain coherence (for better and worse) on individual lives. This created a vacuum of cultural authority that has been filled, opportunistically, with attentional landscapes that get installed by whatever “choice architect” brings the most energy to the task—usually because it sees the profit potential. The combined effect of these liberating and deregulating efforts of the right and left has been to ratchet up the burden of self-regulation. Some indication of how well we are bearing this burden can be found in the fact that we are now very fat, very much in debt, and very prone to divorce. The effects of this have not been evenly distributed. To gain admission to the svelte, solvent middle class, and stay there, now requires extraordinary self-discipline. Such discipline is generally inculcated in families. Two self-disciplined people meet in graduate school, mate, and pass their disciplined ways on to their children. But we also make use of external props that are available to those with means: jigs for hire.


There is a very real sense in which a tool may be integrated into one’s body, for one who has become expert in using the tool. There is a growing number of studies that support this idea of “cognitive extension”; the new capacities added by tools and prosthetics become indistinguishable from those of the natural human body, in terms of how they are treated by the brain that organizes our actions and perceptions.

We think through the body. The fundamental contribution of this school of psychological research is that it puts the mind back in the world, where it belongs, after several centuries of being locked within our heads. The boundary of our cognitive processes cannot be cleanly drawn at the outer surface of our skulls, or indeed of our bodies more generally. They are, in a sense, distributed in the world that we act in.

Friedrich Nietzsche said that joy is the feeling of one’s power increasing. This needn’t be understood as the motto of an insatiable tyrant. It captures something important about the role that skill plays in a good life. When we become competent in some skilled action, the very elements of the world that were initially sources of frustration become elements of a self that has expanded, by analogy with the way a toddler expands into his own body and comes to inhabit it comfortably. And this feels good.

The concept of an “ecological niche” is necessary to properly understand perception. A niche is not quite the same as a habitat. A niche “refers more to how an animal lives than to where it lives.” It is not simply the physical surroundings, but the aspects of those surroundings that are meaningful for an animal given its way of life. When you live on two wheels, gyroscopic precession is as important a feature of your ecological niche as gravity. Gibson’s most interesting and controversial point is that what we perceive, in everyday life, is not pure objects of the sort a disinterested observer would perceive, but rather “affordances.” The affordances of the environment are “what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill.” Affordances elicit and guide action; Gibson suggests they also organize perception.

This drive to continually tone and shape up a skill is lost sight of if we take tying one’s shoes as the paradigm of skilled action. That is an activity for which we adopt a “sufficing” standard: Is the shoe tied or not? Being able to tie your shoe is a secure accomplishment, a state of stasis. But in activities that we take seriously, such as music and sports and going fast, we strive for excellence. Unlike animals that live in the moment and merely cope with their world (however smoothly), we are erotic: we are drawn out of our present selves toward some more skilled future self that we emulate. What it means to be erotic is that we are never fully at home in the world. We are always “on our way.” Or perhaps we should say that this state of being on our way to somewhere else is our peculiar human way of being here in the world.


The appeal of magic is that it promises to render objects plastic to the will without one’s getting too entangled with them. Treated from arm’s length, the object can issue no challenge to the self. According to Freud, this is precisely the condition of the narcissist: he treats objects as props for his fragile ego and has an uncertain grasp of them as having a reality of their own. The clearest contrast to the narcissist that I can think of is the repairman, who must subordinate himself to the broken washing machine, listen to it with patience, notice its symptoms, and then act accordingly. He cannot treat it abstractly; the kind of agency he exhibits is not at all magical. The creeping substitution of virtual reality for reality is a prominent feature of contemporary life, but it also has deep antecedents in Western thought. It is a cultural project that is unfolding along lines that Immanuel Kant sketched for us: trying to establish the autonomy of the will by filtering material reality through abstractions.


The design of automobiles has tended toward insulation, offering an ever less involving driving experience. The animating ideal seems to be that the driver should be a disembodied observer, moving through a world of objects that present themselves as though on a screen. What all this idiot-proofing and abstraction amounts to is a genuine poverty of information reaching the driver. What’s more, the information that does get through is presented in a highly mediated way, conveyed by potentiometers and silky smooth servos rather than by the seat of your pants. It is therefore highly discrete, and does not reflect fuzzy, subtle variations.

