Given that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche died in 1900, it might seem to be a stretch to turn to his ideas for inspiration about how to navigate the pitfalls of digital technology. And yet, since we’re bombarded with endless distractions — including addictive social media, constantly pinging phones, and streaming content designed to be binged — Nietzsche’s warning to avoid the seductions of easy comforts remains fresh.
Nietzsche rejected the idea that a transcendent god exists whose divine plan provides human beings with a fundamental sense of purpose. To overcome that nihilism, he believed we should embrace life so creatively and intentionally that we could take pleasure in living each moment over and over again for all eternity.
What does that have to do with technology? Well, Nietzsche’s ideas are so deep you can’t reduce them to slogans or listicles like “Top 10 Ways To Use Technology Like the Overman.” But Nate Anderson has nonetheless written an accessible and lively new book called “In Emergency Break Glass: What Nietzsche Can Teach Us About Joyful Living in a Tech-Saturated World.”
Anderson, who studied philosophy in college and English literature and theology in graduate school, is a longtime journalist who is now deputy editor at Ars Technica, a Condé Nast sci-tech publication that reaches 15 million global readers a month. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
What made you think that you needed to change your life and that Nietzsche’s ideas could help?
Like other people, I spent way too much time interacting with screens without getting that much out of the experience. Screen time somehow was drawing me in, deeper and deeper, almost against my will. When I looked at my life and thought about the idea that the way we spend our hours is the way we spend our lives, I realized I was dissatisfied. I was spending my life with pieces of glass that provide access to endless information and entertainment, and I lost contact with the physical world. When I looked at my grandparents’ lives, they were much more in and of the world, and they seemed very content with that.
While having these thoughts, I was reading Nietzsche because I was a philosophy major in college, had never really gotten into him, and always felt like it was a gap in my education. As I was doing that, I discovered somebody who was provocative and fascinating and had a lot to say about exactly these issues, but from a very different, 19th-century perspective.
So, what does Nietzsche have for us on the problem of digital distraction?
In the book, I express my discomfort with what I would call tech tips. Most of them, I found, require you to exert negative willpower. For example, “I’m not going to look at my phone more than a certain number of times a day.” Or “I’m going to put my phone in a basket when I enter the house and only watch a half-hour of TV at night.” This approach requires you to say no to all sorts of things. But when we’re busy or tired and faced with devices and technologies purposely engineered to be frictionless, easy, and compelling, it’s almost impossible to maintain enough willpower. What I found in Nietzsche was somebody who said that the no-saying approach to life is unlikely to work out well and that what we need are better joys, a compelling yes-saying approach to life that draws us forward.
Many of us are constantly consuming new information, from news to the newest must-watch streaming series and acclaimed podcasts. Why would Nietzsche caution us against this behavior?
Nietzsche was concerned that our lives are inundated with information. It tends to pile up around us, metaphorically, like a pile of garbage or cocoon that walls us in. In an early essay, Nietzsche notes that too much of his academic work was devoted to delving through old books and piling up mountains of facts when humans should be seeking information that’s conducive to living well. In today’s world of unlimited information, we’re drowning beneath a tidal wave of possibilities that give you no time to think or feel for yourself unless you expend the effort to curate carefully. Nietzsche calls on us to consume information slowly — to be selective in what we choose to read, listen to, and watch. He advises us to reread meaningful material so that it soaks into our lives and our minds and becomes wisdom.
I think “The Wire” is the best show of all time. Should I rewatch it even though I know the plot?
Nietzsche would think so. At one point, he said he only reread eight authors. This is obviously not true, but it gives you a sense of how constricted he thinks you should be. Look back into American history. Think of the number of people who, up until the 1900s, were shaped primarily by the Bible and Shakespeare, and how much this influenced American prose. It soaked into people’s lives until the phrasing and even the rhythm of that speech came out in how they talked and wrote and thought. In the same way, you can do this with digital works of any kind, including “The Wire,” if you want it to form you and your character.
But how can we avoid making overly narrow selections?
When you’re young, you need to be open to the world and open to trying new things. Since you haven’t had wide-enough experiences, there’s no way you can set yourself a set of texts, movies, or albums to guide the rest of your life. As you get older, you get a better sense of yourself and what ideas are out there.
Nietzsche argued that resentment is one of the greatest impediments to living a joyful life. Does technology tend to trigger it?
How many stories have all of us seen about viewing other people’s lives on social media — friends, ex-lovers, total strangers — and feeling jealousy, envy, and resentment at the good things that they appear to have? Most of us know this is often an illusion. But it’s still easy to feel that way. I think wallowing in those kinds of feelings and marinating in them, constantly having a fear of missing out and believing that life is always going on better somewhere else — these things are what Nietzsche would call elsewheres. He hated all elsewheres. The point of life, for him, was to be fully present in the present moment.
Nietzsche cautioned us against adopting belief systems that demean bodily activity and promise us a better life in another world, like heaven. Does this perspective apply to how we should view virtual reality and the so-called metaverse?
Nietzsche believed we are evolved creatures of the world, and he calls on us to kind of continue that evolutionary path through what he calls self-overcoming. He wanted to lead humanity into something new, creative, and exciting through our actions in the world. I think everyone will have to decide for themselves if they feel like time spent in virtual reality, when your physical body is often immobile, gets you to that place. People with physical limitations or disabilities, and people who are constrained by geographical limits and don’t have access to certain things, might find the experience creative and empowering — something that helps move their lives forward. But I think a lot of people would not find this true. Nietzsche was incredibly individualistic, and I think he’s probably right that it’s not possible to lay down rules that apply to everyone for these kinds of matters.
Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity. Follow him on Twitter @evanselinger.