The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction

by Matthew B. Crawford


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A groundbreaking new book from the bestselling author of Shop Class as Soulcraft

In his bestselling book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford explored the ethical and practical importance of manual competence, as expressed through mastery of our physical environment. In his brilliant follow-up, The World Beyond Your Head, Crawford investigates the challenge of mastering one's own mind.

We often complain about our fractured mental lives and feel beset by outside forces that destroy our focus and disrupt our peace of mind. Any defense against this, Crawford argues, requires that we reckon with the way attention sculpts the self.

Crawford investigates the intense focus of ice hockey players and short-order chefs, the quasi-autistic behavior of gambling addicts, the familiar hassles of daily life, and the deep, slow craft of building pipe organs. He shows that our current crisis of attention is only superficially the result of digital technology, and becomes more comprehensible when understood as the coming to fruition of certain assumptions at the root of Western culture that are profoundly at odds with human nature.

The World Beyond Your Head
makes sense of an astonishing array of common experience, from the frustrations of airport security to the rise of the hipster. With implications for the way we raise our children, the design of public spaces, and democracy itself, this is a book of urgent relevance to contemporary life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374535919
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 177,690
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Matthew B. Crawford is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and a fabricator of components for custom motorcycles. His bestselling book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, which has been translated into nine languages, has prompted a wide rethinking of education and labor policies in the United States and Europe, leading The Sunday Times to call him "one of the most influential thinkers of our time."

Read an Excerpt

The World Beyond Your Head

On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction

By Matthew B. Crawford

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Matthew B. Crawford
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70844-3



When a carpenter wants to cut a half-dozen boards to the same length, he is unlikely to measure each one, mark it, and then carefully guide his saw along the line he has made on each board. Rather, he will make a jig. A jig is a device or procedure that guides a repeated action by constraining the environment in such a way as to make the action go smoothly, the same each time, without his having to think about it. If he is on a job site rather than in a workshop, he will make the jig out of whatever is on hand, maybe using the clean line of a freshly laid cinder-block wall as a stop to butt each board up against, side by side on sawhorses. He'll make a measurement on the first and last board, maybe snap a chalk line across the marks, then tack a straight piece of scrap plywood along that line, traversing the whole array of boards, to serve as a guide for his saw. Then he just has to slide his saw along the plywood edge and presto, six boards of perfectly equal length.

A jig reduces the degrees of freedom that are afforded by the environment. It stabilizes a process, and in doing so lightens the burden of care—on both memory and fine muscular control. The concept of a jig can be extended beyond its original context of manual fabrication. As David Kirsh points out in his classic and indispensable article "The Intelligent Use of Space," jigging is something that expert practitioners do generally, if we allow that it is possible to jig one's environment "informationally."

A bartender gets an order from a waitress: a vodka and soda, a glass of house red, a martini up, and a mojito. What does he do? He lays out the four different kinds of glass that the drinks require in a row, so he doesn't have to remember them. If another order comes in while he is working on the first, he lays out more glasses. In this way, the sequence of orders, as well as the content of each order, is represented in a spatial arrangement that is visible at a glance. It is in the world, rather than in his head. This is good, because there is only so much room in his head.

Consider a short-order cook on the breakfast shift. As he finishes his coffee, the first order of the morning comes in: a sausage, onion, and mushroom omelet with wheat toast. The cook lays out the already chopped sausage next to the pan, the onions next to the sausage, then the bread, and finally the mushrooms, farthest from the pan. He now has the ingredients in a spatial order that corresponds to the temporal order in which he will require them: once it gets hot, the sausage will provide the grease in which the onions will cook, and the onions take longer to fry than the mushrooms do. He places the bread between the onions and the mushrooms as a reminder to himself to start toasting the bread at such a time that the toast will be ready just as he is sliding the omelet out of the pan. The pace of what comes next is set by the level of heat under the pan, which he generally leaves at the same level throughout the shift—it corresponds to an internal clock he has developed through long practice. When the sound and smell of the omelet indicate that he ought to turn down the heat, he removes the pan from the flame and sets it to the side for a while—maybe the amount of time it takes to retrieve a colander—rather than turn down the flame. That way, the level of heat is encoded spatially in the environment, in a way accessible to peripheral vision, and has a temporal dimension too, becoming part of the cook's bodily rhythms as he moves around the kitchen. He doesn't have to stoop down to look at the flame and make fine adjustments to a knob. The mental work he has to do on this omelet is reduced and externalized in the arrangement of physical space.

Kirsh finds that experts "constantly re-arrange items to make it easy to 1. track the task; 2. figure out, remember, or notice the properties signaling what to do next; 3. predict the effects of actions." He has observed cooks leaving a knife or other utensil next to the ingredient to be used next, serving to mark its place in the action plan. This frees them from the kind of halting deliberation that you can see at a glance in the movements of a beginner who is relying on conscious analytical processes. Experts make things easier for themselves by "partially jigging or informationally structuring the environment as they go along."

