Dealing with Distraction in the Modern World, with Matt Crawford

August 10, 2015

Every year technology produces more innovative ways to entertain us. Everything from Twitter to Candy Crush and from billboards to viral commercials, the information that engrosses us on a daily basis makes dull tasks such as waiting in line at the post office pass in the blink of an eye. But what happens when the distractions of technology don’t disappear when you leave the queue?

Here to talk about the difficulty of unplugging our brains from our media-drenched world is author and contributing editor to The New Atlantis, Mathew Crawford.

Crawford is a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and the author of The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. Crawford explains some of the extensive research that is behind the design of manufactured experiences like social media and advertising, and explains how our brains are susceptible to these distractions in ways that give us very little control in escaping them. More troubling, Crawford discusses why some of the behaviors our brains have adopted may be hindering our ability to not only master genuine skills, but also our ability to complete menial tasks effectively.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, August 10, 2015. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. I recently read a fascinating book called The World Beyond Your Head On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction by a political philosopher turned motorcycle mechanic, Matthew Crawford. Matthew, thanks for being on point of inquiry. Yeah, thanks for having me. So can you just sort of summarize the problem that you’re diagnosing here? 

No. Yeah, no. I mean, it’s a wide ranging problem. I think the widespread sense of mental fragmentation, the sentence that our attention isn’t simply ours to direct as we will, because it’s claimed by sort of hyper palatable stimuli that are hard to resist or on the other hand, sort of intrusive advertising that is ever more pervasive. I think it kind of raises a very big question of whether it’s possible to maintain a coherent self, but that I just mean self is able to act according to settle purposes, ongoing projects, rather than flitting about. 

The real demon of the book, I suppose, is distraction. You call it a sort of obesity of the mind. Are we more distracted now than we have ever been? 

Well, I don’t know. I mean, personally, I feel more distracted. It’s hard to know how much of that is getting older and how much of it is inhabiting cognitive environments. It is quite different than certainly them. The habits in grad school. And I sometimes go to librarians who sit there for 10 or even 12 hours at a stretch, just getting up to get food once in a while. Whereas now I, I find it pretty, pretty difficult to really sit down and do that kind of concentrated work. And part of that, I am sure, is sort of late stage differences. I have kids who are always demanding attention, etc, etc. but I think it’s also the case that what would just give me and let me give you one example is sit down, try to read some Aristotle and then after a few lines and started to drumming my fingers on the table and shift my weight in the chair. And remember that my favorite TV show is on. And I don’t know that that’s you know, that’s not a new situation. But somehow the sheer proliferation of choices means that I’m always burdened with this task of regulating myself. And that burden of self-regulation can be a little bit exhausting. What do you find? Do you feel like this is becoming more difficult to concentrate? 

I think so. I think, as you say, it’s probably partly circumstance. So, you know, having kids is obviously going to make it hard to focus on a long project of spending 12 hours in the library because someone needs to put the clothes on the kids and someone needs to feed them. But even if you think about grad students today, they’re unlikely to need to spend twelve hours in a library reading because everything that they can access, they can access online. And so you can. But while you’re online, you’re probably also going to get a pop up notice from somebody who’s chatting you on Facebook or who’s G- chatting you. And then that’s going to take you down a certain rabbit hole, which will lead to another rabbit hole. And then you’ll check Twitter and there’ll be something there which you can address. And then on Facebook, though, someone posted an article which you can look at. And what resonated with me about your book is the is the act of constant will that is required to see through with a single task in the modern world. And I don’t think that I mean, I think social media is certainly exacerbating that, which makes it a double edged sword. Right. I mean, it in one respect. This is great because we’ve got so much information at our fingertips in another respect. There’s a kind of a prison that you can establish around yourself, a prison of interactivity which robs you of the ability to focus. 

Right. I mean, one way to view this is as a sort of very large cultural frame that are distractibility, indicates that were agnostic on the question of what’s worth paying attention to. Right. What does value. That’s what it comes down to. 

And the immediately gratifying things are not necessarily the things that are most worth valuing. Right. I mean, when you actually think about what most readily captures our attention on social media, it’s not going to be Aristotle, right? It’s going to be a cat video. 

Right. And if you think that education requires developing cultivated powers of concentration to things that are not immediately engaging, then, you know, the implications for education are quite far reaching. 

Do you mean education of kids or self education throughout our lives? Or both? 

