On "The World Beyond Your Head"
I have read Matthew Crawford’s Éloge du carburateur or Shop Class as Soulcraft a few years ago, in French and really liked the way it praised manual work, of the kind one does in a mechanics shop, and reconciled it with intellectual work. I bought The World Beyond Your Head and read it in English this time.
I have mixed feelings about Crawford’s statements and philosophy and I am writing this post to make those feelings clearer to my self, to try to separate what I like and what I don’t like, and possibly to raise discussion and criticism. After all English is not my mother tongue and I am not a professionnal philosopher hence there are things I might have misunderstood.
The book’s subtitle - How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction - exposes its program: A moralist view on our (post-)modern condition entrapped in the thralls of engineered hyper pallatable desires bestowed upon us by big business, and how to escape this condition and rebuild meaning.
The book starts with the somewhat obvious statement that our attention has becomed a key resource that is being harvested by companies and governments. The former seek to extract profit by engineering experiences that will attract and retain our attention, as exemplified by how successful Internet giants are gathering personal data and constantly creating new ways of making profit out of that (big) data. The latter seek enhance social control and conformance in order to govern through consensus and norm, rather than through strength and police. This is exemplified by nudges which are now routinely used to induce expected behaviour without resorting to coercition.
The question of attention is key as it is the expression of our relationship to the world and ultimately to our individuality, or coherence of self. The homo economicus view of free will and rationality that is our common horizon those days implies that we are individually responsible for our attention and exercise of free will, that we can rationally choose at all time what to focus on. But advances in psychology and behavioural economics tend to demonstrate this is not actually true, that our desires and thoughts are driven by our culture and environment, leading to a deterministic view of human rationality and ultimately to engineering our behaviour, at least statiscally.
Through the example of the motorcycle rider’s experience, the author offers another view of attention and free will, one that relates the mind to reality through affordances, or rather one that makes the individual situated, a part of, embodied, in reality. By dismissing the view of the mind - or self - as an observer of reality, one can account for the rider’s experience which would seem impossible to explain in purely rational terms. The experience of the road and riding one accumulates through direct relationship with the reality, the speed of wind, the road, the noise of the engine, the surrounding traffic must be physical, mediated through the motorcycle, makes riding possible. And this cannot be engineered but must be learnt: The increasing sophistication of today’s cars remove the driver from the experience of driving thus removing the possibility of taking decisions, leading ultimately to the driverless car.
Crawford’s give two counterexamples to this situated self experience. The first one is the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse which is a TV program with educational motivation but which depicts a highly virtual and magical world: Problems happening to Mickey and his friends are almost invariably solved by pushing some button and invoking some magical device that solves the problem. The second example is how gambling industry crafts the gamblers’ environment to induce more and more gambling and generate addiction. The goal of the whole gambling industry is to make gamblers lose contact with reality so that gambling becomes reality.
The extreme libertarianism that expresses itself in those few examples and the accepted social norm of individualism and self-responsibility of adults that makes all this possible can be traced back, according to Matthew Crawford, to the philosophers of the European Enlightnement, Descartes, Locke and last but not least Kant. Those philosophers struggled against the absolutism of their time and the dogmatism of the Church and King, and they built a philosophy based on the overarching principle of a fully autonomous self, radically separated from the World. Kant’s moral philosophy in particular, needs to posit one’s moral self as disconnected from any particular experience in order to be able to reach universalism. The moral imperative that one shall only treat others as an end and never as a mean is universal because it is not inferred from experience or intuition but is at the root of our judgment. And Locke’s rejection of authority to make individual freedom possible implies a radical shift on the source of truth from the outside - authorities, dogma - to the inside - one’s mind and rational judgment. In the end, we are led to live in a world of representations that abstract ourselves from the reality.
The second part of the book offers another view of individualism as shared experience of the world. From the baby which is led to discover the world by her caregiver to the student or apprentice which is led to discover a new field and learn new skills by a teacher or master, one can infer that our individuality needs other people and things, needs an actual - dialectical as Hegel says - confrontation with the reality beyond my head. But this requires attention, and care, and effort as the real world might not be very nice or my be adversarial to my current desires and feelings. Yet because there is a feedback loop between the inner self and the outer world, one can choose to consciously act in order to change his feelings and thoughts. Crawford talks about the erotics of attention or the desire to encounter an other as a way to enrichen and enliven my own self.
But a key contradiction of our modern world is that although it theoretically puts individualism as the ultimate measure of things, in practice we are more and more treated as statistical units, e.g. generic representatives of some group, trend, fashion, community. This movement started in the 20s and 30s with the advent of polls, going hand in hand with industrialisation and rationalisation of organisations and of course the triumph of collectivist movements. But Tocqueville wrote about it a century ago when he described the tyranny of majority in democratic America. Enjoined on one side to be oneself and on the other side pressured to abide by the social norms, the modern person seeks refuge in political correctness, fashion and muzak, keeping one’s own thoughts private lest he or she runs the risk of being confronted to others. Kant is once again convicted of being at the root of this contradiction in his efforts to build a universal moral: Each man or woman must act as being a representative of humanity as a whole and som ust somehow lose his or her individuality in the process. As Matrix said it: Welcome in the desert of the real.