Perceived risk increases conscious effort and focuses attention. As with cars, so with roads: the always-near possibility of death by blunt trauma should not be made artificially remote from our consciousness.

Our embodied mode of existence has given rise to exquisitely sensitive capacities for detecting and negotiating the world, and a good design principle would be to try to exploit these capacities, rather than to sever the connections between perception and action, as the current generation of automotive engineers seems intent on doing.


As the world becomes more confusing, seemingly controlled by vast impersonal forces (e.g., “globalization” or “collateralized debt obligations”) that no single individual can fully bring within view; as the normative expectation becomes to land a cubicle job, in which the chain of cause and effect can be quite dispersed and opaque; as home life becomes deskilled (we outsource our cooking to corporations, our house repairs to immigrant guest workers); as the material basis of modern life becomes ever more obscured, and the occasions for skillful action are removed to sites overseas, where things are made; to sites nearby but socially invisible, where things are tended and repaired; and to sites unknown, where elites orchestrate commercial and political forces—when all of this is the case, the experience of individual agency becomes somewhat elusive. The very possibility of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own, may come to seem illusory. Escaping to a zone of autistic pseudo-action has understandable appeal. Precisely because this zone has been sealed off from the world, it is experienced as a zone of efficacy and intelligibility.

Advanced economies are said to be moving away from producing goods or delivering services, in favor of creating experiences. This necessarily relies on techniques for attracting and holding attention. (For what is an experience, other than an episode in which one’s attention is engaged in some way?) Because our experiences are increasingly manufactured for us, it follows that our attention is increasingly structured by design. The point of the design, often, seems to be to produce experiences of highly channeled pseudo-action that gratify the need to exercise the will, even if only in the merely formal sense of pushing a button, or choosing something from a menu of options. Perhaps this is what is left to us, given the deep contradiction that we live in: on the one hand, we have the individualist ideal—one is tempted to say the autistic ideal—of the unencumbered self who acts in freedom, and on the other hand we feel beset by insecurities and obscurities that emanate from the collective world. These latter are often technological in nature. We therefore seek out other, personal technologies that can give us safe haven: “manufactured certainties,” as Schüll puts it, that help us “manage [our] affective states.” That is what computer games seem to do for our quasi-autistic cohort of young men; it is what machine gambling does for those who have gone down that particular path. Perhaps such pursuits help us manage the anxiety and depression that come when experiences of genuine agency are scarce, and at the same time we live under a cultural imperative of being autonomous. Escape to the autistic zone, where there are no impediments between your will and its realization, is precisely the remedy that is wanted if your life resembles that of the passive kitten on the carousel of modern life, who is nonetheless exhorted at each rotation to “seize the day!”

I can detect something like a death instinct in myself, for example in those times when I slump in front of the TV and watch whatever is served up. It becomes an occasion for self-disgust as soon as I rouse myself from the couch, and is no great source of pleasure while I am in the trance, so why do I do it? I think because the passivity of it is a release from the need for control. As someone who is self-employed, I don’t have the jig of a regular job, so the disposition of every hour is a matter of choice, an occasion for reflection and evaluation. Sometimes I just want to stay where I am and watch Dateline, because that’s what’s next. Let death come.

Our economic system assumes that individuals are radically responsible for themselves. Maintaining this view requires that we hive off any group of people who fail to live up to the autonomous ideal (problem gamblers, sex addicts, etc.) and designate them pathological. If they have an internal defect, then there is no urgent reason to criticize external forces (for example, slot machines in convenience stores; porn that is accessible on your mobile device) that contribute to their lack of self-command. The creeping saturation of life by hyperpalatable stimuli remains beneath the threshold of concern if we repeat often enough the mantra that “government interference” is bad for “the economy.” It would certainly be bad for the bottom line of some particular people.

We abstain on principle from condemning activities that leave one compromised and degraded, because we fear that disapproval of the activity would be paternalistic toward those who engage in it. We also abstain from affirming some substantive picture of human flourishing, for fear of imposing our values on others. This gives us a pleasant feeling: we have succeeded in not being paternalistic or presumptuous. The priority we give to avoiding these vices in particular is rooted in our respect for persons, understood as autonomous. “People should be allowed to make their own decisions.”

