Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.com

I read The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew B. Crawford on

Review

This book sat on my digital bookshelf for months. I had forgotten what prompted me to buy it, and the title made me think that it would be a pop-psych-economics book that repeats the title in every paragraph, like many others I had come across.

Crawford is definitely floating around the topic of distraction: that’s the hook that makes this book relevant and marketable.

I just read a few reviews on Goodreads before writing this, breaking my rule of never reading book reviews before reading and reviewing books. People seem to be annoyed at how he doesn’t stick to the topic, and they’re divided on whether the “hard philosophy” in this book is too hard or too soft. I wish I hadn’t read the reviews.

The summary: I loved this book. Its little discussions of things like the importance of real-world difficulty in teaching us that we are physical, limited creatures who do not have all-powerful wills. The take on individuality: Crawford writes about the modern impulse to always prove ourselves as competent, competitive, and entrepreneurial, and how this differs from the older ideas of simply having a job, a role in society, and being judged mainly on whether you’re a morally good person, not whether you’re a genius or a hero.

I thought that the interludes into philosophy were perfect: they included enough depth to get a handle on what the great thinkers were saying, but didn’t presume that the reader had a grasp on Kant or Kierkegaard already. I occasionally read philosophy now and read some of the classics in college (especially loved Kant and Spinoza), but I’m not prepared to judge whether Crawford is right or wrong in his points.

Quite apart from the business appeal of MOOCs for universities (payroll is a lamentable thing), mechanizing instruction is appealing also because it fits with our ideal of epistemic self-responsibility.

The discussion of education and “epistemic responsibility” was fantastic. It connects so much to the idea of “unschooling” which is really popular with one of my social circles. (for the new-to-it, unschooling is an informal learning style in which students are expected to learn from natural life including play, and there are often teachers present but there is no set curriculum. Unschooling has a foothold in technology because of books like Mindstorms and the idea that kids can self-educate with computers. It also has a strong relationship with libertarianism in the sense that freedom is a common value, and schools are described as coercive, and also that an education system based on unschooling would require fewer institutions, especially those of the government-run variety. I am emphatically not a libertarian and view those overlaps as a major reason to be skeptical.)

Crawford argues that enlightenment-era thinking as well as the particularly American Emerson/Thoreau-era philosophers think that only self-attained knowledge really counts, and they undervalue culture and social bonds in general, but especially those between teachers and pupils.

That is what computer games seem to do for our quasi-autistic cohort of young men; it is what machine gambling does for those who have gone down that particular path. Perhaps such pursuits help us manage the anxiety and depression that come when experiences of genuine agency are scarce, and at the same time we live under a cultural imperative of being autonomous.

There’s also a really solid discussion of gambling and its role in society. I’ve been thinking about gambling a lot recently. I don’t gamble, and have no intent or inclination to ever gamble. But I’ve seen gambling dynamics appear in a lot of unexpected places.

For example - there’s a fintech called Yotta that recently failed and has potentially lost its customers money. It was a “lottery-based savings account”, which is a series of words I’d never expect together. This is a whole category called prize-linked savings accounts. It’s crazy.

The power of gambling is scary to understand, but I think that this book makes a very strong argument that all of the psychic energy that flows into gambling comes from the lack of genuine agency, opportunity, and certainty in the rest of society.

Sidenote: this book uses autism as a metaphor or descriptor for behaviors and thoughts, quite a lot. I didn’t find this very inappropriate or incorrect, but if you don’t want to read a book that talks about that, proceed with caution.

The question that hovers over your character is no longer that of how good you are, but of how capable you are, where capacity is measured in something like kilowatt hours—the raw capacity to make things happen. With this shift comes a new pathology. The affliction of guilt has given way to weariness—weariness with the vague and unending project of having to become one’s fullest self. We call this depression.

This idea of the cause of depression - the weariness of having to prove oneself capable - resonated hard with me. Maybe there’s something true and vital here, or maybe he and I have the same kind of sad, who is to say!


This is a book about a bunch of different topics that float around the modern condition, capitalism, attention, and individuality. The whole thing was really engaging for me, and extremely thought provoking. I found myself reconsidering my conception of myself, work, friends, and values. It might do the same for you!

Or it might not! I was in the right head space for this read, and was happy to follow the sometimes-meandering trails. At times, this book can read like an Adam Curtis documentary - tying together big ideas and statements about modern times that seem a little too cute to be true.

But it’s on a short list of books that I finished and immediately thought about re-reading in a few months.

Details

  • The World Beyond Your Head by
  • ISBN13: 9780374535919
  • Look up with:
    • Published:
    • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux