Notable passages from
The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew B. Crawford
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2015
In the main currents of psychological research, attention is treated as a resource—a person has only so much of it. Yet it does not occur to us to make a claim for our attentional resources on our own behalf. Nor do we yet have a political economy corresponding to this resource, one that would take into account the peculiar violations of the modern cognitive environment. Toward this end, 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.
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The introduction of novelty into one's field of view commands what the cognitive psychologists call an orienting response (an important evolutionary adaptation in a world of predators): an animal turns its face and eyes toward the new thing. A new thing typically appears every second on television. The images on the screen jump out of the flow of experience and make a demand on us. In their presence it is difficult to rehearse a remembered conversation, for example. Whatever trains of thought might otherwise be pursued by those in the room give way to a highly coordinated experience: not the near-simultaneous turning of a troupe of macaques to face the python that has appeared, but the involuntary glances of weary travelers toward the "content" on offer.
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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.
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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.
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Once upon a time, our problem was guilt: the feeling that you have made a mistake, with reference to something forbidden. This was felt as a stain on one's character. Ehrenberg suggests the dichotomy of the forbidden and the allowed has been replaced with an axis of the possible and the impossible. The question that hovers over your character is no longer that of how good you are, but of how capable you are, where capacity is measured in something like kilowatt hours—the raw capacity to make things happen. With this shift comes a new pathology. The affliction of guilt has given way to weariness—weariness with the vague and unending project of having to become one's fullest self. We call this depression.
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