Matthew Crawford interview: The philosopher-mechanic talks Plato, passivity and pleasures

Crawford is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, and also makes parts for custom motorcycles

Nick Duerden
Friday 03 April 2015 01:14
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Crawford says: 'We have become passive spectators - of video games, porn, gambling, shopping. It's constant stimulation, and we become reliant upon it.'
Crawford says: 'We have become passive spectators - of video games, porn, gambling, shopping. It's constant stimulation, and we become reliant upon it.'

I always preferred the ancients At university, I studied Ancient Political Thought. I spent a lot of time with Plato, and I wish I'd spent more time with Aristotle. My dissertation was on Plutarch. I guess it was a very hermetic, scholastic education: I spent the whole time with my nose buried in all these ancient books.

I always felt a disconnect with the present which is why I turned to ancient thought – but I also wanted to grapple with big ideas in the modern world more directly, and to understand them. I suppose I think a lot.

I've always loved working with my hands As a kid, I really wanted a BMX, but my parents didn't have enough money to buy me one. So I went to the junkyard and found an old bicycle frame, then a bunch of other parts, a couple of wheels, and built my own. It was very fulfilling.

You have to hustle I have a degree in physics, but when I couldn't get a job in that field, I went around the car parks of DIY stores putting flyers on car windshields advertising myself as an electrician. It read: "Unlicensed, but careful."

You can be both philosopher and mechanic A lot of concentration is required with mechanical work, especially in diagnosing problems. I run a motorcycle-repair shop and the work I do there is often more intellectually challenging than many so-called knowledge-worker jobs I have had.

I've always loved riding motorbikes It's like skiing, except you can control how steep the slope is, via the throttle. It's a very physical pleasure. I like to go fast.

You must stay master of your own mind I was in the supermarket one day and swiped my bank card to buy groceries, when the screen flashed up with adverts. It hit me that some genius had realised that somebody in this situation was a captive audience, and that this offered yet another opportunity to manipulate us. It's disturbing.

We have become passive spectators Of video games, porn, gambling, shopping. It's constant stimulation, and we become reliant upon it. If we don't have it, we feel antsy. It's like drug addiction. We are bombarded with messages and noise, and it makes for a homogenisation of experience, manufactured on a mass scale.

We have to shift our powers of concentration to things that aren't immediately gratifying We need to rediscover being able to think for ourselves. Our attention is getting appropriated and monetised, and we are not yet very articulate in making a claim for our own attention.

Focus on the task at hand When I am working in my motorbike shop, hours can go by when I am unaware of time passing, as I'm so absorbed in what I am doing. Nothing is being presented to me with a manipulative purpose; I am simply cultivating a skill and seeing its effect on the world.

I am not a guru If people – "fans" – contact the shop simply because they want to meet me, I ignore the messages. That's just a sideshow. The kind of people who seek out gurus, I would not enjoy their company. Maybe I'm just antisocial, but I'm picky about who I want to spend my time with.

Matthew Crawford, 49, is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, and also makes parts for custom motorcycles in Virginia. He published his first book, 'The Case for Working with Your Hands' in 2009. His latest, 'The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction', is published by Penguin on Thursday, priced £16.99

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