step 53: The World Beyond Your Head
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Step 53: The World Beyond Your Head (pt 1)

The “attention economy” prods us with distractions, warping our individuality. In “The World Beyond Your Head” (2015) Matthew Crawford undertakes philosophical anthropology to uncover how we fall prey to this “nihilism of values.”

Our attention is hijacked, leading to an “ethical void” filled by corporations and technology. Confused into thinking we are pursuing our preferences as autonomous (free) individuals we have somehow lost our ability to discern. This obscuration of values and dissipation of self under the banner of freedom is directly tied to our ability to pay attention.

Crawford untangles various aspects of how we got here, from behavioral science to philosophy, and into the mechanization of attention harvesting and disregard for the “right to privacy” by “big data”. Crucially Crawford discusses society, the commons, and what we owe to each other along the way.

The World Beyond Your Head

Matthew Crawford (2015)

part 1: attention as a cultural problem
just the tips: Freedom in Adlerian psychology
part 2: the liberation of the individual
part 3: modern life
just the tips: the biology of focus through vision
part 4: ethics and the attentional commons
part 5: your attention is your own
just the tips: marshmallow experiment
part 6: attention is not your own


The World Beyond Your Head
Step 53: The World Beyond Your Head

1: Attention as a cultural problem

“Capitalism has gotten hip to the fact that for all our talk of an information economy, but we really have is an attentional economy, if the term economy applies what is scarce and therefore valuable.”

Matthew Crawford

If, as Crawford says, capitalist corporations seek our attention, the easy way to get it is to stimulate us: to poke and prod our attention centers. The result is that to say fully present and to own our own attention we must apply tremendous effort.

“The contents of the stimulation almost becomes irrelevant. Our distractibility seems to indicate that we are agnostic on the question what is worth paying attention to: that is, what to value”

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head

When you don’t know what to pay attention to (priorities) you don’t know what to value. This leads to people not knowing what to value. When “all distinctions are leveled” then “meaning” is reduced to “information”… and our inability to distinguish value is often seen as an individual moral failure.

For Example: “If you can’t stay in the present moment long enough to watch your kid play soccer what does that say about you as a person?”

I would bet most of us have felt this shame or tried to keep our attention addiction secret. Crawford does not rush to condemnation but considers where this behavioral conflict stems from: where does this “nihilism of values” begin?

Step 53: The World Beyond Your Head

2. Liberation of the Individual

In [[Step 39: After the orgy, baudrillard]] on the podcast, we discussed Baudrillard’s notion that we have liberated ourselves in our modern society. Hooray! We are free from the bonds of tradition, community, and sexual repression. But what do we do now? Baudrillard says we keep pursuing freedom without understanding: it is an unconsidered behavior that has become untethered from its foundational principles.

Similarly, Crawford also brings up our moment of liberation, but he makes a different point: we have liberated ourselves from social life, liberated ourselves from our parents, the church, and the commons. By dismantling these “tyrannical structures of oppression” we are now liberated individuals, or free, autonomous beings.

The consequence and contradiction we encounter are that we also removed the thick and unique links to the community. But part of being an individual is knowing how you fit into society. In dissolving structures the promise is greater freedom and diversity. However, the dissolution of cultural authority, which gave us shape both in participation and rebellion, may have led to a flattening and homogenization of the individual.

“Our mental lives converge in a great massification, ironically, under the banner of individual choice”

Matthew Crawford

By discovering that freedom of choice and individuality have been shifted overtime to make us more similar and pliant they have become the opposite of their premise. Crawford says “We are isolated in a fog of choices.” Bombarded with advertising, we only see the commercial stories that have stepped into the void after we dismantled the cultural authority.

Our liberation from all things left a huge hole. (And yes, many of those systems were toxic and in need of reform.) Yet, once groups are atomized into individuals, there is no longer a collective voice to step into that vast cultural hole. 

Commerce took over. It is now the cultural authority.

Once again, “we are isolated in a fog of choices”: we are stuck in our heads, and when walking down the street we are bombarded, prodded, and needled, by small pleas attempting to consume our attention. This distraction creates low-level anxiety and diffusion of our attention. In response, we learn to protect ourselves, keeping our valuable attention for ourselves. We deny the request for eye contact or a casual wave because it might pull us out of ourselves and into the world. This world with too many predatory options, and too much risk of transactional manipulation.

To keep our autonomy and to remain free, we imprison ourselves: we choose to stay inside… inside our own heads.