If we have no robust and demanding picture of what a good life would look like, then we are unable to articulate any detailed criticism of the particular sort of falling away from a good life that something like machine gambling represents. We are therefore unable to offer any rationale for regulation that would go beyond narrow economic considerations. We take the “preferences” of the individual to be sacred, the mysterious welling up of his authentic self, and therefore unavailable for rational scrutiny. The fact that these preferences are the object of billion-dollar, scientifically informed efforts of manipulation doesn’t square with the picture of the choosing self assumed in the idea of a “free market.” It is a fact without a noisy partisan, so our attention is easily diverted from it. Further, by keeping his gaze away from such facts, the liberal/libertarian keeps his own soul pure, lest he commit the sin of recommending to others some substantive ideal, one that will necessarily be controversial. But outside his garden wall there are wolves preying on the townspeople. In our current historical circumstances, his liberal purity amounts to a lack of public-spiritedness.

I appreciate the freedom-loving, government-hating spirit of libertarians, but I think they take too narrow and old-fashioned a view of the thing they hate—of the settings in which the individual is subject to various kinds of rule. Capital is concentrated to the point that it operates in quasi-governmental ways, abetted by ever more powerful information technology. Arguably, one of the most important functions of the (actual, elected) government, now, is precisely to restrain and regulate the explosion of unaccountable governmentality in our dealings with outsized commercial enterprises. I am happy to pay the IRS my share, if the funds it collects will help the government maintain its monopoly on coercive power, not least by regulating commerce.



From the Jacksonian to the Beat era, other people have often appeared to the American as a disfiguring source of heteronomy. In a culture predicated on this autonomy-heteronomy distinction, it is difficult to think clearly about attention—the faculty that joins us to the world—because everything located outside your head is regarded as a potential source of unfreedom, and therefore a threat to the self. This makes education a tricky matter.

The culture of scientific apprenticeship that developed in Europe, and then later in America, did so without warrant from the official self-understanding of modern science. As Polanyi writes, “To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness.” This is intolerable if, like Descartes, you think that to be rational is to reject “example or custom” in order to “reform my own thoughts and to build upon a foundation which is completely my own.” The paradox of the Cartesian project is that from a beginning point that is radically self-enclosed, one is supposed to proceed by an impersonal method, as this will secure objective knowledge—the kind that carries no taint of the knower himself. Polanyi turns this whole procedure on its head: through submission to authority, in the social context of the lab, one develops certain skills, the exercise of which constitutes a form of inquiry in which the element of personal involvement is ineliminable.


We live in a world that has already been named by our predecessors, and was saturated with meaning before we arrived. We find ourselves “thrown” into this world midstream, and for the most part we take over from others the meanings that things already have.

Our private experiences are founded on—would not be intelligible without—the prior disclosure of a shared world. This is the world we encounter first, as babies locked in joint attention with a caregiver. It follows that our experiences are not simply “our own.” This is a bit alarming, perhaps. One response would be to double down on epistemic individualism, and emulate Descartes in his efforts to achieve independence of mind by excluding the testimony of others. But this is unrealistic, for all the reasons we have explored. My hope is that developing an alternative picture of our mental lives, one that does justice to our nature as social beings, can help illuminate the grounds on which individuality really is possible—not solipsistically but sociably, in practices that bring us into cooperation with others. Individuality is something that needs to be achieved, and in this endeavor other people are indispensable to our efforts.


For Hegel, one knows oneself by one’s deeds. And deeds are inherently social—their meaning depends very much on how others receive them. The problem of self-knowledge is in large part the problem of how we can make ourselves intelligible to others through our actions, and from them receive back a reflected view of ourselves. For Hegel, there is no self to be known that exists prior to, or at a “deeper level” than, the self that is in the world. This implies that individuality, too, is something that we achieve only in and through our dealings with others.

Hegel says we need other people as a check on our own self-understanding. Our deeds bring us out into the light of day, and the way others receive them helps us triangulate on a true assessment of ourselves. This makes me think of economics. In economics, when we talk about the value of something, we are referring to an assignation of worth that has to be shared in order to be determinate. That is what it means for something to have a price.

