Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Thoughts on Matthew Crawford's Latest in The New Atlantis

Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, published in 2009 to wide acclaim, made the case for the value of manual labor, for work done by the likes of repairmen, builders, and mechanics. Crawford wrote from a unique position: he holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, and also is a working motorcycle mechanic. In other words, his own experience bridged two distinct worlds, worlds that usually have nothing to say to each other—that of abstract thought and physical work.

When I read reviews of the book, Crawford’s perspective instantly appealed to me. His were two worlds that I also occupied (manual labor I find strangely, almost embarrassingly appealing—landscaping, painting, amateur home repair, even more amateur auto troubleshooting), and I read the entire book in two sittings in two different bookstores over the span of a few days (to have that free time now, after kids!) I found myself nodding in agreement on almost every page as he explained the demands and rewards of manual labor, and the danger of its devaluation in our society. And so it was with great interest that I read Crawford’s recent essay in The New Atlantis,Virtual Reality as Moral Ideal,” which was excerpted from his new book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.

The essay follows a familiar track to his argument from Shop Class. Crawford argues for the importance of allowing the world of physical things—of real, tangible existence—to shape who we are. This idea runs counter to that proliferated by modern technology, which views the physical world as full of objects to be overcome, ultimately, as obstacles to our wills. He begins his essay with the example of children’s cartoons to illustrate these two divergent views of the physical world. Older cartoons—think of the Coyote and Roadrunner—are filled with material objects that are the source of comic relief. Coiled springs, prickly cacti, cliff edges and the like built the empires of Walt Disney and Warner Brothers. In these cartoons the physical world is unavoidable, and although the animators often suspend its rules for effect (e.g. the character who can walk on air until he looks down), the fate of the characters are bound up with the laws of physics.

On the other hand, newer, often computer-generated cartoons—Crawford uses the example of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse—operate with a different set of rules. Physical obstacles, laws, etc. are overcome by the technological wizardry, by disembodied hands, for example, that save characters from danger, or by the computer-like “Handy Dandy Machine” which presents a drop-down menu from which the characters can choose the best option to overcome whatever problems they come across (a river to cross, a cliff to descend, etc). As Crawford succinctly puts it, in this new cartoon universe “there is never an insoluble problem—a deep conflict between the will and the world.”

Are our identities inextricably bound up with the physical limits of the world outside of our heads, or are they at a remove, so much so that we only identify ourselves with our minds, our desires, our wills? Such is the question Crawford poses, and he is right to associate the latter view with the one sold by the technology industry.
This cartoon magic may be fanciful, but one would be hard pressed to find any meaningful distinction between it and the utopian vision by which Silicon Valley is actively reshaping our world. As we “build a smarter planet” (as the IBM advertisements say), the world will become as frictionless as thought itself; “smartness” will subdue dumb nature. Perhaps even thinking will become unnecessary: a fully smart technology should be able to leap in and anticipate our will, using algorithms that discover the person revealed by our previous behavior. The hope seems to be that we will incorporate a Handy Dandy machine into our psyches at a basic level, perhaps through some kind of wearable or implantable device, so that the world will adjust itself to our needs automatically and the discomfiting awareness of objects as being independent of the self will never be allowed to arise in the first place.
The appeal of magic is that it promises to render objects plastic to the will without one’s getting too entangled with them. Treated at arm’s length, the object can issue no challenge to the self. According to Freud, this is precisely the condition of the narcissist: He treats objects as props for his fragile ego and has an uncertain grasp of them as having a reality of their own…
A “frictionless” world would be one in which nothing gets in the way of Mind. Without the “friction” of having to grapple with immutable physical reality, there would be nothing to impede or cause us to alter our wills. In such a world there would not be individuals who act but simply people who generate and consume experiences. It’s the world that companies sell us: notice how in the last decade or so commercials that draw our attention to the physical properties of a product (say, a sports car or a line of clothing) have given way to those that try to sell desirable “experiences,” the idea of being the owner of a sleek car or a fresh pair of trendy jeans. In a sense, the phenomenon parallels what’s happened to American industry in the last generation. Manual labor has been outsourced in the name of efficiency, and our economy has shifted into the realm of ideas—various types of white collar work. American workers and consumers are defined more and more by what’s inside their heads, less and less by what exists outside of them. In short, we are a civilization that grows closer and closer to experiencing reality as but an extension of our minds.

Why is this a problem, exactly? After all, this isn’t new: haven’t we been trying to overcome the obstacles presented by the physical world from the first moment a caveman banged rocks together? Hasn’t all human technology, from the most primitive of tools, been an attempt to assert our wills against the hard reality of nature?

All technology tries to save us time and/or effort, and in this way can be seen as trying to overcome the problems of the world outside of our heads. But there’s a difference, as Crawford points out, between using technology that seeks to make it easier for us to live in the physical world (think of a car or train), and technology that tries to remove us from the physical world or otherwise mediate our interaction with it through a system of symbols (think of the reality of a touch-screen, which mimics the way we interact with the physical world at the same that it removes us from it). The virtual-reality model of technology presents being a human as something fundamentally abstract, rooted in mind, rather than grounded in body and spirit.

Crawford doesn’t explicitly talk about religion in his writing, so I don’t know what, if any faith tradition he’s coming from, but he is a favorite among crunchy-Christian blogs (such as Front Porch Republic), among folks who read lots of Wendell Berry, get Ph.D.s in philosophy and then find work as contractors or plumbers or organic farmers. He’s a favorite of mine, as I’ve mentioned, perhaps because his arguments seem deeply Catholic to me. In a sacramental understanding, the world outside of our heads does matter, is real, and is inextricably wrapped up in any attempt to talk about who we are. We are bodies as well as minds, the Church teaches, and it is fundamentally opposed to any worldview predicated on the avoidance of discomfort, on an attempt to make the world around us fit our wills, rather than the other way around.

It is not a far leap from Crawford’s points about the importance of material reality to Catholic social teachings. After all, the world outside our head happens to include other people, who often present difficult, ugly, even repugnant challenges to the supremacy of our own wills. How will a population habituated to the smoothness of touch-screen apps handle the crisis of caring for infirm, drooling, baby boomers? Or the problem of helping individuals caught in the web of deep poverty and homelessness? Or the difficulty of caring for someone whose handicap, mental or physical, requires constant attention?

If, as Crawford suggests, we are trained to think of the world outside of our heads first and foremost as an obstacle, how can we be expected to approach it as something to be treated with mercy when human problems arise? Perhaps there’s no need for me to suggest that these situations are hypothetical: if you’re reading this blog you probably have an opinion of how society already deals with these “problems.”

After having children, I’ve come to realize the necessity of adapting your will to the world around you. With three young children, my existence, (much more so for my wife!) is a constant stream of meeting other people’s physical needs. As any parent knows, it’s exhausting and stressful. But it’s utterly unmanageable if you meet each demand for your attention with mental resistance, that is, if your default attitude is that your surroundings—imploring voices and food crumbs and bodily fluids—should ultimately be shaped to your will. It simply will not work; you will not last a week. I’ve learned what all parents of young children must learn: we must adapt to the world outside of our heads in order to survive.

I’m no theologian, but mystery of the Trinity teaches that we exist in communion—with the world around us, with others, and with God. In other words, we find our true identities in our relationship to the world outside our heads. This understanding, woven into the fabric of the Church, renders it ultimately opposed to a contemporary society that preaches an individualism that asserts the primacy of our own wills and the importance of self-determination. We are not primarily our ideas, and the more opportunities we have to engage with the world outside of our heads, the better suited we will be to treating the world with mercy. Crawford is onto something, and I look forward to reading his new book.

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