Decline and fall:

Ben Stoeber played two years of tennis for Pinckney High School.

This year, he’s trading in his racket for a mouse and the court for a video screen.

And he’s more nervous now than he ever was wearing a Pinckney tennis uniform.

The junior is a member of the school’s first esports team, which began its season Feb. 18 in a 48-team league sponsored by Lawrence Tech University.

“There’s a couple players on the team who played traditional sports here before this year,” Stoeber said. “I’m nervous. There’s more pressure on us than in tennis. It’s our first year of esports, so if we don’t do well, who knows if there will be another year.

So this kid left his body, and now lives inside his head.

What a tragedy this is! I’m serious. I say this as a 52-year-old man who is trapped living inside his head, and wishes he had developed the habits as a young man of living otherwise.

There is this sort of prejudice technophiles have that sees all activity as of equal value. No, sorry, that’s not true. A kid playing video game tennis is not doing the same thing as a kid who picks up a racket and swings it, and sweats. I would not go so far as to say that physical labor is more valuable than cognitive labor — we need both, actually — but it is certainly true that doing work with your body (or playing games with your body) is a phenomenologically different thing than doing it with your head.

The book to read about this is Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming An Individual In An Age Of Distraction (2015). In it, the philosopher talks about how the way we live — increasingly abstracted from the physical world — reflects early Enlightenment views of human nature. When we remove ourselves from the physical world and retreat into our heads — as these young people are doing — we habituate ourselves to a false narrative about who we are, and what we are. We also become weaker, more subject to authoritarian rule.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2015 interview National Review‘s Ian Tuttle did with Crawford about his book:

TUTTLE: Your book is political philosophy, but you are not above engaging the grubby world of politics. Both Left and Right (libertarians, Tea Partiers, and Mitt Romney) come in for criticism. While we often hear about the polarization of American politics, it seems you might be suggesting that both sides share troubling philosophical commitments. Is that right?

Crawford: There do seem to be some affinities. Both invoke “choice” as a content-free meta-good that bathes every actual choice made in the softly egalitarian, flattering light of autonomy.

Here’s another. The ongoing “creative destruction” of capitalism celebrated on the Right clears away settled forms of social life. Cultural progressives find their work made easier by this; they get to re-engineer the human landscape with less interference. They do this by moving the threshold of offense ever lower, creating new sensitivities and then policing them. The institutions of civil society (universities, corporations, etc.) then scramble to catch up with the new dispensation and demonstrate their allegiance to it — by expanding their administrative reach into ever more intimate corners of the psyche. This dynamic has given us a stunning expansion of coercive power over the individual, but it has nothing to with “the government.”

While we’re scrambling ideological divisions, allow me to make a suggestion: Marx is due to be discovered by conservatives. Seriously. Not the positive, utopian program, obviously. But the critical part. Arguably, Marx was a conservative, initially. Read the 1844 Manuscripts — much of it is straight out of Aristotle. I am not the first to notice this. His account of what we require to flourish is rooted in the idea that there is a distinctly human form of activity, one that answers to our “species nature.” We’re the kind of creatures who need to see our own thought manifested concretely in the world, through productive activity. It may well be that no viable form of large-scale economic organization can take this as its guiding insight, but I think the perspective Marx offers is timely, and can cast new light on what we are doing to ourselves. With the Cold War now decided, I think we can safely start to ease our way out of certain intellectual habits that arose from our defensive posture against the Soviet threat, and take a more cold-eyed look at the trajectory of our own economy. In thinking about economics, conservatives would do well to recover the more tragic view of the human condition that is part of their tradition, and a more pessimistic take on history, as against triumphant neoliberal enthusiasms.

TUTTLE: Re-engaging with “the world beyond our heads,” you contend, can put democracy on a firmer foundation. How so?

