The World Beyond Your Head begins with a terrific introduction, “Attention as a Cultural Problem.” The concern isn’t just the technological appendages like computers or iPhones that we’ve come to depend on; it’s that we can’t control our own responses to them. “Our distractibility indicates that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value,” [Matthew] Crawford writes. Everywhere we go, we are assaulted by commercial forces that make claims on our mental space, so that “silence is now offered as a luxury good.”
That isn’t just inconvenient. It destroys independence of thought and feeling: “Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will.” And they have gotten very good at manipulating our environment so that we are turned in the directions that can be monetized. But it’s really bad for us. “Distractibility,” Crawford tells us, “might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity.”
We have become more vulnerable to this regime of manipulated attention, he argues, because we have only individualism as a defense. The Enlightenment quest for autonomy leaves us powerless against those who mount noisy appeals to our personal preferences, in service of manipulating us. Against this tendency, Crawford argues for a situated self, one that is always linked to (not independent of) the environment, including other people.