I wrote a version of this for the newsletter last year and decided to expand it out into a post. I’ve also added in a few thoughts based on an email conversation about the book with David MacIver a while back, and a few more thoughts inspired by a more recent post.
This wasn’t a book I’d been planning to read. In fact, I’d never even heard of it. I was just working in the library one day, and the cover caught my attention. It’s been given the subtitle ‘How To Flourish in an Age of Distraction’, and it looks like the publisher has tried to sell it as a sort of book-length version of one of those hand-wringers in The Atlantic about how we all gawp at our phones too much. I’m a sucker for those. This is a bit pathetic, I know, but there are certain repetitive journalist topics that I like simply because they’re repetitive, and the repetition has given them a comfortingly familiar texture, and ‘we all gawp at our phones too much’ is one of them. So I had a flick through.
The actual contents turned out to be less comfortingly familiar, but a lot more interesting. Actually, I recognised a lot of it! Merleau-Ponty on perception… Polanyi on tacit knowledge… lots of references to embodied cognition. This looks like my part of the internet! I hadn’t seen this set of ideas collected together in a pop book before, so I thought I’d better read it.
The author, Matthew Crawford, previously wrote a book called Shop Class As Soul Craft, on the advantages of working in the skilled trades. In this one he zooms out further to take a more philosophical look at why working with your hands with real objects is so satisfying. There’s a lot of good stuff in the book, which I’ll get to in a minute. I still struggled to warm to it, though, despite it being full of topics I’m really interested in. Some of this was just a tone thing. He writes in a style I’ve seen before and don’t get on with – I’m not American and can’t place it very exactly, but I think it’s something like ‘mild social conservatism repackaged for the educated coastal elite’. According to Wikipedia he writes for something called The New Atlantis, which may be of the places this style comes from. I don’t know. There’s also a more generic ‘get off my lawn’ thing going on, where we are treated to lots of anecdotes about how the airport is too loud and there’s too much advertising and children’s TV is terrible and he can’t change the music in the gym.
The oddest thing for me was his choice of pronouns for the various example characters he makes up throughout the book to illustrate his points. This is always a pain because every option seems to annoy someone, but using ‘he’ consistently would at least have fitted the grumpy old man image quite well. Maybe his editor told him not to do that, though, or maybe he has some kind of point to make, because what he actually decided to do was use a mix of ‘he’ and ‘she’, but only ever pick the pronoun that fits traditional expectations of what gender the character would be. Because he mostly talks about traditionally masculine occupations, this means that maybe 80% of the characters, and almost all of the sympathetic ones, are male – all the hockey players, carpenters, short-order cooks and motorcycle mechanics he’s using to demonstrate skilled interaction with the environment. The only female characters I remember are a gambling addict, a New Age self-help bore, a disapproving old lady, and one musician who actually gets to embody the positive qualities he’s interested in. It’s just weird, and I found it very distracting.
OK, that’s all my whining about tone done. I have some more substantive criticisms later, but first I want to talk about some of the things I actually liked. Underneath all the owning-the-libs surface posturing he’s making a subtle and compelling argument. Unpacking this argument is quite a delicate business, and I kind of understand why the publishers just rounded it off to the gawping at phones thing.
Violins and slot machines
Earlier, I said that Crawford is out to explain ‘why working with your hands with real objects is so satisfying’, but actually he’s going for something a little more nuanced and specific than that. Not all real objects are satisfying to work with. Here’s his discussion of one that isn’t, at least for an adult:
When my oldest daughter was a toddler, we had a Leap Frog Learning Table in the house. Each side of the square table presents some sort of electromechanical enticement. There are four bulbous piano keys; a violin-looking thing that is played by moving a slide rigidly located on a track; a transparent cylinder full of beads mounted on an axle such that any attempt, no matter how oblique, makes it rotate; and a booklike thing with two thick plastic pages in it.
… Turning off the Leap Frog Learning Table would produce rage and hysterics in my daughter… the device seemed to provide not just stimulation but the experience of agency (of a sort). By hitting buttons, the toddler can reliably make something happen.
The Leap Frog Learning Table is designed to take very complicated data from the environment – toddlers bashing the thing any old how, at any old speed or angle – and funnel this mess into a very small number of possible outcomes. The ‘violin-looking thing’ has only one translational degree of freedom, along a single track. Similarly, the cylinder can only be rotated around one axis. So the toddler’s glancing swipe at the cylinder is not dissipated into uselessness, but instead produces a satisfying rolling motion – they get to ‘make something happen’.