Crawford: That’s in the final pages where I suggest that an aristocratic ethos needn’t be thought threatening, that it can in fact strengthen democratic solidarity and place it on a more real psychological footing. Our attraction to excellence — our being on the lookout for the choicer manifestations — may lead us to attend to human practices searchingly, and to find superiority in unfamiliar places. For example, in the embodied cognitive finesse of the short-order cook, or the intense intellectual labor that may be required in work that is dirty, such as that of the mechanic when he is diagnosing a problem. With such discoveries we extend our moral imagination to people who are conventionally beneath serious regard, and find them admirable. Not because we heed a moral demand such as the egalitarian lays upon us, but because we actually see something admirable. Our openness to superiority is what connects us to others in a genuine way, without a screen of abstraction.

By contrast, egalitarian empathy, projected from afar and without discrimination, is more principled than attentive. It is content to posit rather than to see the humanity of its beneficiaries. But the one who is on the receiving end of such empathy wants something more than to be recognized generically. He wants to be seen as an individual, and recognized as worthy on the same grounds on which he has striven to be worthy, indeed superior, by cultivating some particular excellence or skill. We all strive for distinction, and I believe that to honor another person is to honor this aspiring core of him.

It is interesting to contemplate the implications here for our democracy in what Crawford is saying. If I’m reading him correctly, he indicates that by living mostly inside our own heads, we lose a sense of reality, and what living within reality requires of us politically. The engagement of our attention by an artificial world inevitably forms us in ways that are antithetical to true liberty. Put simply, who is likely to be a better subject of authoritarian control: the boy who plays tennis, or the boy who sits all day in front of a screen playing an electronic simulation of tennis?

It’s not a silly question. Crawford says in his book that immersion in technology conditions us to expect that we can control the world beyond our heads, and never have to encounter anything that we have not chosen to encounter. This is not how reality works, and if we allow ourselves to be seduced by a politics based on how technocracy forms our understanding of what man is, and what mankind is together, we are going to make terrible mistakes.

Lest you think I’m being a nanny here, let me assure you that I’m accusing myself of having screwed up on this front. I think of my own childhood, of my father constantly telling me to get my head out of a book, and to look around me at the world, and to engage with it. My dad was brilliant, but not an intellectual; in fact, he hated intellectuals. I honestly can’t say to what extent my resisting his attempts to get me into the world beyond my head was about a character flaw within me, or it was about him pushing too hard for me to do something that went against my nature. Had my dad not been so pushy about it, or if he had tried more gently to introduce me into nature, or if he had ever shown interest in the books and ideas that captivated me as a child, maybe I would have been different. Or not. I’ll never know.

But I can say that I regret having decided so early to retreat inside my head. I did it in part because the world beyond my head was dominated by my father, who was very strong and adept at manipulating that world. There was nothing he couldn’t do, it seemed. I hid in books and ideas — and, when they were invented, video games — because there I was the master, and he was not. I was not athletically inclined; he had been a good athlete, and forced athletics on me as a kid, even though they made me miserable. I tell you all this as background for why I got so bound up inside my head, and why as I’ve gotten older, it has become even harder to leave that sacred grove, to my displeasure.

I was worried that my oldest child, who is so like me in many ways, was going down the same path. When he lived with us at home, he stayed deep inside his head, even more than I had been, because he did not have a father who forced him to do physical activity. So he went off to college last autumn, and somehow, discovered the joy of biking. Now he’s a passionate cyclist. Last month, I was on campus and met him for dinner at a pub that was my hangout when I was his age, at LSU like him. The drinking age was 18 in Louisiana then, and I spent a goodly portion of my freshman year downing pitchers of beer there. Well, my son shows up, and it struck me how fit he had become since leaving home. It’s all because of cycling. He told me he had lost 20 pounds. Dang! See, by this point in my freshman year, I had gained 20 pounds, from all the beer. And he’s telling me he lost it because he cycles so much.

I’m really proud of him, and more than proud, happy for him — because he found a way to break out of his head. See, I read the story about the gamer kid giving up tennis to play video games competitively, and I see a boy who has resigned himself to a kind of prison. It’s not that it’s always wrong to play video games; it’s that he has chosen to leave behind an activity in which he used his body to retreat into a world in which the only part of his body he uses is the twitch of his wrist and finger. This can’t be progress.