Work, then, is a mode of acting in the world that carries the possibility of justification through pay. When the claim I make for the value of what I have done prevails in a meeting with another free agent and I succeed in getting paid, I take this as a validation of my own take on my doings. The absence of such experiences may help us to understand why the long-term unemployed often suffer self-doubt, as do the idle adult children of wealthy parents.

The question I would like to pose, then, is this: To whom does one look for a check on one’s own subjective take? To “the public,” or to the competent within some concrete community of practice? There are many such communities, corresponding to diverse niche ecologies of human excellence, while the public is an undifferentiated blob. Bringing our focus down to a smaller scale in this way won’t secure space for the genuine maverick, but I hope it will help to articulate the grounds on which people who have come together around some practice—one that has formed them in important ways and perhaps leaves them feeling untimely, or out of joint with the surrounding society—might carve out normative niches for themselves, resisting the imputation of insanity and defending themselves against the functionaries of psychological adjustment. The practices I have in mind, as being especially countercultural and therefore in need of defense, are philosophy and craftsmanship.

What we want, when we want recognition, is to be recognized as an individual. This seems to be possible only in the context of genuine connection to others, with whom one is locked into some web of norms—some cultural jig—that is binding, yet also rich enough to admit of individual interpretation. Skilled practices fit this description, and for that reason have special significance in our efforts to win recognition as individuals. Our efforts on that front get confused and misdirected when we live under a public doctrine of individualism that systematically dismantles shared frames of meaning. The reason we need such frames is that only within them can we differentiate ourselves as not merely different, but excellent. Without that vertical dimension, we get the sameness of mass solipsism rather than true individuality. The de-skilling of everyday life, which is a function of our economy, thus has implications that reach far beyond the economy. It is integral to a larger set of developments that continue to reshape the kinds of selves we become, and the set of human possibilities that remains open to us.


With radical responsibility comes a new emphasis on personal initiative, and a corollary “culture of performance” in which you have to constantly marshal your internal resources to be successful, as Ehrenberg says. This is reflected in, for example, the heightened competition of the middle-class educational trajectory. Significant social sorting is understood to be operating at every stage, from preschool to the GREs. With our presumption of meritocracy—that is, of a fair and frictionless mobility, a system without any systemic rigidities that would block our way—failure carries a deeper stigma than it would if we had a more realistic view of our society. If there are no external constraints, what you make of yourself depends on your gumption and mental capacities. Are you a high-performance person? In a culture of performance, the individual reads the status and value of her soul in her worldly accomplishments. Like the Calvinist, she looks to her success in order to know: Am I one of the elect or am I damned? With radical responsibility comes the specter of inadequacy.

The ideal of being experienced has given way to the ideal of being flexible. What is demanded is an all-purpose intelligence, the kind one is certified to have by admission to an elite university, not anything in particular that you might have learned along the way. You have to be ready to reinvent yourself at any time, like a good democratic Übermensch. And while in Calvin’s time the threat of damnation might have been dismissed by some as a mere superstition, with our winner-take-all economy the risk of damnation has acquired real teeth. There is a real chance that you may get stuck at the bottom.

To regard oneself as a collection of synapses and neurotransmitters is to take a certain stance toward oneself. I don’t think “I am in despair because I lost my job,” I think “My serotonin levels are low, and there’s a pill for that.” This is to shift from a first-person perspective in which I inhabit my own experience and interpret it, giving reasons for it that refer to events in the world, to a third-person perspective in which I objectify myself and the reasons I invoke are material causes located inside my head.

If we can put aside for a moment our centuries-long preoccupation with liberation, we might think differently about authority. The key would be to conceive authority in a way that is free of those metaphysical conceits that provoke an allergic reaction in the modern mind. Recall once more Iris Murdoch’s description of learning Russian. The “authoritative structure” she invokes as a counterweight to the self is not the law of a punishing Jewish god, nor the promiscuous love of a Christian one. Rather, it is the authority of a skilled practice that “commands my respect” for reasons internal to the practice, requiring no further foundation or metaphysical support. These reasons are progressively revealed as one goes deeper into the practice. The moral psychology Murdoch offers is entirely this-worldly. Its basic stance is one of gratitude; she speaks of “love of Russian.” It is guided by a kind of pleasure: “Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality,” she says.


