When was the last time you were able to shut out all the distractions around you – the e-mails pinging in your inbox, the endless stream of news on Twitter, the lure of Buzzfeed lists?
If you find it difficult to stay focused, don't blame a lack of willpower. Our modern environment is designed by forces competing for our attention, says Matthew Crawford, an American philosopher, motorcycle mechanic and author of the bestselling 2009 book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.
In a follow-up book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Crawford examines how new technologies and advertising tactics encourage mental fragmentation and disengagement. He notes that the Attention Assist package on Mercedes-Benz vehicles includes technologies that automatically apply car brakes and check blind spots when the driver's mind drifts. Dunkin' Donuts interrupts people's morning commutes by releasing coffee scents from the ventilation systems of public buses in Seoul, South Korea, to alert passengers when they approach one of the chain's locations.
Crawford's new book is a dense read: His thoughts meander over a mixed bag of subjects ranging from the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse to Immanuel Kant. Nevertheless, it provides inspiration to engage in productive, meaningful pursuits that require mental focus and won't leave you disgusted with yourself – such as after a weekend Netflix binge.
We reached Crawford by phone.
In your book, you suggest distractibility may be the mental equivalent of obesity. Can you explain?
Just as food engineers figured out how to create hyper-palatable foods by manipulating levels of salt, fat and sugar, there are some forms of media that have created hyper-palatable stimulation that seems to tap into something hard-wired in our brains.
So what's the media equivalent of salt, fat and sugar?
There seems to be something about the rate of getting some little reward. I've recently become aware of these mobile gaming apps that seem to emulate the business model of gambling in that they're creating addiction by design.
But even short of things like that, with TV, when the images are changing on the screen as rapidly as they do, it elicits this orienting response. It's an important evolutionary adaptation in a world of predators; an animal turns its eyes to face the new thing that appears in its field of vision. When a new thing appears every second on TV, it's very hard to resist that. I mean, you can, but it requires this concerted effort of executive attention to resist it. And our capacity for that is finite.
In a public place, like in an airport and CNN is chattering, it's pretty hard to escape. You can sort of shift in your seat and avert your gaze, but the fields of view that haven't been claimed for commerce seem to be getting narrower and fewer, with ever more aggressive attempts to appropriate our attention.
How might we be able to better resist distractions?
Strategies for asceticism or self-regulation are having a renaissance right now – which is interesting because it's not an idea that we associate with consumer capitalism.
What kind of strategies?
Well, you can sign up for these services that will turn off your Wi-Fi for some particular period of time. People are finding ways to use technology to regulate themselves against the temptation to use more technology, which makes perfect sense.
But ultimately, I don't think we're going to be able to either liberate or self-regulate our way out of mental fragmentation. I think the remedy is rather to be absorbed in some worthy object that has intrinsic appeal, the kind that elicits our involvement in such a way that our mental energies get gathered to a point. And once that gets under way, I think it feels more like abandon than self-control. I work on motorcycles and make parts for them, and when I'm in the shop, hours go by without any sense of distraction. I get really, really into it.
Can these pursuits improve our concentration in other areas?
I think so. There are thinkers who have compared it to a muscle that does get strengthened. But I think there are big cultural consequences to having that ability or not. I give the example of sitting down to read a challenging book, and after a page or so I'm getting antsy and I realize it's Tuesday night and my favourite TV show is on. So I turn it on and maybe that's for the best, because the next day I have some basis for chitchat with other people and I'm not a freak as I would have been if I'd been absorbed in Aristotle. But I think what that means is that we're becoming more similar to one another.
The ability to concentrate on things that aren't immediately engaging, or a lack of such ability, seems to be tied up with the question of whether intellectual diversity is going to persist or not. If we're all sort of tied into these sources of mass culture, then I think it does have a homogenizing effect.
This interview has been condensed and edited.