The third and shortest part of the book offers a path out of this modern flattening, and this path builds on inheritance and craftsmanship. The author visits Taylor and Boody, a small organmaker shop in the U.S., and through what he experiences there and what the people working there tell about their work, suggests that organmaking is a good archetype of how to rebuild true individuality in our modern days. The key characteristics of the organmakers is that:
- They are inheritors to a centuries old tradition, building upon techniques, tools and artefacts that were devised in the 17th century or 18th century,
- They are not lavishly imitating the past, they are working in constant discussion with the old masters, sometimes replacing outdated materials with modern ones (e.g. carbon fiber), sometimes rediscovering lost techniques. There actually was a Baroque organ revival in the first half of the 20th century that lead to renewal of techniques to uncover lost sound of organs,
- They are situated and embodied in reality, crafting complex objects out of carefully chosen materials, using skillful techniques that require years to master,
- They are working as a community, led by the founders but running in a somewhat self-organised process where each person knows what she has to do and each one has his or herown area of expertise. Because Baroque organs are complex and very expensive things to build, customers understand the constraints and in particular that one cannot build an organ in days,
- They are building tools that are supposed to last for centuries, just like the organs from previous periods they are repairing or studying.
Matthew Crawford concludes his book with a call to reclaim the real and in particular to overhaul our education system which is currently undeserving of the attention of the students. This overhauling should go through a rehabilitation of hand-crafting, giving the possibility to students to reclaim the real by actually working on it.
I find the French title of the book Contact better than the English one: It better conveys the idea this book is about getting back in touch with the real and reclaiming it for ourself, to live it fully and consciously and not mediated through experiences crafted by others for their own means.
As a software developer, this is something I have sometimes been struggling with. Because we work mostly in a virtual world, and a very abstract one where we are required to manipulate concepts interacting in very complex ways, it is a constant temptation to isolate oneself from the material reality. In a sense we as developers play a key role in the attention engineering movement Crawford is criticizing as it is through our tools, techniques, software, data centers, algorithms that people from Big Corps can harvest so much personal data and manipulate our interaction with the world to suit their needs.
Social networks, virtual reality, hyper-communication, apps… all struggle to interpose themselves between us and reality in order to monetize those interactions, directly or indirectly. They all strive to capture a share of our attention and to impel their representations on us. They are mediating our access to the real and like all media before them, because they mediate this access to the world, they can control and tweak it. Or they can use the gathered data to serve other needs like advertising, industry optimisation or mass surveillance. And as software developers we have a responsibility with this state of the world, we cannot dismiss the issue saying we are just techs.
Yet those tools we are creating and using are also giving us access to another reality. They make new interactions possible that were not even dreamt of in the past. It is possible to focus one’s attention on things that matter in virtual worlds, or in social networks. It is possible to foster and nurture deep - even erotic - interactions with people living on the other side of the planet. I have some personal experiences pair programming with people remotely that were really rich, and I have build friendship through virtual communications before I have a chance to meet people in real life. I believe, from first-hand experience, that the kind of individuality which is appealing to Crawford, individuality built on shared experience and confrontation can be built through mediation. But this of course requires energy, and actually more energy than one would need in real life, as the signal vs. noise ratio is lower hence misunderstanding can happen more quickly. And this also requires action and intention, the reliance on more neutral or individually-controlled media, e.g. open-source, free software, community run servers and networks…
I also felt much empathy with Crawford’s praise of craft and the account he gives of Taylor and Boody’s way of working. As a long-time proponent of agile development, self organising teams, software craftsmanship and software quality, extreme programming… I cannot but recognise the way I would like to work, and sometimes managed to work, in how he describes teamwork at the organmakers’ shop. In the narrowest sense, software development obviously rests on a much younger tradition than organmaking. Yet even with a decades old tradition it is possible to build the kind of critical dialogue Crawford highlights in Taylor and Boody’s work:
- More often than not we are working with existing software and systems. This so-called legacy code is often viewed negatively, carrying with it stigmatas of impenetrability, accidental complexity, technological obsolescence… Yet this code has often been around for years and served its purpose well, and it is actually running the business be it a for-profit company or a non-profit organisation. It may have more than its share of warts but this is where the capability to engage in a critical dialogue comes into play. One of my favourite software development books is still Michael Feather’s Working Effectively with Legacy Code,
- Furthermore, we have built over the past 50 or 60 years a body of knowledge and experience which is still valuable, and valued. Technology fads come and go, but computer science, algorithms and engineering principles stay and accumulate. And with these too we can engage in a critical dialogue. Dijkstra’s shortest path, Kruskal’s spanning tree, McCarthy’s LISP, Church’s lambda-calculus, Hoare’s CSP, Martin-Löf’s type theory, Page and Brin’s page rank are all examples of knowledge that exist we must take care of when building new software. There is a kind of breathing in computer systems going back and forth between centralised systems with thin clients and decentralised systems with fat clients. Work on shared memory and parallel computers from the 80’s and 90’s is relevant for today’s massively distributed systems. And I am not even talking about the huge body of knowledge from mathematics, social sciences, physics, psychology one could put to good use when developing software systems.