Consider as an example someone who suffers not from some raging emotion of lust, resentment, or jealousy, as in Murdoch’s examples, but rather sadness, discontent, boredom, or annoyance. A wife, let us say, feels this way about her husband. But she observes a certain ritual: she says “I love you” upon retiring every night. She says this not as a report about her feelings—it is not sincere—but neither is it a lie. What it is is a kind of prayer. She invokes something that she values—the marital bond—and in doing so turns away from her present discontent and toward this bond, however elusive it may be as an actual experience. It has been said that ritual (as opposed to sincerity) has a “subjunctive” quality to it: one acts as if some state of affairs were true, or could be. This would seem to be a particularly Jewish sort of wisdom—an emphasis on observance as opposed to the Protestant emphasis on inner state. It relieves one of the burden of “authenticity.” William James offers just such relief in his essay “The Gospel of Relaxation.” He writes, “In order to feel kindly towards a person to whom we have been inimical, the only way is more or less deliberately to smile, to make sympathetic inquiries, and to force ourselves to say genial things… To wrestle with a bad feeling only pins our attention on it, and keeps it still fastened in the mind; whereas if we act as if from some better feeling, the old bad feeling soon folds its tent like an Arab and silently steals away.” We should “pay primary attention to what we do and express, and not… care too much for what we feel.”

When someone has difficulty relating to objects (including other people) as independent things, the name for this condition is narcissism. It is not a condition of grandiosity so much as fragility; the narcissistic personality needs constant support from the world, and is unclear on the boundary between self and other. As Sherry Turkle writes, such a personality “cannot tolerate the complex demands of other people but tries to relate to them by distorting who they are and splitting off what it needs, what it can use. So, the narcissistic self gets on with others by dealing only with their made-to-measure representations.” Such representations may take the form of David Foster Wallace’s generous imaginings in the supermarket checkout line, which are made to measure by Wallace for the purpose of moderating his own impatience. If these representations don’t result in an interaction, they go uncontested, and Wallace is then free to “construct meaning” in whatever way best serves his psychological need. (And, Christ, maybe we should be grateful for any strategy that can prompt some humane feeling toward others.)

Another way we deal with others through representations is in the Kabuki dance of our electronic lives. Turkle conducted interviews with people about their use of various digital technologies. In her very interesting interpretation of her findings, she locates the narcissism of the e-personality not in the grandiosity of our self-representations, but in the simple fact that we increasingly deal with others through representations of them that we have. 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. In this domain we have a frictionless array of weak ties to other people who can be summoned according to our own needs. You are sitting at an airport bar by yourself, feeling a bit antsy, and go through the contact list on your smartphone. You find one or two people who might appreciate the witty observation you just made, and fire off a couple of texts. Even before getting any response, you feel validated (as Turkle points out). I do this often. It is more appealing than getting bogged down in a phone call, which could go in any number of directions, and be awkward to extricate myself from if it gets stilted or boring. At such moments I am a bit like the quasi-autistic gambler who seeks control, and prefers not to deal with the full, messy presence of friends. Armed with your list of text buddies, each of whom appreciates a particular side of your multifaceted brilliance, you also won’t be called upon to respond to the person on the stool next to you at the bar. This is nice, because in such a conversation you may get an inkling—conveyed by the voice or the eyebrows—of some emotional register that was not on your agenda. Maybe he’s hitting on you. Maybe he’s sizing you up for some investment pitch, or getting ready to share the good news about Jesus Christ. Thank God for your phone. Then again, maybe he’s just another weary traveler looking to connect, offer a wry take on the TSA, and share a chuckle. It’s not simply that we are too busy for others; we have also developed a heightened instinct for self-protection. Turkle reports that teenagers would far rather text than make a phone call because on the phone they fear that they “reveal too much.” In texting you can carefully craft the version of yourself that you present.

There is no doubt about it: other people are a major pain in the ass. Put differently, they stand in the way of our freedom to “consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t,” to use Wallace’s formula. Faced with “how hard it is to understand family and friends,” the autistic retreats into autostimulation. For his part, the narcissist splits off from others what he can use: the parts that bolster his own self-image. We recognize both as pathologies; they might also be understood as the destination toward which the ideal of autonomy tends, absent other ideals that can serve as a counterweight to it.