Well, I think it’s an ongoing project that you’re not fully finished with. Certainly when you’re young, you’re trying to develop habits that are crucial on the plasticity of our brains. As such, that habit is extremely powerful. And so you need to devote yourself to things. The payoff maybe doesn’t come until you achieve some level of mastery, competence. Things like that process can be short circuited when the easier satisfactions of sort of quick hit, you know, a little doesn’t mean is getting. Meteor hit are so pervasive and they’re in your pocket. You’re on your phone. I mean, that’s a very real problem or good thing. 

So what’s the antidote to that van? I suppose it’s probably. I mean, I I was forced to learn piano and hated it for the first few years when I was very young. And then, of course, by the time I’d been doing it for a few years, adored it because I’d mastered it. Now it’s one of my favorite things to do. Maybe the antidote to this, especially in children, is to just force them to knuckle down and perfect and master something, anything, whether that’s gymnastics or a sport or a musical instrument or something, until they get to a level of proficiency at which they’re actually capable of walking away from it. If they choose to walk away from it with a fully aware, cognizant appreciation of what it is to have mastered. 

Right. So, of course, that’s difficult in today’s parenting environment because parents want to be their children’s best friend and therefore not a heavy authority figure or don’t want to be paternalistic. Think that makes that hard. But I think you’re right. And in fact, in the book Skilled Practices, they are a very important role as precisely as an antidote to distractibility. And again, there’s there’s a kind of esthetic disposition that’s required to get that off the ground where you do have to ruthlessly exclude all the other things grabbing at your attention. But once is under way, as you said, once you start to feel that growing mastery, it takes on a life of its own. And that’s when that burden of self regulation is really latent. 

It’s no longer a painful thing, but it’s almost like something really valuable is coming into view as you get better at the piano and the rewards that are are intrinsic to the activity itself. It’s not that it’s not a means to some other end. 

And yet especially I mean, I’m I’m so wowed by anyone who actually manages to pull off a feat of writing a book, for example, because, you know, early piano is is a form of play. So sport and music, I think, are just once you once you good at them, they just instinctively appealing. Like there’s it’s just so desirable to be in the zone that it’s quite frictionless to to get into it and to sit down and take it up. But with something that is a craft like writing, especially if it’s a vocation, I think it’s there’s an enormous I still feel an enormous amount of resistance to even just sitting down and staring at the blinking cursor on the computer in the first place. How do you deal with that? 

Well, yeah. I mean, for me, it never gets easy. Well, that’s not true there. There are times when I’m on a roll and I feel like I nailed something and really figured something out. That’s the biggest pleasures that I get. 

Right. But isn’t that once you’ve already sat down and you’re already writing and then you’re in the flow and then the zone kind of comes. But is it ever you ever feel that way before you set out? 

Well, it’s. No, no, no. It’s it’s a, I think, adventure kind of momentum where I’ll get on a train fight that kind of takes over. And while it lasts, it’s a kind of high. But then, you know, that comes to an end. And, you know, getting the next episode of that going, it does take sometimes just going through the motions of forcing my fingers to move on a keyboard or loosen things up. I have it means this sort of mixture of an esthetic and an erotic disposition in the sense that it takes discipline. But then at some point, if all goes really well, it’s more of a feeling of abandonment, something that you’re in the grip of. 

Yeah. So can you make the analogy from that to skilled trades? Because you talk about skilled trades in the book. 

Right. So the idea of agency plays a big role in the book. And I’m kind of trying to shift concern from freedom to agency. I think we’re sort of preoccupied with the idea of being free. And the way, you know, the conventional view of freedom is that it manifests as satisfying your preferences. So that this is the ideology of choice of the market. 

And it’s basically a consumer picture of the choosing itself is our ideal of freedom. And I’m trying to shift our concern from freedom to agency, which typically is doing stuff and then competent. So, yeah, in the skilled trades, you know, you have this experience of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own because it is literally an individual effort. 

And one nice thing about that is that you answer to concrete standards that aren’t subject to manipulation or a lot of kind of murky interpretation. 

I mean, if you’re a carpenter, let’s say you have a problem with your boss, you can say to him, it’s plumb level and it’s square checking yourself. But when you don’t have appeal, the. Concrete standards like that. He never quite sure where you stand. Everything is a matter of interpretation. So I contrast that with working in some office environments, which can be a fairly paranoid kind of environment because you have to manage what others get you. There is a certain independence here that I think is easier to cultivate and maintain some kind of work detective work for her. 

You do have concrete things that you are responsible to rather than something set of standards that really depend on personality and such. 

