Matthew B. Crawford, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, a fabricator of components for custom motorcycles, and the author of the surprise bestseller Shop Class as Soulcraft, has written a new book that is unlikely to fly off the shelves. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) is an ultimately disappointing attempt to create a philosophy of engagement, modeled in large part on the craftsman’s interaction with the world.
But along the way Crawford challenges ideas that have been ingrained in western culture since the Enlightenment and decries some recent developments—for instance, the move in developed economies away from producing goods or delivering services in favor of creating experiences, particularly those where we can escape to “a zone of autistic pseudo-action.” (p. 88)
In his discussion of the gaming industry, the quintessential creator of engineered reality, Crawford relies extensively on Natasha Schüll’s book Addiction by Design, which I reviewed a couple of years ago and which he calls “arguably one of the more important works of social science to appear in the last thirty years.” (p. 91) But, though the growing economy of “affective capitalism” is “usually explained with reference to leisure activities like gambling, playing video games, viewing porn, or taking recreational drugs,” it applies to some jobs as well—trading, for example. “The anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom worked in the financial futures trading pits in Chicago, and relates what it is like to be a derivatives trader who stares at screens of rapidly shifting data, looking for patterns. In this intense, self-enclosed world, which she compares to a video game, traders engineer ‘peak experiences of attention’ for themselves. Traders get into ‘the zone’ (they actually call it this), a state of total absorption where all else falls away. This is possible only because the messy human realities behind the financial entities they are trading in (for example, people’s mortgages) are mediated away by layers of representation and mathematical models, allowing a kind of ‘control without contact.’ The models become fascinating in their own right; traders enter deep into their logic and live in the data, rapt in the experience of a growing, intuitive grasp of it. Needless to say, in the years leading up to the financial crisis this quasi-autistic financial game caused massive casualties, but they took place somewhere else, out in the world beyond the screen.” (p. 90)
Okay, so Crawford doesn’t think much of trading as a profession. Does he have anything to offer that could actually help traders?
In his discussion of firefighters, Crawford writes about how these men debrief one another after facing danger. “The fruit of this conversation enters into your ongoing rehearsal of the experience. If this rehearsed version bears up, and jibes with further experience, it becomes internalized, available to the subconscious mind in coping with future situations. For experiences to become part of the secure, sedimented foundation of a skill, they must be criticized. Other people (and the resources of language) are indispensable. Without them, your experiences are partial, and may sediment as idiosyncratic bad habits.” (p. 61) The trader who is his own sole critic may end up wallowing in confusion and reinforcing his mistakes. Thinking critically about your own thinking is, Crawford suggests, “at bottom a social phenomenon.” (p. 62)