Magazine article The Spectator

'The World beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction', by Matthew Crawford - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The World beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction', by Matthew Crawford - Review

Article excerpt

The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction Matthew Crawford

Viking, pp.320, £16.99, ISBN: 9780670921393

The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You're Not Looking Michael Corballis

University of Chicago Press, pp.184, £14, ISBN: 9780226238616

Bit of Kant, bit of Kierkegaard, bit of motorcycle maintenance. That's one take on The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford's philosophical polemic about how virtual reality is impinging on real reality. Actually, his targets in this book are Descartes and John Locke, with whom, he reckons, the rot started when it comes to thinking about the human person as a cerebral calculating machine, divorced from his own body and from the world around him. But he's got it in for corporate capitalism, too, and its manipulation of our attention by hijacking every communal space -- aural and visual -- to get us to buy things.

Perhaps I'm not quite winning you round here to this book, which I really, really like, and really, really want you to read. Let me try again. Crawford is worried about the way we are becoming divorced from the material world around us -- and from other people. His contention is that we are at our most human when we're fully engaged with other people and with material things; which sounds obvious but isn't. For the thrust of our technology and our politics has been to isolate us from both.

Contemporary politics -- especially the libertarian sort -- sees us as free individuals exercising endless consumer choices, even though it's plain that how we make choices is conditioned by what's around us. Contemporary technology tends to isolate us from the material world, too, and not just smartphones. For instance, modern cars simulate reality -- they artificially replicate physical pressure on a brake pad and the noise an engine should make in response to your driving; what they don't do is enable you to experience the road directly and sensuously the way cars once did. Thus, we've become deskilled, which is to say, less human.

Crawford is the best exemplar of what he's on about. He's a philosopher who runs a motorbike workshop in Virginia. And motorbikes offer useful insights into how human beings engage with their surroundings -- we do it instinctively, through experience, not through some cerebral process. In fact, if a motorcyclist tries to rationalise what he's doing, he may come a cropper -- you ride a bike better if your body interacts with your surroundings and you become more skilled at doing that the more you do it. …

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