Does it matter also that the trades a physical that you’re. Yeah. I’m wondering if there’s something fundamental to being human or to being an animal which likes having an outward expression of one’s own existence in one’s own craft. That’s in tangible form rather than just being a disembodied mind into engaging with other disembodied minds in an open plan, office space, you know, sitting in a cubicle. The tactile nature of of trades provides something that we that we lack in the modern world. 

Well, I kind of go back and forth on that. I mean, at times it does seem like to me. For me personally, just moving around and actually doing stuff with my body, really. For me, it’s it’s important that any job I’ve had that entails just sitting at a desk. I just get to sleep. I just can’t stay engaged. 

Can you speak to the example of short order cooks that you talk about? What is it about the process of doing something that they can be instructive on? 

Yeah, so I talk about is an easier example to sort of do briefly with the bartenders. So, you know, the bartender gets an order for a glass house, Fred, to a martini straight a three or four drinks. So what does he do? He he lays out the different kinds of glass that correspond to each of these different drinks on the bar. And this is useful because now the content of that order is available at a glance. It’s out there in the world rather than in his head. And that’s important because there’s only so much room. It is head and other orders may come in and he’ll lay out more glasses next to the other so that the sequence of orders is also there in the world rather than into his working memory, which is quite limited. So this is just an example of a broader not now, where we can recruit our surrounding in such a way that they become props for our cognitive processes. And there’s a whole literature on this idea of cognitive extension and how we scaffold are certain Nita’s cognitive capacities by arranging the environments in such a way as to support them. And this is interesting in its own right. But I think it also had implications for how we understand the self ultimately, that it just sort of take the human being in isolation to take a very artificial kind of special circumstances version of a human being. We’re normally situated in our environment in ways that don’t like the soft bleeds out into our surroundings. 

So one of the problems that you talk about in the in the book, which stems out of the bartender analogy, is that we live in an environment in which all of the space around us has essentially been colonized by corporations. I don’t know if there’s a direct link there, but I sort of gleaned that that, you know, I was traveling recently and while I was passing through the airport, I was just been reading your book on the plane. And I got off and just noticed the sheer preponderance of corporate messages all over the place with you walking through the duty free store or whether it’s an ad that’s on the base of the tray that you put your keys in as you go through security or whether it’s a billboard or whether it’s the plane logo that that my entire surroundings are competing for my attention in a way that’s deeply distracting to and disruptive of whatever internal monologue I might be seeking to construct about myself. 

Yeah. Right. So there’s a very, very public space. Every surface has been turned into a site for marketing. And I think we’ve kind of lost the very idea of the public and that public space ought to be kind of the possession of those who use it as all these surfaces get auctioned off to the highest bidder. I was in the Philadelphia train station one time, which is this beautiful train station, but you could tell that it was beautiful only by train, somehow peer around or through these swimming pools sized banners that nearly covered the entire walls. And I’ve learned since that this was called a station domination campaign. So this is actually a thing. So all this all these banners were for for a single enterprise. And on this occasion, there was for resorts in the Bahamas. And it kind of made me feel like, you know, Philadelphia. Don’t you have any pride? Because it really felt like this public patrimony had simply then sold off. And I think that’s connected to a wider sense that. Sexism captured no interest in the speech. It is no longer for us as in a public space. It’s a mere surface for the display of enticements to be somewhere else. 

Yeah. Can you speak a little bit about addiction? There’s a fascinating portion of the book about casinos and about gambling addicts and the way that they’re manipulated by the designers and the engineers behind these videogame machines where people sit down and play digital poker. 

Yeah, well, the most fascinating point is that people who park themselves with these machines for eight or 10 hours at a stretch, they don’t do that in the hope of winning. They’re not that stupid. They want to get in the zone. They call this state of play. They artistic repetition were the frustrations of life beyond the screen. Fall away and you get the simple pleasure of repetition. So it’s a pretty dark world. You mean people urinating on themselves? What not. Because they’re so absorbed that they can’t pull themselves away from it. And where it really starts to get dark is when you realize that this is actually this is the whole intention behind the design. It is the business model is addiction by design. In fact, the title of a very good book on Vegas by Natasha Shaw. And so, you know, there the people who designed these machines are very well informed on the latest findings in the science. And it’s basically a kind of behaviorist conditioning that’s being achieved. There’s a certain reward schedule. You have to give people a little a little jackpot’s every once in a while in a random schedule in order to create addiction. And this is this is worked out decades ago with rats. So it it’s an extreme example, but I think it shows a certain possibility. What’s possible is dark arts of manipulating our attention. And in fact, there’s now people who designed mobile gaming apps for your phone have started complaining that that world is now being taken over by the same business model as gambling, which might sound a bit implausible at first. Isn’t playing Candy Crush. Let’s say there’s no hope of winning the jackpot. So how is it like gambling? Well, it’s simple in that you have to pay to keep the thing turned on basically, and to keep progressing to the next stage. And that’s key is that feeling of growing mastery is part of the appeal, is tapping into some very deep affective drives and cognitive architecture that we were very good at detecting patterns. And it feels good. You start to detect that you want to do more. 

