Free, do you call yourself? Then I would hear your ruling thought, and not merely that you have escaped from a yoke.

— Nietzsche

Michael Roth:

The World Beyond Your Head begins with a terrific introduction, “Attention as a Cultural Problem.” The concern isn’t just the technological appendages like computers or iPhones that we’ve come to depend on; it’s that we can’t control our own responses to them. “Our distractibility indicates that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value,” Crawford writes. Everywhere we go, we are assaulted by commercial forces that make claims on our mental space, so that “silence is now offered as a luxury good.”

That isn’t just inconvenient. It destroys independence of thought and feeling: “Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will.” And they have gotten very good at manipulating our environment so that we are turned in the directions that can be monetized. But it’s really bad for us. “Distractibility,” Crawford tells us, “might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity.”

We have become more vulnerable to this regime of manipulated attention, he argues, because we have only individualism as a defense. The Enlightenment quest for autonomy leaves us powerless against those who mount noisy appeals to our personal preferences, in service of manipulating us. Against this tendency, Crawford argues for a situated self, one that is always linked to (not independent of) the environment, including other people.

Sarah Bakewell:

Thinkers who prioritise meaning and authenticity often have an uneasy attitude to liberty, and Crawford is no exception. There is some psychological truth here: the more constrained our situation is (short of actual imprisonment), the more we seem to enjoy what we have, while near-limitless freedom often brings anxiety and a loss of joy and value. Being able to do what we like robs our actions of their weight. As Philip Roth observed in the 1970s of communist Czechoslovakia, in the unfree world “nothing goes and everything matters”, while in the west “everything goes and nothing matters”. Communism has (almost) gone now, but in the techno-utopia promised by Google and Facebook, we continue to suffer the curse of existential weightlessness.

Personally, I think we should try for it all. I do want to spend idle moments picking up fascinating facts from Twitter, dropping in on absent friends, and sharing photos, and I cannot accept that this inevitably leads to my meaningful existence disappearing in a mist. Can there be no way of enjoying our liberties while still ploughing a disciplined furrow in the world? Can we not prize our Enlightenment freedoms and have an authentic connection to the real?

I haven’t read anything by Crawford before, but he sounds interesting. The point about distractibility and value-agnosticism echoes one I’ve made here many times — feeling a lack of direction or control in your life might be an indication that you simply can’t decide what you really want, and rather than own up to that indecisiveness, you retreat to comforting stories about how your agency was stripped from you. And the paradox of choice has been a preoccupation of mine for a long time. But “distractibility as mental obesity” is what really leaped off the page and grabbed me here. That’s such a perfect way of putting it — an excess of temptations combined with a lack of discipline or purposeful mission leads to a lot of impulsive, aimless consumption of whatever is conveniently available. But talk like that tends to make us mostly-liberal folk leery. Sounds a little too conservative to focus on “discipline”, “purpose”, “meaning”, “mission” or “values”, doesn’t it?

There’s an interesting question here over what constitutes human flourishing. The classical liberal view is concerned primarily with maximizing personal choice and minimizing the restraints, pressures and compulsions of family, community, nation and religion. The conservative view, which I’m guessing is what Crawford is emphasizing (like I said, I’m only going by these two reviews), finds it absurd to talk as if the ideal of a neutral, yet rationally self-aware subject could ever exist. Long before we ever begin clumsily shaping our own character and inclinations, it is being shaped in countless ways by our genetics, our home environment, our peers, and our culture. A truly well-rounded character can’t be understood apart from the context in which it was formed. (Of course, the stark differences here are more rhetorical than actual. In practice, most people understand to different degrees that neither the individual nor the collective can meaningfully exist without the other.) At some stages in an individual’s life, then, a narrowing of perspective and a restricting of options might be more beneficial to one’s ultimate well-being.

A friend of mine once explained her decision to send her granddaughter to a Catholic school (despite her antipathy toward organized religion, having been raised Catholic herself) by saying that “If you don’t believe in something, you’ll fall for anything.” Her view was that it’s fine, indeed, even necessary, to outgrow the identity with which you were raised, but it would be negligent to take a laissez-faire approach and start a child with nothing but a generic, default concept of identity in a neoliberal consumer society. As she put it, people like that are the ones who end up joining whacko cults once they grow up just to have something to believe in besides earning more money and buying new toys.

I think she overstated her case. Personally, I think shallow, pathetic twits like this woman, rather than cultists, are the more typical result of a culture in which people have no depth to their values. Still, I understand her basic point. People tend not to appreciate things they haven’t had to work or sacrifice for. The wisdom you’ve accumulated through trial and error is not cumulative. Your children will have to learn all those same lessons through their own experiences; you can’t give them a cheat sheet. A flourishing life needs to develop along a certain trajectory. A life of little struggle faced with an ever-expanding smorgasbord of available options will only inspire ennui and possibly self-destruction.

I was raised in middle-class comfort. My mom was a lapsed Catholic-turned-spiritual-not-religious-New Ager. My dad was culturally Protestant and very classically liberal (in modern terms, libertarian). There was a definite emphasis on personal freedom from compulsion, is what I’m saying. Even my otherwise conservative parents bowed to the zeitgeist and went out of their way to avoid tyrannically imposing their own values on their kids. “We just want you to be happy in whatever you do” and “we just want to do what we can to make sure you have more options in life” were two common themes I heard growing up. Well, I’m going to suggest to you that when life is pretty nice and comfortable in general, it’s difficult to have any strong idea of what exactly makes you “happy”. I had absorbed from the cultural atmosphere that it was a good thing to “think for yourself” and not let anyone else tell you what to do, and I had a dim idea that “passion” was somehow important in deciding what to do with your life. But no one had taught me how to think effectively, and I spent a long time waiting for one of the many generally pleasant aspects of life to seize me with the sense of purpose I was waiting for, becoming increasingly anxious as none of them did.

As it happened, music and a philosophy 101 course taken on a whim turned out to give me sufficient passion and direction in my life, and my solitary nature kept me from falling under any malign influences during those confused, impressionable years. I’m perfectly content with how things have gone for me personally. But as a general rule, as a utilitarian standard for society as a whole? I’m not sure I’d recommend it. I suspect that many people who suffer from the strange modern inability to find contentment in the midst of plenty would have benefitted from a stronger influence during their formative years, someone willing to impose a “ruling thought”, more or less.