A small word on freedom from Adlerian psychology.

 If you were a rock, and if you were a rock tumbling down a hill, and you follow your inborn impulses and desires and inclinations (gravity), letting them take you where they will,  that is not freedom. At the end of tumbling down that hill the rock has become a smooth pebble. Would you say that what remains is the core self, the authentic “I”?

“Real freedom is an attitude of pushing up one’s tumbling self from below”

The Courage to be Disliked

 Most people think freedom is a kind of release: a release from organizations or obligations.  However, that is liberation, not freedom.  Freedom incurs a cost, and in Adlerian psychology, the cost of exercising your freedom is being disliked by others.

Step 53: The World Beyond Your Head

3. Modern Life

There is “no basis for us to resist the colonization of Life by hassle.

Matthew Crawford

In Modern Life, the cultural problem goes beyond merely ignoring advertising. We become so distracted we cannot recognize ourselves and have difficulty getting a grip on genuine Joy.

Crawford sites an Onion article, where a man is trying to have beers with friends, and as he finally starts to approach genuine joy he remembers the crushing amount of work emails, and then the unresolved issue with his Southwest rapid rewards account. In this state of perpetual distraction, we miss out on joy because of a to-do list capturing our attention.

This creates an ETHICAL VOID. Attention is so foundational that without it we lose the ability to prioritize, and thus lose morality, ethics, and philosophy.

Just the Tips

On the science of attention and focus Dr. Andrew Huberman shares how focus with your eyes creates a biological response, triggering a signal to the brain area called the Zona Incerta, which can shift our entire brain and body into a mode of focused pursuit.

Motivation and drive can be focused by vision.

This can happen externally: think of advertisements of food that cause us to pursue food. But we can hijack this biological response and use it. By holding your visual gaze on a single location in front of you, your body will initiate some of the exact neural mechanisms granting alertness enhanced cognition.

Step 53: The World Beyond Your Head

4. Ethics and the attentional commons

Humans have a survival mechanism; it is an orienting response, you can think of it as “goal-oriented” or “stimulus oriented”. This is called attention.

Attention focuses us on threats, like tigers, or rewards, like food or sex. It can also focus our ambition for goal attainment. External stimuli easily hijack this survival mechanism: a tiger leaping at you or television showing a sexy person covered in food equally get your attention. They distract you from internal goals and ambitions.

If your survival responses are blunted because you’re constantly being advertised non-essential or frivolous items it is only reasonable that we train ourselves to tune out. However, Crawford brings up that we miss something important if we “tune out.” For instance: At an airport, we put on our noise-canceling earphones and bury our faces in books so that we don’t have to see the TV or hear the chatter. We create a mini pocket of private experience. Yet, what happens to the “public world” when we retreat to a multiplicity of private worlds?

attention and distraction at the airport

In the public world of shared attention, there is 1) a way of knowing yourself through seeing and being seen, and 2) a charged potential, a kind of erotics, that is denied. Instead, attention is turned inward, protected at a mighty cost as we minimize interaction and distraction.

This effort generates a low level of persistent annoyance, partly at your impotence against the advertisements and television. You become exhausted, baffled, annoyed, and then you may ask yourself: why am I so angry? We diagnose ourselves as the problem, turning the external problem inward yet again.

Out “stimulus orientation” is mercilessly prodded, but no one speaks of the ethics of hijacking attention: no one speaks up for the public. It is only corporations telling stories and showing us pictures.

“Man is the animal that makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble the pictures”

Iris Murdoch

If “we make pictures ourselves, and come to resemble the pictures” what are we shaped into if corporations tell the story and make the pictures? 

In [[Step 46: Sacred Economics]] we discussed how shared public resources (the commons) were once accessible to all. Yet the commons has been increasingly privatized, taking from the public to generate wealth for private parties or corporations. Our attentional commons, the ability to choose how to use our attention, have become monetized. The “attention economy” has created, as [[Yuval Noah Harari]] calls them, “attention merchants,” which I will call “attention pirates.”

attention pirates

Not only is our commons corrupted and dangerous (roving pirates) but our attention is plundered (pillaged) daily. As Crawford says, there is no “public-spirited voice” pushing back against the privatization of attention. There is instead ingrained pro-business forgiveness.

We all cope by putting on headphones and averting our faces into phone screens. Once again, as polite individuals, we retreat from public space to private sanctuaries, where other companies plunder our attention.