Right. So the game developers are basically hijacking an evolutionary instinct that we presumably have towards mastery and getting good at things and advancing and making progress and then channeling that drive into something that’s totally fruitless, not just fruitless, actually proactively self-destructive. In the case of paid gambling. And one thing that I found interesting about this whole discussion in the book is, is what it does to our sense of will. Like we were talking at the beginning of the conversation about the active will that it takes just to not be constantly distracted by things. Now, whether that’s the things in our physical environment or whether it’s virtual things like social media. And that when a person is sitting there gambling, it’s an enormous act of will just to tear themselves away from the machine. And that may be one reason why it’s so prevalent is because the rest of our lives are so, so full of choices and so full of self creating acts of will constantly, that there’s something comforting and warm about the bathing glow of the lights of the machine where you can sort of surrender to it. 

You know, it’s an interesting point that that you make, which is that gamblers sometimes report being annoyed if they win a jackpot in the wee hours of the morning because they’re exhausted. They just wanna go home and they go to bed. They just want to lose all of their money and leave. They don’t have to make the decision now. Now that they’ve won some more money, that all of a sudden they’re required to make an act of will if they want to, if they want to terminate the game. 

Yeah. No, I think that’s right. That it’s the when you get into that. No, you just give yourself over to the machine. It is a kind of relaxing of this constant need to regulate yourself. 

It’s like you just decide you’re going to do this. 

And also that the similar the the the analogy here is that sex addicts report that often they’ll seek out a prostitute, not actually because they want the prostitute, but just to put to rest the question of whether or not they’re going to be with a prostitute today. Right. And once once you submit to the compulsion, then the question is settled and you don’t have to you know, your will is kind of relieved of the burden of having to have willpower, which is an amazing was a really insightful and amazing kind of interpretation of addiction for me, because all of a sudden it becomes just not so much about the thing that you’re desiring, but about the piece of not having to exert you all over it. 

Right. So the real relief is just being spent at the end when you run out of money. That’s like the only moment of repose. 

Mm hmm. So I wonder if there’s. Do you have any thoughts about ways of training ourselves to get better of flexing the muscle there? 

Well, I mean, the gambling is the one example, and it’s an extreme example of a more general trajectory, I think, where manufactured experiences have taken over a larger share of our consciousness. 

So the book is really an argument for trying to reclaim the wheel against manufacturing experience. There’s a guy named Jaron Lanier. It’s written nicely about Silicon Valley and virtual reality. 

He says, let’s make something real that it can’t be represented to completion. Hmm. You know, people report getting very absorbed in playing video games. And, of course, that is there is a kind of skill and mastery that you’re developing. 

Put it entirely within this manufactured world. It’s not just rule bound. It’s actually constituted by rules from the ground up code, which means that the element of surprise and fortuitous, the unpredictability that you get with material realities is not there as opposed to, say, surfing or something where just the sheer inexhaustible variability and the idea of complete mastery is it would be impossible because you’re you’re always in this relation of receptivity to w can show up from the ocean. 

You don’t know what’s coming. I’d like to think that when we put it instinctively that the attenuation of the possibilities of human experience, when human experience has become this manufactured and therefore highly manipulable thing. 

Right. And I wonder whether maybe another way of training now will and training our attention and training our focus is, you know, there’s been a huge rise in the science of mindfulness over the past few decades about, you know, just trying to find a moment of repose and of quiet where you just focusing on your breathing or your thoughts. You know, there’s a growing sort of body of literature around secular Buddhist practices and so on. Are you interested in in any of that? I mean, that’s sort of a way of taking surfing or jazz improvization and doing them without actually having to do them. 

Yeah, that’s that’s the that’s actually the key for me. I just I’ve tried meditating. I’ve had occasional moments of success, but it’s very hard. 

