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One knows oneself by one’s deeds

This is the second in 3 posts I’ll be doing on “The World Beyond your Head” by Matthew Crawford.

In the last post I talked about how Getting things right requires triangulating with other people. In this post I’d like to highlight the surprising motivations behind gambling then I’ll finish by conducting a thought experiment to determine the role of ‘manufactured certainties’ to stay sane.

In his book, Matthew Crawford references a book by Natasha Dow Schull called “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.” In the book, Schull notes surprising motivations behind gambling.

“The appeal of games is that they give the player a sense of control.” – Matthew Crawford

With so many things being upended by technology, from the 2016 election to the dwindling quality of interpersonal relationships, it’s nice to know that at the heart of it, we are all looking for ways to gain a sense of control.

Crawford quotes Schull’s book on gamblers in Las Vegas finding their sense of control at the casino:

“The goal for compulsive machine gamblers is not to win money, as one might suppose, and you cannot understand their addiction without keeping this in mind. The goal is to get in the zone: the place where ‘Their won actions become indistinguishable from the functioning of the machine. They explain this point as a kind of coincidence between their intentions and the machine’s responses.’ You hit the button and the machine responds every time.” – Matthew Crawford

Crawford shares the surprising fact that winning is not the goal. The goal is the player’s relationship with the machine:

“‘I don’t care if it takes coins, or pays coins. The contract is that when I put a new coin in, get five new cards, and press those buttons, and I am allowed to continue. So it isn’t really a gamble at all – in fact, it’s one of the few places I’m certain about anything.’ If you can’t rely on the machine, then you might as well be in the human world where you have no predictability either.” – Matthew Crawford

What’s the purpose of gaming if not to alleviate the pressures of the modern world?

“We therefore seek out other, personal technologies that can can give us safe haven: ‘manufactured certainties,’ as Schull puts it, that help us ‘manage our affective states.’ That is what computer games seem to do for our quasi autistic cohort of young men; it is what machine gambling does for those who have gone down that particular path. Perhaps such pursuits help us manage the anxiety and depression that come when experiences of genuine agency are scarce, and at the same time we live under a cultural imperative of being autonomous.” – Matthew Crawford

What gives you a sense of control? How do you “manage your affective states?” In this dizzying world of technology and social media, which ‘manufactured certainties’ do you rely on? Are you a gamer, gambler, or a musician? Do you like to scrapbook?

“For Hegel, one knows oneself by one’s deeds. And deeds are inherently social – their meaning depends very much on how others receive them. The problems of self-knowledge is in large part the problem of how we can make ourselves intelligible to others through our actions, and from them receive back a reflected view of ourselves.” – Matthew Crawford

Here’s a thought experiment: Do you go down the path of self realization through the making of things? Or do we condone the pursuit of gaming to ‘manage our affective states?’ I suppose that decision is ultimately up to you.

“You have not executed an intention successfully unless others attribute to you the deed and intention you attribute to yourself. One can think of counterexamples to this formula – a successful deception, for instance. But it serves well as a corrective to the cult of sincerity, which perhaps amounts to this: the idea that you yourself can be the source of the norms by which you justify yourself. This idea seems to be the late modern understanding of autonomy, in a nutshell.” – Matthew Crawford

Getting things right requires triangulating with other people

This is the first post of 3 I’ll be doing on Matthew Crawford’s “The World Beyond your Head – On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.” In this post I’d like to focus on three different thinkers and how isolation kills creativity.

We’ve all felt it. The pang that this work would go faster if people would leave me alone so I can get my work done. This works well when you know exactly what you are doing because you’ve done it a million times before.

Picasso was famous for saying, “Dramatic action needs solitude.”

Perhaps that’s why when other famous artists of his time like Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin were traveling the world to find inspiration and new ways of looking, Picasso was content to sit alone in his studio night after night in isolation, waiting for the muse to strike. He rarely painted from models but rather accessed the references for his artwork from his mind’s eye.

Picasso’s profound output and acclaim seem to support Crawford’s statements about sustained attention in isolation:

“To attend to anything in a sustained way requires actively excluding all the other things that grab at our attention. It requires, if not ruthlessness toward oneself, a capacity for self regulation.” – Matthew Crawford

But before we head for the hills to live the life of an unwashed recluse, it’s important to talk about Frank Lloyd Wright, the 20th century’s most famous architect.Frank Lloyd Wright’s contributions to the world of architecture include over 1,000 designs and nearly 600 completed buildings.

At the height of his career he gave up on living in the city and retreated to his home Taliesen in Wisconsin.

What followed the move to Taliesen was 8 years of unproductive work. What caused this unproductive period? He had isolated himself so thoroughly that he no longer swam in the intellectual ideas he had before. His inspiration waned and the 20th century’s best architect ossified.

“We think through the body. The fundamental contribution of this school of psychological research is that it puts the mind back in the world, where it belongs, after several centuries of being locked within our heads. The boundary of our cognitive processes cannot be cleanly drawn at the outer surface of our skulls, or indeed of our bodies more generally. They are, in a sense, distributed in the world that we act in.” – Matthew Crawford

I believe that Crawford is trying to say that we need to be in the swing of things to really appreciate what’s around us.

A 14th century Zen master Dogen Zenji put it simply, “If you walk in the mist, you get wet.”

I’ve had a number of projects that I’ve worked on. Most of them have been me working on something, believing in it and working by myself to get things done. It’s worked well but at the same time I can’t help but feel that you need to have other people there to bolster your strengths and hide your weaknesses.

We are so much stronger when we have help from other people. There are ways that I could not do things on my own or that I am blind to the reality of the problem because I only see it from my perspective.

What happens when you have another set of eyes?

“A passenger acts as another pair of eyes on the situation he inhabits with the driver, and tends to improve a driver’s ability to notice and quickly respond to out of the ordinary challenges.” – Matthew Crawford

Another pair of eyes can illuminate areas of reality you’re blind to:

“In other words, one has to be able to explore a scene from different perspectives to perceive what remains the same about it – its nature and structure, regardless of perspective – and locomotion is an indispensable part of this process.” – Matthew Crawford

But don’t just trust any other set of eyes. It’s very important to make sure that the others you are relying on share your beliefs, passions, and attention to detail.

“The cohesiveness and ongoing association of a firefighting unit offer an advantage not enjoyed by most motorcyclists: they are under mutual surveillance and can criticize one another’s mistakes. They can also cover one another’s blind spots, offering up a third-person perspective such as: There was a large ember floating upward right behind you as you exited that room. You got lucky. Such facts, conveyed by a colleagues, can become material for a fire fighter’s retrospective understanding of the situation, or indeed a collaborative reconstruction of it. His own experience is altered in conversation.” – Matthew Crawford

I pair program with 2 other developers in San Francisco twice a week. I’ve learned more through these pair programming sessions than I ever could studying from a book or taking a course. We are constantly interacting with each other, questioning decisions, validating assumptions, seeing how each other solves tasks, and sharing our pro-tips.

“Getting things right requires triangulating with other people.” – Matthew Crawford

In his last lecture Randy Pausch sums it up perfectly:

“The key to innovation is that teams beat individuals.” – Randy Pausch

Has this post clarified the need for collaborators? Co-conspirators? Let me know. I’d love to hear about the teams you build to keep you in touch with reality and not flailing, stuck in your head.