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From Descartes to Pokemon: Matthew Crawford’s Quest to Reclaim our Attention

July 15th, 2016 · 19 comments

crawfordThe Crawford Prescription

Matthew Crawford is one my favorite social critics.

(Damon Linker got it right when he quipped in The Week: “Reading [Crawford] is like putting on a pair of perfectly suited prescription glasses after a long period of squinting one’s way through life.”)

Crawford’s 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I draw from in Deep Work, takes on the bewildering, dehumanizing mess that is the knowledge economy.

His 2015 follow-up, The World Beyond Your Head, takes on the natural next topic: the attention economy.

This book is complicated and ambitious. But there’s one thread in particular that I think is worth underscoring. Crawford notes that the real problem with the current distracted state of our culture is not the prevalence of new distracting technologies. These are simply a reaction to a more fundamental reality:

“[W]e are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value.”

In the absence of strongly-held answers to this question our attention remains adrift and unclaimed — we cannot, therefore, be surprised that app-peddlers and sticky websites swooped in to aggressively feast on this abundant resource.

Ecologies of Attention

Crawford’s solution (which echoes the concluding chapter of the also excellent All Things Shining) is that we need to apprentice ourselves to existing ecologies of attention — his term for the well-defined frameworks that specify what matters, what doesn’t, and why, that suffuses most craft endeavors.

He spends time profiling short-order cooks, hockey players, and a team that custom builds baroque-style pipe organs. As you master these well-structured crafts, he argues, you don’t lose autonomy, you instead gain it.

A cook in his kitchen or hockey player on the ice makes clear distinctions between what’s worth paying attention to and what is not. They perceive their surroundings with a nuance and richness lost to the uninitiated. They exert agency, in other words, on the formation of the world beyond their head.

When you exist outside of such ecologies, by contrast, you lose this agency and your world is instead shaped for you by other, often mechanistic means — be it Facebook’s newsfeed or the algorithm Niantic Labs deploys to locate Pokemon on your block.

This idea is subversive. Since Descartes, we’ve lionized the ability for the individual to create his or her own value judgments. But when it comes to the question of what we pay attention to Crawford argues we need help.

My intuition is that many of my generation are increasingly craving a return to this attentional autonomy. There’s something dehumanizing about the endless attention engineered feeds scrolling by on smart phones. We’re ready for the hard, structured work required to take back control of our mental life.

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If you’re interested in Crawford, a good starting point is Brett McKay’s recent podcast interview with the author — it’s quite good.

If you’re interested in these types of books, but would like smart summaries of the main points before deciding whether or not to buy, I recommend trying Blinkist. They recently sent me a free membership and I’ve been loving it.

19 thoughts on “From Descartes to Pokemon: Matthew Crawford’s Quest to Reclaim our Attention

  1. Mantis Shrimp says:

    Hi Cal,

    This is not directly related to this post, but I wanted to write this since you reference Pokemon Go 😛

    I started reading your books back in 2014 as a way to make myself more productive during a time when I was going through chronic procrastination and depression (although I didn’t know at that time what was causing the slump in my work habits). Many of the things you suggest in your books and blogs worked for me, but many didn’t – for instance, you often talk about how social media, and now games like Pokemon, are taking away from our ability to engage ourselves in deep work. And I understand that. Over the last few years, I have felt my ability to read books that add to my knowledge decline, and my attention span decrease. I want to take measures to rectify that, but without cutting myself off from Facebook, and without missing out on fun games that come along. I am currently experimenting and trying to come up with ways that I know will work for me come fall semester and help me become a better student, but I am really interested in your thoughts on this. As a college student, what would be some ways to improve my focus while leaving enough time for spontaneous chats with friends, social media, etc.?

    Thanks!

    1. AJ23 says:

      Engagement in your work is limited by your energy and schedule. I’ve read Cal’s books and his blog since we were both students and I think the message is that you’re OK by playing in any way you want (friends, social media, video games) as long as it dosn’t interfere with your schduled time for work. When you work, surround yourself with that environment and ignore anything else, same for your play time. The problem is when there’s no boundary and you distract yourself from working time with a fly or a passing car, thoughts, music, digital technologies like social media and video games, and so on

    2. M says:

      I find this comment confusing. It sounds like you’re saying “Hey Cal, I don’t want to follow your advice. How can I get the benefits while doing the things you say not to do?” Is that what you’re going for?

      I don’t agree with AJ23’s assessment that social media distractions are okay as long as they’re not during work time. In my personal experience, I can avoid those distractions during work, but it takes effort. Every few minutes, I get the urge to check those sites. And I can fight the urge and win. But that fight, in itself, has a concentration cost. It wasn’t until I cut those distractions completely, and for a while, that the “timer” in my head would stop going off, and I could concentrate in peace.

      Chatting with friends in person isn’t the problem. But the constant Facebook (or similar) stream with the ongoing small dopamine hits trains your brain to desire it and constantly seek it. Better to get off Facebook and enjoy the bigger hits instead (ie, talking to your friends in person, or enjoying the good grades or papers published or whatever else has improved with your newfound concentration, etc). The effect of a bigger hit is more satisfying and longer-lasting than a smaller hit.