Consider the hipster. Christy Wampole offers us the spectacle of the tattooed twenty-five-year-old male wearing a Justin Bieber T-shirt. Or perhaps he invokes some obscure system of allusions by embracing an outmoded style (Wampole gives the example of tiny running shorts). He may take up the accordion, expressing nostalgia for an era he never lived through himself. Wampole points out that all this irony can be understood as a preemptive defense against the kind of exposure one risks in putting forward one’s own aesthetic statement for others to respond to. One might be ridiculed. Would it be possible for a rock front man like Robert Plant to appear now, after the movie This Is Spinal Tap has percolated through our consciousness for a couple of decades? A brilliant satire of rock, I suspect it had the unfortunate effect of helping to spawn the hipster’s evasive ethic of self-protective cleverness. There is some great popular music these days, but at present it would be hard to name a band that aspires to the epochal stature of a Led Zeppelin. We seem to feel ourselves latecomers to history, as though the human story has played itself out and there remain no great deeds to be done. What is left is to play with the forms we have inherited, sampling and referencing.

In a previous chapter we considered Hegel’s idea that we need other people to achieve individuality. For others to play this role for me, they have to be available to me in an unmediated way, not via a representation that is tailored to my psychic comfort. And conversely, I would have to make myself available to them in a way that puts myself at risk, not shying from a confrontation between different evaluative outlooks. For it is through such confrontations that we are pulled out of our own heads and forced to justify ourselves. In doing so, we may revise our take on things. The deepening of our understanding, and our affections, requires partners in triangulation: other people as other people, in relation to whom we may achieve an earned individuality of outlook. Absent such differentiation, there is a certain flattening of the human landscape.


For the subjectivist, value judgments don’t apprehend anything. There is no feature of the world that would make them true or false, since they merely express private feeling. It follows that your moral and aesthetic outlook can’t become more discerning. It can’t deepen or mature, it can only change.

Subjectivism leaves people isolated. Moral and aesthetic judgments have the same status as mere sensations, such as an itch—they are entirely one’s own. As such, they are basically incommunicable. The dogmatic inarticulacy of subjectivism—perhaps we should call it moral autism—leaves people bereft of any public language in which to express their intuitions about the better and worse, the noble and shameful, the beautiful and ugly, and assert them as valid. Arguably, what it takes to be an individual is to develop a considered evaluative take on the world, and stand behind it. Doing so exposes one to conflict, and in the conversations with others that follow you may revise your take on things. Such development can’t occur if you’re not attached to anything to begin with, or never put it forward to others as being choiceworthy.

Genuine connection to others shows up in the vivid colors of defiance and forgiveness, reverence and rebellion, fighting and fucking: the real stuff.

The ecology of attention that prevails among persons in a liberal public culture is one of polite separation.


The demand to be an individual makes us feel anxious, and the remedy for this, ironically enough, is conformity. We become more deferential to public opinion.

Jaron Lanier criticizes what he calls “digital Maoism,” a “new online collectivism” that shows up, for example, in the way Wikipedia is regarded and used, and is the guiding spirit of firms such as Google as well. The analogy with Maoism is quite apt and precise. The ideologists of the Web have always been antielitists, eager to brush the “gatekeepers” of knowledge into the dustbin of history. Let a thousand flowers bloom. The problem, of course, is that it’s hard for these leaders of the people to make money off scattered flowers. Better to “have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force,” Lanier writes. The Party must be strong for the People to be strong. Writing about the Web in 2006, Lanier said that “in the last year or two the trend has been to remove the scent of people, so as to come as close as possible to simulating the appearance of content emerging out of the Web as if it were speaking to us as a supernatural oracle.” He was referring to “consensus Web filters” that assemble material from other sites that are themselves aggregators of other sites. “We are now reading what a collectivity algorithm derives from what other collectivity algorithms derived from what collectives chose from what a population of mostly amateur writers wrote anonymously.”



