If an attention deficit is the mental equivalent of obesity, perhaps politicians should be more worried about slack minds than flabby waistlines. The bleep of a text message or the flickering image on a TV screen in a communal area may be distracting enough. But public spaces that used to be shielded from unnecessary disturbance are being colonised by the captains of commerce. The lipstick advert that glares out of a baggage tray at airport security is an egregious example, writes Matthew Crawford.
With so many demands on our attention, it seems little wonder it is in short supply. Yet our susceptibility to these forces is not the fault of newfangled technologies like the mobile phone, according to the author. Rather, it is the natural consequence of a philosophy about the self that took root during the Enlightenment and currently has a bearing on phenomena ranging from slot-machine gambling to children’s TV.
That philosophy reached its apotheosis under Immanuel Kant, whose idea that experience must not guide reason is firmly rejected by Crawford as a pernicious influence on “our modern-day understanding of how we relate to the world beyond our heads”. An extreme case of this is evident in Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, a children’s programme that cushions its young audience against having to grapple with real predicaments and people – unlike the original Mickey Mouse – through the intervention of a problem-solving avatar. In the adult world, such interventions may be glimpsed in the assisted-driving systems of cutting-edge cars, or in virtual reality experiences.
Minds thus warped remain pliable, reckons Crawford, making them easy prey for advertisers and unscrupulous corporations. The gambling industry is one that has grown rich off this vulnerability, finding ever more devious ways of separating slot-machine addicts from their cash. Craving a simple form of control in a complex world from which they are increasingly disengaged, gamblers confess to having soiled themselves rather than interrupt their habit.
Crawford recommends a re-engagement with reality as an antidote to this Kantian sickness. Only by acquiring skills that bring us into abrupt contact with the physical world and its people can we reclaim the “attentional commons” and flourish as social individuals. Lauding pursuits that include motorcycle racing, ice hockey and bike repair – one of his personal interests – Crawford eventually hits on the manufacture of pipe organs as the prime example of a skilled practice that fits the prescription. The entirety of the final chapter describes his interactions with a firm of organ makers in Virginia.
It seems appropriate that a book ostensibly about attention should require so much of it, and Crawford’s taut scholarly prose is perhaps best read in a soundproof chamber with an absence of visual stimuli. That is far from a criticism, however. Although its title is suggestive of the breezily written self-help guide, the text transcends this genre to evoke a full-blown philosophical inquiry. Like the Enlightenment philosophers he rebukes, Crawford makes deductions that stretch commonsense logic to its maximum extent and may have readers performing intellectual somersaults over his reasoning. For those who persevere, the experience should be rich and rewarding.
The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction by Matthew Crawford (Viking, £16.99). To order a copy for £13.59, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.