      1. John says:

        Couldn’t agree more, M. I find myself thinking in status updates, wondering how I can parlay something into a witty retort, etc. It takes too much time and attention (for me) even when I’m not actually on the blue page.
        There is no halfway for me, I either deactivate, or am on constantly.

  2. gauthma says:

    «My intuition is that many of my generation are increasingly craving a return to this attentional autonomy.»

    I could not have put it better myself. I had not heard of Crawford before, but I have a feeling some of these books are going to end on my reading list rather quickly. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Study Hacks says:

      They can be dense but are worth the effort.

  3. The Hermit says:

    This touches on something that at once seems obvious but with an underlying complexity. Since 2004 I have lived without regular employment in an area where cell phones often do not work and where internet connections were, until recently, most likely to be dial-up, so staying up on the latest technologies etc. was simply not part of my life. (But yes, I am within the continental U.S.) When I visited elsewhere, especially these past three or four years, and saw where everyone was directing their attention — to their smart phone — I was taken aback. Watching people navigate through airports while watching screens, dragging baggage, pushing baby carriages, sipping smoothies, was fascinating. How did they do it? And it wasn’t just one generation, it was all generations. Being with family and friends who always gave their phones top priority — again, not generational — and who seemed to have no understanding that one, meaning me, could be going through life without such a contrivance — I was the oddball, the one not connected to the smart phone, to Twitter, to whatever. And these people seemed to be completely unaware that this behavior, this splitting of attention that they were doing, was affecting them in any way.

    In certain situations I found this phone addiction rude; in other situations fun, as someone shared an odd bit of information; and then I saw myself getting sucked in, wanting to be part of it … I found out the expense of it, discovered it irritated me to always be “online,” could not deal with the distraction of it, all the crap (as I came to see it) being thrown at me willy-nilly, as if I had just so willingly made myself a target for the all and everything that the world had to sell and say and cram down my eyeballs, into my head … Now I work hard to stay away from it, with varying degrees of success. I still do not have reliable cell phone reception at home, and I am fine with that. I have a great computer connection, but work hard at focusing on what I want to do with my time rather than what my computer or the internet tells me to do with my time. I am on FB sparingly — it has reunited me with old friends, but I do not need to see every new family photo or share every cute picture of my dog. So there’s discipline involved. Sounds pretty old-fashioned, right?

    As far as I can tell, one gets on FB and Twitter and the like to connect with others and to see what’s happening now, or to show off, or to exercise making snap judgments, or to sell something, and the irony of course is that by doing so one excludes the people, events, and the world that one truly lives in, a world that tends to move more slowly, that tends to take more thought, and is ultimately so much more interesting.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Well said. Do you live in a town with bad cell reception? What’s it like to be out and about in a setting where smartphone use is difficult?

  4. Paul says:

    Cal – Love your work. It’s great. But please stop embedding links to other sites in which you’ve negotiated a referral fee cut. It’s a bit cheesy. Please – If you’re going to recommend something, just do so straight up, and don’t worry about the few extra cents. It’s not worth.

    1. BenjaminL says:

      I disagree with this view. Isn’t it pretty standard amongst blogs to do this? I don’t see what the problem is.

    2. Jamaal Richardson says:

      Referral is a common business practice. It is an integral part of an integrated economy. Theread isn’t anything “cheesy” about it. You are under zero compulsion to follow the link. For that matter, you’re under zero compulsion to read this blog.

  5. Anatoli says:

    Cal, now you have to explain WHY “you’ve been loving” Blinkist. More arguments, please.

    1. Daniel Morassutti says:

      Lol, it seems to me that Blinkist is EXACTLY the kind of “attention leecher” app which Cal would avoid.

    2. SE says:

      Such questioning is uncalled for, my friend. He doesn’t “have to” explain his preference. Plus he did suggest what Blinkist was good for. The recommendation won’t work for everybody of course, but so is ANY recommendation – I don’t think it’s necessary at all for him to qualify such statement. But again, to each his own.

    3. Study Hacks says:

      Blinkist provides detailed book summaries. I like to use detailed summaries to determine whether or not to buy a book (I buy and read a lot of books!) My old method was to read through Amazon reviews hoping to find a review that provided a good summary (typically those reviewers looking to get top reviewer status will add detailed summaries). Blinkist is an easier means to that same end for me.

      1. ANATOLI says:

        Thanks, Cal. I read Amazon reviews to decided on books as well.
        Blinkist sounds reasonable for those who buy and read lots of books, lacking time searching for “free” reviews.

  6. Bill says:

    Good thought provoking post cal

  7. ANATOLI says:

    Well, he has written the whole book to explain why one should avoid FB.
    A few reasonable arguments why he recommended Blinkist wouldn’t hurt.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Is Blinkist seen as some sort of social network? I use it as a service that provides detailed book summaries.

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