In the United States (but not Germany, for example), the idea of apprenticeship is criticized for being too narrow an education. It is said that what the economy demands is workers who are flexible. The ideal seems to be that they shouldn’t be burdened with any particular set of skills or knowledge; what is wanted is a generic smartness, the kind one is certified to have by admission to an elite university. This fits well with our ideal of the unencumbered self, and with Kant’s exhortation to view ourselves under the generic heading “rational being.” We are told the economy is in a state of radical flux; “disruption” is spoken of as though it were a measure of value creation, and so a twenty-first-century education must form workers into material that is similarly indeterminate and disruptable. The less situated, the better. But consider that when you go deep into some particular skill or art, it trains your powers of concentration and perception. You become more discerning about the objects you are dealing with and, if all goes well, begin to care viscerally about quality, because you have been initiated into an ethic of caring about what you are doing. Usually this happens by the example of some particular person, a mentor, who exemplifies that spirit of craftsmanship. You hear disgust in his voice, or see pleasure on his face, in response to some detail that would be literally invisible to someone not initiated. In this way, judgment develops alongside emotional involvement, unified in what Polanyi calls personal knowledge. Technical training in such a setting, though narrow in its immediate application, may be understood as part of education in the broadest sense: intellectual and moral formation.

John Boody and his coworkers are constantly making improvements, and their inventiveness is both limited and energized by tradition—an unusual combination of the spirit of technology with the spirit of loving antiquarianism. These are ethical dispositions, really—the one gets enlivened by new challenges to be overcome, the other finds its dignity in the continuation of old ways. If these seem incompatible, it may be because we moderns have inherited a view that pits the technical spirit versus tradition. Partisans of the first will say it embodies reason, and that the latter amounts to little more than inherited prejudice. For their part, partisans of tradition often see in technology a spirit of vandalism that can only destroy meaningful human activity. But to be in conversation with a tradition is a kind of rationality; a mode of thinking that helps us get at the truth about things.

As we have seen, the dialectic between tradition and innovation allows the organ maker to understand his own inventiveness as a going further in a trajectory he has inherited. This is very different from the modern concept of creativity, which seems to be a crypto-theological concept: creation ex nihilo. For us the self plays the role of God, and every eruption of creativity is understood to be like a miniature Big Bang, coming out of nowhere. This way of understanding inventiveness cannot connect us to others, or to the past. It also falsifies the experience to which we give the name “creativity” by conceiving it to be something irrational, incommunicable, unteachable.


One thing we learned is that the Enlightenment legacy of autonomy talk, persisting as a cultural reflex, can neutralize our critical response to various ways in which our attention gets manipulated. This became most clear in the case of machine gambling, where we found that the gambling industry and its apologists rely on a notion of the sovereign individual to forestall criticism and regulation, even while pursuing “addiction by design” as a social engineering project. This political thread of argument appeared also in our discussion of the nudge. Libertarian objections to being nudged by the government rest on a notion of autonomy wherein a person’s preferences express an authentic core of the self that is not to be tampered with. But this view is hard to sustain, because in fact our preferences are highly influenced by our environment—as sculpted by various “choice architects” who channel our attention for their own interests. For the libertarian to adopt a resolutely individualistic view of the self is to miss this massive fact, and fail in his stated concern for defending liberty.

The point of being aware of the attentional commons is not to make it happen but to refrain from damaging it; to be aware of the valuable absence that creates space for private reverie, and indeed for the possibility of those episodes of joint attention that arise spontaneously and make cities feel full of promise for real human contact. What this boils down to: Please 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. The attentional commons is an idea that I hope will catch on among those who are in a position to make such sanctuaries happen: building managers, commercial real estate developers, and interior designers.

Affection for the world as it is: this could be taken as the motto for a this-worldly ethics.

To encounter things directly is more fundamental than doing so through representations, so maybe we needn’t regard hands-on education as second-class, and those who require it to flourish as second-rate. Very few of us are scholars by nature, and it seems strange that sitting at desks, looking at books, would become the norm of universal education.

To reclaim the real in education would be to understand that one is educating a person who is situated in the world and orients to it through a set of human concerns. This is more effective than addressing oneself to a generic “rational being” and expecting him or her to get excited. Our current regime of education has been flattened in this way.

Education requires a certain capacity for asceticism, but more fundamentally it is erotic. Only beautiful things lead us out to join the world beyond our heads.