You “pay attention” while advertisers “pay for attention”. If you want your attention back, you have to pay for it.

  • You have to go to the business class lounge for silence at the airport.
  • Online, you have to pay a premium to avoid ads.

In privatizing the commons, in this case in privatizing your attention, somebody is taking from your mind for their own gain. Crawford says this is not “creating wealth” as market men like to say: it is a “transfer” of your mental health into their wealth.

Harrison Bergeron, kurt vonnegut
harrison bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut
Silence and Inequality

Given that you have to pay for silence to maintain your attention, we should consider the increasing gap between the wealthy and middle-class and poor: those who can pay to keep their attention focused on their business get richer while the rest are further handicapped.

Our “right to privacy” should include a right not to be addressed. Regardless of income.

Crawford says this does not include face-to-face interactions, human-to-human, seeing and being seen interactions, because that is how we know ourselves in the world. But no one needs to be addressed by or have their attention harvested and data scraped by obscure faceless companies through mechanized means.

Step 53: The World Beyond Your Head

5. Attention is your own

You can declare your privacy as your own, but we live in a society surrounded by others. To do more than survive, to thrive, is to swim through the waters of the world. Going all-in on privacy is the equivalent of sitting in a submarine at the bottom of the ocean while there is a party on the surface with floaties and bikinis. But, of course, today you will be hassled by pirates if you attend the party. 

A person “must know certain things about their surroundings, most obviously the existence of other people and their claims”

Iris Murdoch

Murdoch goes so far as to claim there is a moral imperative to pay attention.

When your attention is appropriated in public spaces, someone (some company) is taking advantage by co-opting and subverting the rights of the public space, the rights that we owe to one another. We do owe each other attention and interaction.

This is a crucial point Charles Eisenstein in “sacred economics” also brought up: we have become so individualistic and competitive (often only think about ourselves) we do not consider what we owe to one another as a community and Society. We have retreated from the morality of attention.

“Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention then the flesh has for bodily fatigue. This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh. That is why every time that we really concentrate or attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.”

Simone Weil


marshmallow experiment, attention, distraction, will power

Do you remember “The marshmallow experiment” at Stanford where researchers taunted children with a marshmallow and then left the room? They decided the children who delayed gratification, by not eating the marshmallow right away, had a higher chance of success in life.

Upon very detailed viewing, we find that these children didn’t just turn on willpower and delayed gratification. The children who were successful in not eating the marshmallow distracted themselves by playing little games. Instead of staring at the marshmallow yearning for it, they distract themselves by tapping their fingers, humming a song, and looking away from the marshmallow. They shift focus creatively: they self-regulate by distracting themselves.

Step 53: The World Beyond Your Head


The non-marshmallow-eating kids self-regulate through creative distraction. It is not the true attention Simone Weil speaks of, but it is controlling attention.

If we cannot direct attention “where we will” we are receptive to “where they will.”

In other words, we are ripe for manipulation. They put the marshmallow in front of us and if we cannot redirect our attention we will eat the sugar they put in front of us. And the more of it we eat, the more alike we all become. Puffy Sugar people.

If we only eat the marshmallows, this being the advertising and media news put on our plate and shoved down our throat, there is a homogenization of viewpoints, and we lose uniqueness.

“According to the prevailing notion, to be free means to be free to satisfy one’s preferences.”

Matthew Crawford

There’s an insidious little trap here: the conflation of making a choice with freedom.

To make a choice is to pursue your preference, which makes you become an autonomous individual. To pursue your preference is a sign of individuality, and is above cultural scrutiny or judgment. Yet, most of our preferences align with market forces (the marshmallows in front of us.) Crawford calls this “standardized appeal.”

You feel free because you chose to eat that marshmallow … and all the other marshmallows. And you defend your choice as your individual preference. Yet, this is somehow not freedom, a real choice, or individuality.

Crawford says that our critical faculties which we need the most to combat the potent packaging of preference (and the pervasive championing of “the sovereign self as sacred”) are crippled and inhibited by corporations. Especially with big data as the sugar hit.

Our temptations lead us into stupidity, and once there we can’t think our way out: we are too distracted by all the sugary marshmallows, and over time we lose the strength to escape because we lose the ability to be rationally critical.

(This is part one of several episodes on “The World Beyond Your Head”)

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Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head (2015) _ link

Marshmallow Experiment

Ichiro Kishimi, Fumitake Koga, “The Courage to be Disliked

Huberman Labs (podcast)


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