Moreover it is not true that our trade is a purely intellectual one. When working on a difficult problem or when encountering some unexpected road-block that forces me halt, it is often the case I grow a pain in my back, like I have been pushing a big rock uphill or doing some hard workout. Thinking can be helped or hindered by our physical sensations, the way we move or put to rest our body, walking, sitting, couching. Going out for a walk helps solving tough problems just like going to sleep while letting problems to rest can often have a “magical” effect. Drawing, writing or even typing are all part of our thinking process, or at least part of my thinking process. Eugenia Cheng is not only a great category theorist, a pure mind, she is also a concert-level pianist. And how many great programmers do I know who also practice some sport or art, sometimes at competitive level?
More generally, it is obvious the brain needs fuel and energy to work at its best and being well fed, rested, energized with a healthy way of life has deep impact on how fast, deep and well we can think. We are bodies and any attempt at denying this fact leads nowhere.
Interestingly, Kant himself, whom Matthew Crawford criticizes so much in his book as being at the root of all the modern evil induced by individualism, the paragon of idealism nevertheless relates directly mind to body. In his Critics of Pure Reason Kant aims at providing a grand unifying theory of knowledge. From what I understand - feel free to correct me - Kant posits that knowledge comes from the interaction of understanding which is the part of our mind that forms concepts and intuition which is the part that forms experiences. Both faculties are made possible because there exists a priori categories that shape understanding and intuition: Space and time are the tow categories that shape our experience of the world, while causality, totality, unicity and a bunch of others are the categories that shape concepts. I won’t - and can’t - delve into the intricacies of Kant’s philosophy but from what I understand Kant does not state the subject or mind exists independently of the world: On the contrary, he explicitly states that knowledge is only derived from experience and refutes subjective idealism: Self-consciousness exists through interactions with the real world, even though we only perceive phenomena and not the reality in itself. Time and space are “just” the shapes our mind give to our experience.
Trying an analogy, I would say that Kant demonstrated or discovered the language of the mind, and he showed this language is separated in pure - the understanding and concepts - and impure - the intuition and senses - parts. The pure part is what is used to produce meaningful results, but it is useless and inobservable without the impure part which gives it data to process and means to act on the world. “What is the sound of a single hand clapping?” asks the famous Zen koan.
Moreover Kant’s main goal seems to have been to establish solid philosophical foundations for universality: Of objective knowledge, reason and moral judgments. How can different people, with different experiences, can ever reach agreement, know something in common, act for a common good, if there is nothing else but subjective monads isolated from one another? If experience is always personal, nothing can ever be shared. Kant’s answer lies in the a priori of the understanding and perception which shape the way we think and thus makes shared knowledge and perceptions possible, because we all share the same internal machinery to interpret the phenomenal world.
The ambivalent feelings I have with this book can be stated in a very simple way: Although I subscribe to the conclusion of the book, I am doubtful about its premises and I fear that he might be throwing the baby out with the bath’s water:
- There is a need to reclaim our attention which has been captured and privatised by corporations and state,
- This should come from increasing our surface of contact with reality, something that is fostered by shop work and skillful knowledge,
- The master-apprentice relationship and the transmission that happens there is key to build skillful and meaningful knowledge, one that is situated both in space and time,
- However this communautarian and aristocratic process might come at the price of universality and democracy, as exemplified by the stratified and fragmented societies of the past against which philosophers of the Enlightenment struggled. Corporatism is the reverse of a coin whose observe is craftsmanship.
I don’t follow Crawford in his rejections of the project of the Enlightenment, namely the project of founding a universal community of humans. Of course, in the time and place this project’s was born, humanity was restricted to wealthy white european males. And the time of the great tales has passed: We live in post-(post?-)modernist times where irony reigns. And Kant’s philosophy itself might be outdated. But I am not ready to throw away the idea that we need to found, and refound again and again, some form of universal that makes it possible to share the world’s experience and build common knowledge.
I cannot conclude this post without citing Spinoza whose philosophy traces the kind of path Matthew Crawford’s is proposing to us, one of reconciling mind, body and the world in a universal shared by all human beings. Spinoza viewed reality was made of a single substance which manifested itself through an infinity of attributes, only two of which are accessible to us: thought And extension. Hence the deep parallelism between the mind and the body: Whatever affects one affects the other. From those principles Spinoza builds a philosophy that seeks to enhance life maximilizing joy under the guidance of reason. Spinoza himself exemplified this unity of mind and body by being one of the most renowned lens polisher of his time.