On 4th of July, a day of celebration of America and its values, I read an article on the New Yorker how many many options and choices might do a disservice of our well being. The article is a response to a book called The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford, who states that “distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind.” At a glimpse Crawford’s claim seems very outlandish. To him, life’s most meaningful activities involve shutting down options and dealing with the constraints of the physical world. He means by being engaged in activities for which you cannot simply choose what you want to happen by pressing a button, like on your iPad.
Crawford presents an alternative ideology. The book is a somewhat philosophical treatise on how to cope with modernity that starts with annoying ubiquitous ads. The whole figuring out ways to capture and hold people’s attention is the center of contemporary capitalism. You cannot even get through a transaction of a card machine without being interrupted by an ad popping up on the screen. There is this invisible and ubiquitous grabbing at something that’s the most intimate thing you have, because it determines what’s present to your consciousness. This is exactly why we all try to close ourselves off from this grating condition of being addressed all the time—by withdrawing to the video game, the cellphone, etc. These experiences are so exquisitely attuned to our appetites that they can swamp our ordinary way of being in the world. But these “defense mechanisms,” Crawford argues, distract us from being productive and causes the “deadness of our time.”
The article is worth a read and if you’re piqued, the book as well. We all know how our attention wanders if a cellphone is merely visible on the table. Crawford belives that it is only by grappling with the world in a concrete that we can grasp it, and every screen that replaces a real interaction makes this more difficult.