A physical jig reduces the physical degrees of freedom a person must contend with. By seeding the environment with attention-getting objects (such as a knife left in a certain spot) or arranging the environment to keep attention away from something (as, for example, when a dieter keeps certain foods out of easy view), a person can informationally jig it to constrain his mental degrees of freedom. The upshot is that to keep action on track, according to some guiding purpose, one has to keep attention properly directed. To do this, it helps a great deal to arrange the environment accordingly, and in fact this is what is generally done by someone engaged in a skilled activity. Once we have achieved competence in the skill, we don't routinely rely on our powers of concentration and self-regulation—those higher-level "executive" functions that are easily exhausted. Rather, we find ways to recruit our surroundings for the sake of achieving our purposes with a minimum expenditure of these scarce mental resources.

High-level performance is then to some degree a matter of being well situated, let us say. When we watch a cook who is hitting his flow, we see someone inhabiting the kitchen—a space for action that has in some sense become an extension of himself.

As orders pile up and overlap, the available work space in the kitchen cannot remain devoted to separate orders, with ingredients arranged to match a definite temporal sequence. It becomes messy-looking to a casual observer, and necessarily improvisational because the cook is dealing with competing structures of sequence: the sequence of orders received; the sequence that might be more efficient by grouping orders requiring the same task, or tasks done in close proximity to each other; the sequences that arise from the fact that different amounts of time are required to cook different kinds of food; and of course the desired outcome that all orders of a given party arrive simultaneously, good and hot.

Maybe there is a new prep cook who sliced the green peppers in thicker slices last night, so they take longer to cook. For the cook who is on fire, jacked up on an awareness of his own full-firing improvisational chops, this hitch does nothing but add a little syncopation to his internal cooking clock. He spins on his heel, does a little I, Robot dance move, and seamlessly hits upon a task that fits into the extra, unanticipated forty-five seconds it takes to get those peppers soft enough to add to the omelet that is just now skinning over. "I'm a machine!" He lets the servers know it. The busier it gets, the more "on" he is.

Such moments probably don't arise in a push-button McDonald's kitchen, modeled on the assembly line. In such a setting the jig is very elaborate, and rigidly deployed by someone other than the worker him- or herself. The point of an assembly line is to replace skilled work with routinized work that can be done by unskilled labor. Early in the twentieth century this gave rise to the saying "Cheap men need expensive jigs; expensive men need only the tools in their toolbox."

The jig as it is used in a skilled practice is located somewhere between the overdetermination of the assembly line and the ideal of autonomy. In the tension between freedom and structure, which shows itself with special clarity in skilled practices, there is something important to be learned about human agency in general.

A humming kitchen of the sort I have described may be regarded as an ecology of attention in which the external demand of feeding people in a timely manner provides a loose structure within which the kitchen staff themselves establish an internal order of smooth, adaptive action. In the course of doing this they hit upon various jigs for keeping their attention properly directed.

This is consistent with a shift currently taking place at the frontiers of cognitive science, in the (still somewhat dissident) movement toward a picture of human beings as having "extended" or "embedded" cognition. Andy Clark, one of the leading figures in the extended-mind literature, writes that "advanced cognition depends crucially on our ability to dissipate reasoning: to diffuse achieved knowledge and practical wisdom through complex structures, and to reduce the loads on individual brains by locating those brains in complex webs of linguistic, social, political and institutional constraints." Such constraints might be called cultural jigs.

Consider an obvious example of how our capacity for "advanced cognition" depends on environmental props: doing arithmetic. It is not hard to multiply 18 by 12 in your head, for example by multiplying 18 by 10 to get 180, and then multiplying 18 by 2 to get 36, and finally adding 36 to 180 to get 216. We break the problem down into simpler pieces, to be reassembled at the end. We can do this because our "working memory" is able to keep three to five items in play at any one time. But no more than that, for most of us (this is one of the more robust findings in cognitive science). If one has to multiply 356 by 911, the number of items to juggle becomes quite challenging, so what do we do? We reach for a pencil and paper.

With this simple expedient, we vastly extend our intellectual capacities: long division, algebra, calculating the load on a structural member, building space shuttles, and all the rest. The reader may have had the experience of being unable to think without a pen in hand, or a laptop open. A number of metaphors have been suggested: we "offload" some of our thinking onto our surroundings, or we incorporate objects in such a way that they come to act like prosthetics. The point is that to understand human cognition, it is a mistake to focus only on what goes on inside the skull, because our abilities are highly "scaffolded" by environmental props—by technologies and cultural practices, which become an integral part of our cognitive system.

Could this same argument be applied to our moral capacities? We have already touched upon the idea that there is no clean division to be made between the narrowly "cognitive" capacity for mental concentration and the moral capacity for self-regulation. Let us ease our way into this question. We can begin by taking our bearings from a contemporary quarrel in the world of public policy, and see if there is anything interesting to be said about it from the perspective of the situated self.


The view of human beings that prevailed in economics and public policy in the twentieth century seems implausible in retrospect: it held that we are rational beings who gather all the information pertinent to our situation, calculate the best means to given ends, and then go about optimizing our choices accordingly. The assumption was that we are able to do this because we know what we want, and the calculation will be simple because our interests are not in conflict with one another; each can be located on the same "utility" scale, which has only one dimension.