This is extremely satisfying for a toddler, who struggles to manipulate the more resistant objects of the adult world. But there is very little opportunity for growth or mastery there. The toddler has already mastered the toy to almost its full extent. Hitting the cylinder more accurately might make it spin for a bit longer, but it’s still pretty much the same motion.
At the opposite end of the spectrum would be a real violin. I play the violin, and you could describe it quite well as a machine for amplifying tiny changes in arm and hand movements into very different sounds (mostly horrible ones, which is why beginners sound so awful). There are a large number of degrees of freedom – the movements of the each jointed finger in three dimensional space, including those on the bow hand, contribute to the final sound. Also, almost all of them are continuous degrees of freedom. There are no keys or frets to accommodate small mistakes in positioning.
Crawford argues that although tools and instruments that transmit this kind of rich information about the world can be very frustrating in the short term, they also have enormous potential for satisfaction in the long term as you come to master them. Whereas objects like the Leap Frog Learning Table have comparatively little to offer if you’re not two years old:
Variations in how you hit the button on a Leap Frog Learning Table or a slot machine do not similarly produce variations in the effect you produce. There is a closed loop between your action and the effect that you perceive, but the bandwidth of variability has been collapsed… You are neither learning something about the world, as the blind man does with his cane, nor acquiring something that could properly be called a skill. Rather, you are acting within the perception-action circuits encoded in the narrow affordances of the game, learned in a few trials. This is a kind of autistic pseudo-action, based on exact repetition, and the feeling of efficacy that it offers evidently holds great appeal.
(As a warning, Crawford consistently uses ‘autistic’ in this derogatory sense throughout the book; if that sounds unpleasant, steer clear.)
Objects can also be actively deceptive, rather than just tediously simple. In the same chapter there’s some interesting material on gambling machines, and the tricks used to make them addictive. Apparently one of the big innovations here was the idea of ‘virtual reel mapping’. Old-style mechanical fruit machines would have three actual reels with images on them that you needed to match up, and just looking at the machine would give you a rough indication of the total number of images on the reel, and therefore the rough odds of matching them up and winning.
Early computerised machines followed this pattern, but soon the machine designers realised that there no longer needed to be this close coupling between the machine’s internal representation and what the gambler sees. So the newer machines would have a much larger number of virtual reel positions that are mostly mapped to losing combinations, with a large percentage of these combinations being ‘near misses’ to make the machine more addictive. The machine still looks simple, like the toddler’s toy, but the intuitive sense of odds you get from watching the machine becomes completely useless, because the internal logic of the machine is now doing something very complicated that the screen actively hides from you. A machine like this is actively ‘out to get you’, alienating you from the evidence of your own eyes.
Apples and sheep
Before reading the book I’d never really thought carefully about any of these properties of objects. For a while after reading it, I noticed them everywhere. Here’s one (kind of silly) example.
Shortly after reading the book I was visiting my family, and came across this wooden puzzle my aunt made:
I had a phase when I was ten or so where I was completely obsessed with this puzzle. Looking back, it’s not obvious why. It’s pretty simple and looks like the kind of thing that would briefly entertain much younger children. I was a weird kid and also didn’t have a PlayStation – maybe that’s explanation enough? But I didn’t have some kind of Victorian childhood where I was happy with an orange and a wooden toy at Christmas. I had access to plenty of plastic and electronic nineties tat that was more obviously fun.
I sat down for half an hour to play with this thing and try and remember what the appeal was. The main thing is that it turns out to be way more controllable than you might expect. The basic aim of the puzzle is just to get the ball bearings in the holes in any old order. This is the game that stops being particularly rewarding once you’re over the age of seven. But it’s actually possible to learn to isolate individual ball bearings by bashing them against the sides until one separates off, and then tilt the thing very precisely to steer one individually into a specific hole. That gives you a lot more options for variants on the basic game. For example, you can fill in the holes in a spiral pattern starting from the middle. Or construct a ‘fence’ of outer apples with a single missing ‘gate’ apple, steer two apples into the central pen (these apples are now sheep), and then close the gate with the last one.
The other interesting feature is that because this is a homemade game, the holes are not uniformly deep. The one in the top right is noticeably shallower than the others, and the ball bearing in this slot can be dislodged fairly easily while keeping the other nine in their place. This gives the potential for quite complicated dynamics of knocking down specific apples, and then steering other ones back in.
