Matthew Crawford’s recent essay in the New York Times laments the high “costs of paying attention” in the modern commercial world, bombarded as we are by advertisements, commercials, and a near-constant deluge of bright and disorienting demands upon our senses. “We’ve sacrificed silence,” Crawford writes, “the condition of not being addressed.”
Crawford suggests that corporations are behind this nefarious plot to colonize our brainwaves—“our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention.” He cites the example of a business-class airport lounge, which, for an extra charge, provides flyers with a quiet, genteel setting in which to prepare for their trip; meanwhile, as anyone who’s flown in the past ten years can confirm, the hoi polloi get stuck in large bullpens filled with blaring CNN monitors and Orwell-esque PSAs. This stratification has led to a “transfer” of wealth from the “peons” in the general holding areas to “those enjoying silence in the business lounge,” who suck up and sell off the peons’ attention like industrious vampires.
As a remedy, Crawford suggests imagining an “attentional commons,” treating silence similarly to an asset like real estate. He sees this as a legitimate extension of the “conceptually murky right to privacy by supplementing it with a right not to be addressed.”
If Crawford were simply a curmudgeonly loner who wanted to be left alone, we could more easily tolerate his occasionally conspiratorial tone. But he does not simply want to be left alone—he just wants only to hear from those he chooses. Thus he sighs wistfully after the bygone days of quiet airport lounges, where “spontaneous encounters” with strangers led to chance conversations or even just a “train of imaginings, often erotic.” These were the building blocks of “sociability,” according to Crawford, which we have sacrificed at the altar of runaway capitalism.
Putting aside the bizarre image of a quiet room full of strangers engaging in ‘erotic imaginings’ of each other, Crawford’s sentimentality here betrays a deeper motivation than simply concern for privacy. For surely there were annoying busybodies intruding upon people’s silence fifty years ago as much as there are commercials doing the same thing today. Like the chatty woman interrupting the emotional goodbye of the star-crossed lovers at the end the 1945 film Brief Encounter, strangers and acquaintances tend to colonize and expropriate our time and attention just fine. I recently saw this same phenomenon firsthand while traveling through the Orlando airport: two young people, a man and woman, were engaging in flirtatious and friendly small talk at the airport bar, only to be repeatedly interrupted by a neighboring older bar patron who felt impelled to share with them his reminiscences of the old days, when a round trip ticket to Spain cost only $140.
Crawford makes a half-hearted attempt at preempting this critique by saying how his invented “right not to be addressed . . . would apply not, of course, to those who address me face to face as individuals, but to those who never show their faces, and treat my mind as a resource to be harvested.” It remains utterly unclear, however, why this should be so, much less why it is “of course” the case that our commercial distractors are more pernicious than our flesh-and-bone ones. Simply because they make a profit off it?
Oughtn’t we to be honest with ourselves that the subtle and varied ways in which non-commercial interactions unfold can be just as alienating and unwelcome as those aimed at selling us some product? Intrusions upon our privacy are not simply more welcome because they happen to take place within the confines of civil society rather than the marketplace.
Ultimately, the analysis in Crawford’s essay romanticizes an imagined past for the sake of scoring rhetorical points against corporate interests. Rather than a concern for pristine privacy, Crawford’s animus is really against commercialism. That’s fine, but it’s also nothing particularly new. Commercial interests have been crowding in on our personal sphere for so long that it’s hard to think of a precise moment where we humans ever really held some perfect right not to be addressed. Consider Nicolo Barabino’s “Faith with Representations of the Arts,” still on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ “Picturing Mary” exhibit in Washington. The painting, the template of a mosaic currently installed in the southwest entrance of the cathedral in Florence, depicts a serene Mary, the living representation of faith, surrounded by the various workmen, artisans, and patrons that made the construction of the cathedral possible. It’s a sort of ecclesiastical billboard, mixing commercial and theological messages.
How exploitative, a Crawford-esque critic might declare, that this most sacred of places had been colonized by profit-driven interests. But the fact is that our attention has always been a resource, and there will always be demands upon it. And the reflective silence that Crawford pines after has, for most of history, been a possibility only for the very, very few—the kings and cardinals and philosophers—who could afford that which Crawford now seems to think is a universal right.
Is Crawford right that airports are generally annoying places to pass the time? Sure. Is he right in suggesting that this is so because of a particular alignment of capitalistic incentives unique to our day and age? I’m not so sure. And is he able to insist upon a standoffish “right not to be addressed” while at the same time mounting some vague sort of communitarian defense of spontaneous “sociability”? It seems doubtful.