This "rational optimizer" view has come in for thorough revision with the advent of the more psychologically informed school of "behavioral economics." There is a large literature that shows that, for example, we consistently underestimate how long it will take us to get things done, no matter how many times we have been surprised by this same fact in the past (the so-called planning fallacy). We give undue weight to the most recent events when trying to grasp a larger pattern and predict the future. In general, we are terrible at estimating probabilities. We are not so much rational optimizers as creatures who rely on biases and crude heuristics for making important decisions.

In Nudge, Cass Sunstein, the former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under President Obama, and the economist Richard Thaler argue for a mode of social engineering that takes account of these psychological facts. For starters, we're a lot lazier than the rational optimizer view would have it. That is, to make everything a matter for reflection and explicit evaluation goes against the grain of how human beings normally operate. So, for example, if one wants to increase the savings rate, it makes a great deal of difference whether employers set the default so that employees have to opt in to a 401(k) plan if they want it, or instead they have to opt out if they don't. Participation is much higher under opt-out. In general, when we are faced with an array of choices, how we choose depends very much on how those choices are presented to us (to the point that we will choose against our own best interests if the framing nudges us that way). Here, then, is an opportunity for a fairly unobtrusive bit of social engineering that doesn't force anyone to do anything; it just steers us in one direction rather than another.

We might call this an administrative jig. But note that this kind of administering of human beings, which certainly has its place in a modern state, is quite different from the jig as it appears in skilled practices. The difference is that skilled practitioners themselves keep their actions on track by "partially jigging or informationally structuring the environment as they go along," as Kirsh says (emphasis added). The jig itself is not flexible—indeed being rigid is the whole point of a jig—but it is deployed flexibly in the intelligent ordering of the environment by someone who is in command of his own actions. The local, actor-centered use of the jig is more attractive, to my mind, than the prospect of being nudged by Cass Sunstein.

Let's note right away that there is a risk of misstating the contrast between the jig and the nudge by putting too much emphasis on the jig being a creation of the agent himself. Quite apart from the extreme case of the push-button McDonald's kitchen, it is true in general that a cook begins his day in an environment that has already been given a long-term structure by someone else, equipped with tools and facilities laid out in some arrangement. This might be called the background jig. A further part of the background jig is the menu: only certain dishes may be ordered. That is, the menu regulates the cook's activity. And the prep work (chopping vegetables, preboiling the potatoes for home fries, etc.) has been done by the evening shift, who are now in bed. Thus, other people tacitly hover in the background of the cook's activity and give shape to it.

The ideal of autonomy therefore doesn't capture what we are interested in when we recognize that there is something valuable going on in the kitchen and want to understand it by way of contrast to the nudge. For the ideal of autonomy is built around the notion of a sovereign self, whose sovereignty consists in having everything within full view, available to her as material for her own choice, planning, and optimization. There are no determinants of her actions that she doesn't have a handle on. This picture doesn't comfortably admit our dependence on others, or the ways our freedom is ordered by various framing conditions we have inherited, which are not of our own making.

The contrast I want to make between the jig and the nudge thus lies elsewhere; it is not a brief for autonomy. Rather, what is at issue is the source of external authority: administrative fiat or something more organic, deriving from the social world.


Consider once again the problem of saving money, a favorite example of the nudgers. The imperative to be thrifty was once part of a larger cultural setting: the Protestant ethic, famously explained by Max Weber. To accumulate wealth was important not as a means to indulgence, but as a sign that one's life was on track. God had so arranged things that the status of one's soul was visible in one's portfolio; wealth was proof of election.

And even apart from such supernatural props, there was in early capitalism a perfectly this-worldly discredit that fell on the spendthrift. "Be frugal and free," said Benjamin Franklin. The republican personality took pride in his freedom, and was wary of any debt that would compromise it. The debtor cannot speak frankly to the man he owes money to; he must make himself pleasing and hope for continued forbearance. Yet frank speech, or "free speech," is the basis for specifically democratic social relations; the democrat's pride lies in not being a flatterer of any man.


Excerpted from The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew B. Crawford. Copyright © 2015 Matthew B. Crawford. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Introduction: Attention as a Cultural Problem 3

Part I Encountering Things

1 The Jig, the Nudge, and Local Ecology 31

2 Embodied Perception 45

3 Virtual Reality as Moral Ideal 69

4 Attention and Design 79

5 Autism as a Design Principle: Gambling 89

Interlude: A Brief History of Freedom 113

Part II Other People

6 On Being Led Out 127

7 Encountering Things with Other People 141

8 Achieving Individuality 151

9 The Culture of Performance 161

10 The Erotics of Attention 169

11 The Flattening 181

12 The Statistical Self 195

Part III Inheritance

13 The Organ Makers' Shop 209

Epilogue: Reclaiming the Real 247

Notes 259

Acknowledgments 285

Index 289

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