The Individual in an Age of Distraction



CrawfordLet me simply say that The World Beyond Your Head  is among the best books I’ve ever read – and I’m enamored with it after only the first 68 pages.  Its author,  Matthew B. Crawford majored in physics as undergraduate at UCSB, then decided to obtain his Ph.D. in political philosophy at the University of Chicago.  He is one of a rare breed who combines the art of erudite presenting with lucid writing, as evident in this clip based on his previous book, Shop Class As Soulcraft.  As you listen to his presentation, keep in mind that in his spare time he fabricates parts for custom motorcycles.

Crawford’s new book, subtitled On Becoming An Individual In An Age Of Distraction, addresses the problem of attention as a cultural resource and phenomenon.  You can get a flavor of this topic form Crawford’s insightful article in last summer’s Hedgehog Review, as well as in this Opinion piece last month in the New York Times.  But there is so much more.  Take for example the chapter on embodied perception, in which Crawford uses the physics of motorcycle racing to bring home his points:


At higher speeds, to make  motorcycle initiate a turn to the left, you apply pressure as though you were trying to turn the handlebars to the right.  Motorcyclists call this counter-steering, and it is indeed counterintuitive.  Turning the handlebars briefly to the right makes the bike lean to the left because of gyroscopic precession, and it is the leaning that accomplishes the turning … In cornering a motorcycle there is a series of motions and exertions that get instilled in muscle memory through practice, and these are integrated with the visual fuses of cornering.  Once the integration is fairly secure, it is the visual cues that the motorcyclist attends to, not the muscular exertions … The next time you see such a photo, look for the rider’s eyes.  If they are visible through the helmet’s visor, you will see them nearly perpendicular to the bike”s direction of travel, as the rider looks all the way through the corner … You have to learn to unlock your eyes as quickly as possible from every hazard, and instead look where you want to go.  This visual demand is absolutely counterintuitive … In addition to gyroscopic precession, a further “unnatural” challenge in motorcycling is the categorically different rate at which you are moving toward the things in your visual field, compared with our usual bipedal locomotion.  This makes it imperative to keep one’s eyes fluid.

Gyroscopic precession is an example of ecological optics in terms of how we visually adapt to specific environmental demands.  Crawford adds in a footnote that although much credit is directed toward J.J. Gibson for the field of embodied/embedded/grounded/extended cognition, the move toward “enactivism” can be attributed to suggestions offered by Mearleau-Ponty and others in the school of phenomenology.  Of course one could offer another footnote that enactivisim is encapsulated in the concept of “vision is motor“, part and parcel of behavioral optometry.


About Leonard J. Press, O.D., FAAO, FCOVD

Developmental Optometry is my passion as well as occupation. Blogging allows me to share thoughts in a unique visual style.
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