I had the privilege of sitting through the great Alasdair MacIntyre’s philosophy classes while I was in graduate school. One day he remarked, “If a book is worth reading once, it is worth reading twice. If it is not worth reading twice, then it wasn’t worth reading once.”
Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction is a book worth reading three times (at least). The first time through, on a quick read, I was impressed but not overwhelmed. On the second, I found myself writing all over the margins of every page. Its combination of simplicity and profundity sneaks up on you. The highest praise I offer, as a fellow writer, is that I wanted to write an entire book on every one of his chapters.
So, what is it about? On the most basic level, Crawford offers yet another critique of our screen-saturated electronic culture, a culture in which we have increasingly cut ourselves off from real things—birds, trees, books, rivers, and actual people—and instead live in an artificial world of images. You’ve heard of the Korean couple who let their own infant daughter starve while they were playing an internet game, Anima, in which they were raising a virtual child? You’ve sat around a table in a restaurant where everyone is staring at his or her smartphone? You are perhaps addicted to internet pornography, and find sex with your actual spouse…boring?
On a deeper level, Crawford is offering a compelling account of the way that a particular medium, the internet-smartphone, defines the culture, or more exactly, creates a culture around itself, a culture that distorts real human goods and substitutes sham for substance. Crawford’s is a critique of the kind and caliber that ranks his book with such classics as Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding the Media and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly.
On a yet deeper level, Crawford is making a first-order philosophical argument that our culture (defined by a medium which substitutes artificial, technologically-created experience for actual experience of real things the world) is the ultimate manifestation of a particular early modern philosophical account of human knowing, one defined by Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke, and consummated in Immanuel Kant. To be all too simple, all these thinkers shared the materialist assumption that human beings do not have access to the real world; rather, what they experience is only their own particular sensations of the real world. We human beings are quite literally trapped in a world inside our head.
On this view of human knowing, we are cut off from reality by the “screen” of our sensations. We don’t see a real tree, but only an image of a tree. Our brain responds to “data” that the sense of sight give it, as if our real “self” was a little homuncular driver sitting inside of a head, negotiating the world by “looking” at a computer screen.
This strange view of the world—that we don’t actually experience the world, but only our sensual representations of the world—is a strangely familiar match for our current cultural habit of staring at screens rather than looking at things, for our interacting with virtual reality while ignoring actual reality.
It is a match because we have built a culture to match a theory. So, whereas the materialistic theory of knowledge championed in the 17th century by Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke was a debatable theory three plus centuries ago, it has become a virtual reality by cultural embodiment. The epistemology has become artificial, cultural reality. We made the theory culturally “real.”
If this strikes you as merely interesting, then you need to dig more deeply into the assumptions and goals of that materialist epistemology. It is again, a materialist account of how human beings know, one that reduces knowledge to sensation—in other words, one that assumes that the human immaterial soul does not exist.
Furthermore, this materialist epistemology was directly aimed at destroying Christianity. A materialist account of human knowing made the immaterial soul unnecessary. But the existence of the human soul is the foundation of Christianity’s claim to the uniqueness of human beings made in the image of God, to the Christian account of morality, and finally, to the Christian understanding of the afterlife. It is no accident, then, that a materialist account of knowing was instrumental in the secularization of the West.
And finally, this materialist epistemology was designed in the service of the notion that nature is fundamentally defective, a product of chance rather than divine wisdom, and that human progress will only be made when nature is entirely mastered by the human will, and technology has corrected or replaced all that was once considered natural. This techno-utopian vision designed for this world was understood as a real cultural and political substitute for the Christian understanding of perfection and happiness in the next world.
Now I must be clear. Crawford does not appear to be a Christian or even particularly Christian-friendly. He is more of a modern Platonist trying to recover the soul from the confused piling-on of layer upon layer of technological artificiality. But in recovering the soul, and providing an excellent critique of an increasingly soul-less culture, he is doing good service, whatever his thoughts on Christianity.
I also must make clear, and happily so, that Crawford is not diagnosing the disease without offering a cure. In fact, the cure takes up most of the book. It is a radical cure, one that goes all the way back to Plato’s Republic—not coincidentally, since Crawford received a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy from the University of Chicago.
Crawford argues, as did Plato, that craft knowledge—the knowledge gained by those who make actual things, and hence work with real wood, metal, leather, etc.—essentially connects us to the world beyond our heads, a world that has its own order, integrity, beauty, and cantankerous resistance to our will, a world that reveals itself when we place ourselves under its authority and structure and learn to work with it, a world that allows us to express real human excellence in workmanship.
This perhaps all sounds a little, well, old-fashioned? Impractical? Too mundane? That means you have to read Crawford a second and third time to see the import.
Let me give you a hint of the depth of Crawford’s argument, by returning to Plato. Plato lived in an Athens too much under control of the sophists, those who claimed that truth was relative. For the sophists, there is only the “truth” in people’s heads, because we only have access to what appears to our senses. So, anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s—an assertion that served a debased form of democracy in Athens.
This intellectual relativism spilled over into moral relativism of an especially pernicious kind: since there is no truth, then you should just learn to manipulate others so as to get what you want. Politics consequently became defined by the manipulation of the masses by the few in power.
Against this intellectual relativism, Plato offered the obvious counter-instance of craft knowledge, which is not relative, not a mere matter of opinion, and not subject to the manipulations of clever rhetoricians. When you need a house built, you go to the one who really knows how to do it, one who knows what the realities of wood and stone are, knows how to build within the contours of the land. You go to the one who knows, not the smart-guy relativist, because the craftsman is the one who has immersed himself in actual things in the world, worked with them, and experienced their reality. That craftsman is a living counter-argument to sophistic intellectual relativism that assumes that we are all trapped in our heads.
We are in much the same situation in our contemporary culture, living in a debased form of democracy, all too often defined by the notion that truth is entirely relative—something inside each person’s head, not testable against the real world. The ill effects of this belief is compounded by the fact that we spend most of our time staring at virtual reality, at artificially contrived world shooting at us from every screen, and very often shot by those who want to manipulate us politically or economically for their own purposes.