I found myself thinking this morning about the tennis kid who has surrendered to technology and the Pixar film Wall-E, which is a parable set in a future dystopia in which mankind has alienated himself from his true nature by creating technology that enslaves him to machines, and allows him essentially to live without going beyond his head. Most of the action is set aboard the Axiom, a 28th-century spaceship that has been a kind of Noah’s Ark for humans escaping the wreck they have made of Earth. Take a look at this clip, showing what existence has become for humans aboard the consumerist, technocratic utopia:

I wrote a commentary on the film on my old Beliefnet blog, but it has disappeared from that site. I found these fragments elsewhere. Here’s what I wrote back in 2008:

What I found especially interesting about this epilogue is how it showed the robots from the Axiom helping humans rebuild civilization. See, “Wall-E” is not a Luddite film. It doesn’t demonize technology. It only argues that technology is properly used to help humans cultivate their true nature — that it must be subordinate to human flourishing, and help move that along. Where humanity got into trouble was allowing technology to exacerbate its own internal disorder — to alienate people from their labor, from each other, and ultimately from themselves. The film is wise enough to know that we can’t go back to a pre-technology state, so it says the best thing to do is to put technology in its proper place — which we can only do when our own souls and communities are rightly ordered.

“Wall-E” says that humans have within themselves the freedom to rebel, to overthrow that which dominates and alienates us from our true selves, and our own nature. But you have to question the prime directive; that is, you have to become conscious of how they way you’re living is destroying your body and killing your soul, and choose to resist. “Wall-E” contends that real life is hard, real life is struggle, and that we live most meaningfully not by avoiding pain and struggle, but by engaging it creatively, and sharing that struggle in community. It argues that rampant consumerism, technopoly and the exaltation of comfort is causing us to weaken our souls and bodies, and sell out our birthright of political freedom. Nobody is doing this to us; we’re doing it to ourselves. It is the endgame of modernity, which began in part with the idea that Nature is the enemy to be subdued — that man stands outside of Nature, and has nothing to learn about himself from Nature’s deep logic.

If Wendell Berry made a sci-fi movie for kids, it would be “Wall-E.” I’m very eager to hear what the rest of you have to say about it. I notice Julie and I are already starting to critique our own daily behavior and choices by saying, “That’s like on the Axiom.” Saying, “We’re on the Axiom!” is our way of taking note of our own mindless consumerism.

I wrote elsewhere:

In another twist on the Genesis story, “Wall-E” contends that what makes us human is labor. In the film’s most meaningful iconic image, the Tree of Life on the new earth grows out of an old work boot. You’ll recall that when Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden, Adam was cursed for his sin by being condemned to draw his sustenance from the very Earth from which he was drawn. God says to Adam, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19) In “Wall-E,” humanity discovers that it can only complete its own given nature through labor — first agricultural labor, then the labor of building cities.

Please, Ben Stoeber, pick your tennis racket back up! You don’t have to quit playing video games, but make them secondary to your life. Watch Wall-E and think about the choice you’re making (and more than Ben: teachers, coaches, principals, and parents, think hard about what you’re doing to make it so much easier for young people to choose to live more and more inside their own heads). Here’s the final credit sequence of the movie — the epilogue to which I refer above. It shows how a future humanity recovers from a catastrophe caused by creating machines so good that they allow people to live completely inside the world of their heads. It doesn’t destroy the machines, but makes them work subject to helping humans fulfill their nature. Watch:

 

UPDATE: Curt Stoeber, perhaps Ben’s father, writes:

When articles are written, I feel very strongly that the facts should be known before the article is published. If the actual situation was as presented here, it would be a sad state of affairs for our country, but in this case, it’s simply not true. It was stated in this article that Ben quit tennis to join the eSports team. Ben quit the tennis team for personal reasons. There wasn’t even an eSports team at the time he quit. He enjoys the social asspect of being on a team so when the eSports team was formed, he found something social that he enjoyed. No more, no less. Nothing sinister here. He doesn’t sulk into his room every day and spend every hour on the computer as this article seems to imply. He has friends and enjoys robotics classes at his school. He spends time outside and does many of the things that other teens do.

Rod – I implore you to do your homework before publishing articles that are more sensational than factual.

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