Tuesday, October 27, 2015

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

Managed to get hold of Matthew Crawford’s latest book, The world beyond your head: On becoming an individual in an age of distraction, from the local library and work through it over the long weekend.

The book is not for the casual reader. However, Crawford’s weaving of his own experiences to introduce or emphasise the many philosophical points through the book, makes the book more accessible. Hence, the book is a good example of blending some of the rigour of academia into a readable form.

Overview from wall street journal and reviews from the guardian and times higher education are positive and provide summaries of the main argument through the book.

The book has 13 chapters with additional introductory and closing chapters. After the introduction, there are 5 chapters in Part 1 revolving around ‘encountering things’. Then 7 chapters in part 2 centre around ‘other people’. The last chapter, makes up part 3 on ‘inheritance’. Below, my perspectives as I read through the book with 'learning a trade' or attaining expertise in craft, as anchors to my reading.

Introduction:- here the overarching argument of the book is introduced and discussed. There is a need for us to review how we attend to our individual self, despite the prevalent use within our society of various visual and aural stimulus, forcing us to divide our attention and /or continually be pulled from one topic to another through access to an array of options. Finding the time to consider/ think / work through and ruminate is becoming more difficult in a world filled with distractions either of our own making (web browsing) or imposed through the landscape we live in (advertisements). Some activities absorb us sufficiently for our best thinking and application of craft to flourish. In some forms of work, the ‘flow’ takes us on to greater heights of performance. However, can also lead us into the abyss of compulsion and addiction (e.g. gambling).

Part 1 – encountering things
1-      The jig, the nudge and local ecology – Here Crawford uses the concept of a ‘jig’ to illustrate the two ends of the pole of utilising jigs. Jigs are arrangements of tools, materials or spatial organisation to assist the performance of complex tasks. They can be used to enhance work tasks, as per examples provided in carpentry, bar tendering and short order cookery. But sophisticated jigs which can costs large amounts of energy and capital to put in place, can also lead to the ‘mechanisation’ and ‘standardisation’ of job tasks as per assembly line / Mcfood type arrangements.

2-      Embodied perception – uses the seamless relationships hockey players have with their sticks and motorcycle riders to illustrate the concepts of embodied perception. How the body is extended through synergistic attachments to a tool or vehicle. The closer the body to the tool or vehicle, the more the sensory / tactile feedback. Learning to become good in these activities requires time to learn, become accustomed and eventually embodied.

3-      Virtual reality as moral idea – A short chapter, bringing the concepts in the previous two chapters with further examples. In short, the design of things can either assist in forming the embodied relationship between us and tools / equipment / etc. or allow the tool / jig / arrangement to overtake us and cause us to be passive and dependent, completing tasks without thought.

4-      Attention and design – argues more for the need to not take design too far. There is a need for humans to still make decisions. Roads which require our attention to drive along, yield fewer incidences of accidents J whereas roads engineered to allow us to go into auto pilot, may actually be more dangerous.

5-      Autism as a design principle: gambling – uses the gambling industry as an example of how all the mechanisms build into slot machines, are there to entice, excite and eventually to enslave. How our biochemicals can cause us to pander to the needs of the body in ways which lead to fulfilment or decline, depending on the sort of activity we become attracted to.

Part 2 – other people
6-      On being led out – begins discussion on education, the need for social interaction being a key. Uses glass blowing team and the ‘apprenticeship’ of scientist to argue for the need of the relationship between learner and expert. 

7-      Encountering things with other people – basically a call to recognise the socio-culturality of human existence. All of what we take to be ‘independent’ thought, comes through our interactions with others, f2f and through artifacts, social structures etc.

8-      Achieving individuality – So where is the individual placed? This chapter tries to work out where in the bigger picture, the individual fits in. Argues skilled practice is one ‘marker’ recognisable by all, of an individual’s achievements. Therefore, if we become good at doing something, others provide us with accolades leading to cycle of positive reinforcement. For the individual, being good at something provides biochemical injections to cause us to further improve expertise.

9-      The culture of performance – which leads to this chapter on how individual’s show what they are made of. Otherwise, what is the point of doing? 

10-   The erotics of attention – probably the most difficult chapter to work through but persistence pays. In brief, the chapter argues for ways in which individuals may go about to make their mark. Attention is a key requirement, as without attending to what we do, there is no improvement in practice.

11-   The flattening – As a counterpoint to the previous chapter and a lead in to the next, this chapter discusses how individuals represent themselves to others and in turn how they perceive others, in relation to their own attention.

12-   The statistical self – ties up the loose ends in part 2.
Part 3 – inheritance – has the one chapter
13 – the organ makers’ shop – here the work of organ makers is used to support the examples and concepts discussed through the rest of the book. That a group of people have shared values, based on historical associations with an obscure craft, yet manifest strong views of craftsmanship framed by commercial imperatives.

Epilogue, provides a useful overview of the argument and summarises a ‘where to next’.

Overall, there is an need to attend, through the book. Some chapters require a few reads to understand the argument and reply, but each chapter does lead into the next. Several chapters are 'dense' but persistence pays. The book works well as there is a flow from one chapter into the next, so perhaps not a book to dip in and out of, but one which requires attending to :) So, I am happy to have put the time an effort into working through the book and will do a re-read over the summer, to wring out the many messages in the book, pertinent my work.

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