How to thrive in an age of distraction

Matthew Crawford, speaking at the RSA today, called for the recognition of an “Attentional Commons” which would be on a par with the right to privacy. He said all humans deserved the absence of noise as a basic human right, the right “not to be addressed”. 

  We might give this up willingly sometimes – for instance when talking to friends – but being addressed in a mechanistic manner is, he says, another thing. 

We are hard wired to pay attention to new things, he says. Our ancestors would have found this very valuable – is that rustle in the bushes a python? This is the reason it is almost impossible not to look at a TV when it is switched on. 

There is a new frontier of capitalism – digging up and monetising every scrap of attention we have left. 

The fields of view that haven’t been captured by commerce are getting fewer and fewer. 

Silence is a now a luxury good, he argues. Think about the business class lounge in an airport. It’s the silence that makes it feel luxurious, he says. 

Those people coming up with the inventive marketing ideas are doing it in the silence of the business class lounge. 

You almost have to be a comedian to wrap your head around much of modern life. 

Western society is obsessed by the notion of personal freedom. Those bombarding us with all these choices are presenting themselves as supporting freedom, he says. But this has the effect of ratcheting up costs of self-regulation. 

“We have finite amount of self-regulation.”

Human experience has become highly engineered. “Distractability is the mental equivant of obesity.”

The question is against this barrage can one maintain a coherent self?

The word “attention” is based on a Latin root meaning to stretch. And here lies a clue to the solution. 

We need to find “ecologies of attention”. These are pursuits like  cooking a difficult meal,  playing music, sports, making things, fixing things, or learning a language.  

It is the encounter between the self and something structured and other – “unselfing” as Iris Murdoch calls it. 

Jazz improvisation is the perfect example of the ecology of attention – the musicians are all attending to each other, alert and opportunistic. Out of this process comes fulfilment, in losing yourself, becoming part of a community. 

The Important thing is not to guard independence but to become skilled which creates what Crawford calls the “earned independence of judgement”. 

Transforming Politics 


Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Richmond gave a compelling argument today at the RSA for democratic accountability. He says the number voting is at an all time low and this is blamed on either the last scandal or voter apathy. But these don’t stack up given the large participation in many campaigning groups, he argues. 

Politics has stood still despite the fact that the electorate are better educated and informed and have access to more information than ever before. 

Voters can be voted out at elections but for the 1500 days in between the MP can do pretty much whatever he wants. 

MPs can make promises and break them once elected and there is nothing the electorate can do.

“All the scepticism I had before I became an MP has been vindicated since”

But he believes we are at a pivotal point. 

After expenses scandal he felt things would change because the language used by all the party leaders changed markedly . “It was exciting and felt we would be taking some big steps towards direct democracy.” But once the dust settled the politicians reverted to the status quo. 

Goldsmith believes the first step in effective participatory democracy is the concept of recall – the power of constituents to remove an MP if they lose faith in their MP.

One argument against recall is that MPs can be voted out at elections. But, he says, the majority of seats are safe seats and recall would have a big impact in those areas. 

“It would change the dynamic in parliament,” he argues. The job of an MP is to hold the government to account on behalf of his or her constituents. But, since the government has the power over MPs’ future career prospects many simple buckle down and support the government line even when it is against the wishes or interests of their constituents. “This is the rot in our system.” With recall the power of the whips would begin to be matched by power of the electorate, he argues

A recall bill has been passed but, Goldsmith argues,  it is exactly the opposite of recall. A committee, not the electorate decide who is recalled and the conditions in which the process can be invoked are narrow. “MPs can still spend 5 years in Barbados, never visit their constituency, never turn up in parliament.”

Goldsmith believes the bill is not only cynical but also a tactical error. Popular outrage will well up when the next scandal happens and the voters realise they can’t actually get rid of their MP, he argues. 

The electorate should be trusted to make good decisions even on complex issues. The idea of leaving it to the experts in parliament is “absolute bollocks”. There have been several times, he says, when he couldn’t vote in parliament because he wasn’t able to find anyone including whips and ministers who could tell him exactly what he was supposed to be voting on. 

One argument against recall is that it would leave MPs vulnerable to special interest groups. But, he says he can’t think of a single example of a politician being booted out by a vexatious campaign – they have tried and failed. 

Another suggestion for improving democracy would be to have full scale open primaries before every election. That would ensure good scrutiny even in safe seats.