Still an odd way to have spent my time! But I can at least roughly understand why. The apple puzzle is less like the Leap Frog Learning Table than you might expect, and so the game can reward a surprisingly high level of skill. Part of this is from the continuous degrees of freedom you have in tilting the board, but the cool thing is that a lot of it comes from unintentional parts of the physical design. My aunt made the basic puzzle for small children, and the more complicated puzzles happened to be hidden within it.
The ability to dislodge the top right apple is not ‘supposed’ to be part of the game at all – an abstract version you might code up would have identical holes. But the world is going about its usual business of being incorrigibly plural, and there is just way more of it than any one abstract ruleset needs. The variation in the holes allows some of that complexity to accidentally leak in, breaking the simple game out into a much richer one.
Pebbles and birdsong
Now for the criticism part. I think there’s a real deficiency in the book that goes deeper than the tone issues I pointed out at the start. Crawford is insightful in his discussions of the kind of complexity that many handcrafted objects exhibit, that’s often standardised away in the modern world. But in his enthusiasm for people doing real things with real tools he’s forgotten the advantages of the systematised, ‘autistic’ world he dislikes. Funnelling messy reality into repeatable categories is how we get shit done at scale. It’s not just some unpleasant feature of modernity, either. Even something as simple as counting with pebbles relies on this:
To make the method work, you must choose bits-of-rock of roughly even sizes, so you can distinguish them from littler bits—stray grains of sand or dust in the bucket—that don’t count. How even? Even enough that you can make a reliable-enough judgement.
The counting procedure abstracts away the vivid specificity of the individual pebbles, and reduces them to simplistic interchangeable tokens. But there’s not much point in complaining about this. You need to do this to get the job done! And you can always break them back out into individuality later on if you want to do something else, like paint a still life of them.
I’m finding myself going back yet again to Christopher Norris’s talk on Derrida, which I discussed in my braindump here. (I’m going to repeat myself a bit in the next section. This was the most thought-provoking single thing I read last year, and I’m still working through the implications, so everything seems to lead back there at the moment.) Derrida picks apart some similar arguments by Rousseau, who was concerned with the bad side of systematisation in music:
One way of looking at Rousseau’s ideas about the melody/harmony dualism is to view them as the working-out of a tiff he was having with Rameau. Thus he says that the French music of his day is much too elaborate, ingenious, complex, ‘civilized’ in the bad (artificial) sense — it’s all clogged up with complicated contrapuntal lines, whereas the Italian music of the time is heartfelt, passionate, authentic, spontaneous, full of intense vocal gestures. It still has a singing line, it’s still intensely melodious, and it’s not yet encumbered with all those elaborate harmonies.
Crawford is advocating for something close to Rousseau’s pure romanticism. He brings along more recent and sophisticated arguments from phenomenology and embodied cognition, but he’s still very much on the side of spontaneity over structure. And I think he’s still vulnerable to the same arguments that Derrida was able to use against Rousseau. Norris explains it as follows:
… Rousseau gets into a real argumentative pickle when he say – lays it down as a matter of self-evident truth – that all music is human music. Bird-song just doesn’t count, he says, since it is merely an expression of animal need – of instinctual need entirely devoid of expressive or passional desire – and is hence not to be considered ‘musical’ in the proper sense of that term. Yet you would think that, given his preference for nature above culture, melody above harmony, authentic (spontaneous) above artificial (‘civilized’) modes of expression, and so forth, Rousseau should be compelled – by the logic of his own argument – to accord bird-song a privileged place vis-à-vis the decadent productions of human musical culture. However Rousseau just lays it down in a stipulative way that bird-song is not music and that only human beings are capable of producing music. And so it turns out, contrary to Rousseau’s express argumentative intent, that the supplement has somehow to be thought of as always already there at the origin, just as harmony is always already implicit in melody, and writing – or the possibility of writing – always already implicit in the nature of spoken language.
Derrida is pointing out that human music always has a structured component. We don’t just pour out a unmarked torrent of frequencies. We define repeatable lengths of notes, and precise intervals between pitches. (The evolution of these is a complicated engineering story in itself.) This doesn’t make music ‘inauthentic’ or ‘artificial’ in itself. It’s a necessary feature of anything we’d define as music.
I’d have been much happier with the book if it had some understanding of this interaction – ‘yes, structure is important, but I think we have too much of it, and here’s why’. But all we get is the romantic side. As with Rousseau’s romanticism, this tips over all too easily into pure reactionary nostalgia for an imagined golden age, and then we have to listen to yet another anecdote about how everything in the modern world is terrible. It’s not the eighteenth century any more, and we can do better now. And for all its genuine insight, this book mostly just doesn’t.