Oh, it’s extraordinarily difficult. But but I think that I think that most people who are experienced meditators say that that’s just because we’re misunderstanding the nature of what we’re supposed to be doing. We think that we’re supposed to be getting somewhere. All in all, it is is just sitting down and focusing on your breath like we’re like. And I’m constantly thinking, I’m not doing it right off, dammit. I just had a thought. And they’ll be like, well, yeah, that’s fine. That’s what meditation is. 


So to me, to emphasize something like meditation would be, I think, to offer a kind of separate zone of life where you try to compensate for what’s going on in the bulk of your life. And that that may be very useful to do, to have a kind of refuge in that way. But I’m to do something a little, I guess, more far reaching and that I want to consider the character of everyday life and see how we work and play. Can themselves be improved in ways that answer better to our nature as embodied these social. 

The first sort of treating from the world into a meditative state of retreat. Now, it may be that the need to do both of these things. I suspect that’s that’s true. 

Right. It also depends what entity we’re talking about changing. I mean, I only really have power over changing my own experience of interacting, you know, engaging with the world. So I suppose meditation is potentially one solution. But if you’re talking if you’re making policy prescriptions as to how things ought to be, then of course, you would include the way the world is or outside of my my head as well. Right. But then what what is that solution? Because as you know, a good example, for example, is air travel, where I still love getting on a plane and just having the time to read. There’s nothing else to do. I just have a few glasses of wine and read the paper or read a book. Well, now I travel a lot and, you know, there’s I’ve got my iPad so I can watch whatever I want. Most planes now, at least on international flights, have dozens and dozens of different movies that you can watch him stop and pause and rewind. Is Wi-Fi on all domestic flights and in the States now? So I can get online and I have no excuse not to be responding to emails. Now, I don’t have to turn my phone off either when I’m when we’re taking off. So I can be I can be surfing and, you know, reading something. 

And I do think back quite fondly to the days when I would get on a plane. And that was an excuse to be forced to do nothing but you. I mean, you can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube, can you? We’re not gonna go back to a world in which we don’t have advertising billboards at airports in which we don’t have Wi-Fi on planes. 

Well, I mean, the really aggravating thing is when you’re you’re strapped into your airplane seat and you are forced to whatever enticements and sometimes you can’t even turn off the damn money. Yes. Which is flipped from your nose and on the back of the seat in front of you. And that is so extreme. 

You know, I don’t think we to this except that as an inevitable upside of the progress of technology. And that’s a decision that’s been made. And it’s a stupid decision because it just makes everyone kind of pissed off. So, you know, I do think it’s important to criticize things that you did. I mean, interesting that you feel you feel obligated to be connected and responsive. It is it feels like this intense political pressure and even more obligation that’s at odds with you yourself having base for genuine leader. 

But, Matthew, I do think that it’s predominantly, at least in my case, self generated. No, no, no. No one at Huff Post would be critical of me if I didn’t respond to an email for the six hours that it takes to fly to L.A. But there’s a little nagging, niggling part of me that feels like, well, I and I have to respond to them at some point anyway, so I might as well just do it. 

Yeah. And that lines up with the little micro rewards that you get from sort of grazing informations. You never know exactly what’s beyond the next click. Mm hmm. It’s kind of like the rat using it now to get a little dose of cocaine. Yes. 

I mean, I do suspect that in centuries time or perhaps only even decades time, we will have mastered this. We will have figured out a way of being able to focus our attention and navigate our environment without being constantly pinging. And that will look back on this era and think, wow, how did anyone ever focus on anything when they had all these little gadgets? I’m sure it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I’m sure that we will have to reach some kind of a threshold, a tipping point where there is such a cacophony that we start to realize and through people like yourself that we’re going to have to deal with it in some way. But I do wonder what that will look like once we’ve gone through the eye of the needle. 

Well, let’s hope so. That’s optimistic. Note to. 

Sure. Are you pessimistic? I mean, because otherwise it’s the end of human civilization. If no one can ever focus on doing anything that lasts longer than a few seconds or minutes at a time for the instant dopamine rush of seeing a new tweet, then we’re doomed. 

Well, yeah. Or just become some different life form. And of course, they’re sort of visionaries in Silicon Valley who are very enthusiastic about us taking turns fundamentally new kind of life form. But yeah, that’s freaks me right out. I feel like I kind of like it, kind of like human beings and not eager to see them go extinct. 

That’s it. Yeah. The the future of of what species we become next will be a conversation for another day. Matthew, thanks so much for being on point of inquiry. Good to talk to you. Thanks for having me. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.