Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for espousing a philosophy that may be a help in wrestling with existential angst and finding meaning in life.
My guest would say that Nietzsche’s philosophy may also be useful for figuring out something else: how to have a healthy relationship with modern technology. His name is Nate Anderson and he’s the author of In Emergency, Break Glass: What Nietzsche Can Teach Us About Joyful Living in a Tech-Saturated World. Today on the show, Nate, who’s a deputy editor at the website Ars Technica, shares how someone who grew up loving technology and has spent his career writing about it, reached a point where he felt disenchanted with its effects on his life, and why he turned to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche for insights on how to approach tech more fruitfully. We then turn to the way tech has made life too safe, easy, and frictionless, and how Nietzschean goals, asceticism, and creative, self-overcoming exertion can help us find deeper fulfillment. Nate unpacks four Nietzsche-inspired guidelines for information consumption, the importance of the physical body in thinking and feeling, and our need to embrace greater Dionysian energy and perhaps live a bit more dangerously.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Article: A Primer on Friedrich Nietzsche — His Life and Philosophical Style
- AoM Article: Say Yes to Life — An Accessible Primer on Nietzsche’s Big Ideas
- AoM Article: Nietzsche’s 66 Best Aphorisms
- AoM Podcast #480: Hiking With Nietzsche
- AoM Article: Solvitur Ambulando — It Is Solved By Walking
- AoM Podcast #215: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (With Matthew Crawford)
- AoM Podcast #796: The Life We’re Looking For
- Twilight Zone episode “A Nice Place to Visit”
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Hey, guys, before we get to the show, quick announcement: We are enrolling for the Strenuous Life right now. If you wanna sign up, head over to strenuouslife.co. The Strenuous Life is our online platform that helps you put into action all the things we’ve talked about on the AOM Podcast and written about on artofmanliness.com. We do that with badges, we have daily check-ins for physical activity, we write weekly challenges, they’re gonna push you outside of your comfort zone physically, mentally, socially. Check it out. Hope to see you there, strenuouslife.co.
Brett McKay here, and welcome to a new edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous for espousing a philosophy that may be help in wrestling with existential angst and finding meaning in life. My guest would say that Nietzsche’s philosophy may also be useful for figuring out something else: How to have a healthy relationship with modern technology. His name is Nate Anderson, and he’s the author of In Emergency, Break Glass: What Nietzsche Can Teach Us About Joyful Living in a Tech-Saturated World. Today on the show, Nate, who’s a deputy editor at the website Ars Technica, shares how someone who grew up loving technology and has spent his career writing about it reached a point where he felt disenchanted with its effect on his life and why he turned to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche for insights and how to approach tech more fruitfully. We then turn to the way tech has made a life too safe, easy, and frictionless, and how Nietzschean goals, asceticism, and creative self-overcoming exertion can help us find deeper fulfillment. Nate unpacks four Nietzsche-inspired guidelines for information consumption, the importance of the physical body and thinking and feeling, and our need to embrace greater Dionysian energy, and perhaps live a bit more dangerously. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/breakglass.
Nate Anderson, welcome to the show.
Nate Anderson: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you got a new book out called In Emergency, Break Glass: What Nietzsche Can Teach Us About Joyful Living in a Tech-Saturated World. I was saying earlier, before we get on, you combined two of my favorite things: The philosophy of Frederich Nietzsche and thinking about how our digital technology can be incorporated in our life in a meaningful way. You start out this book talking about, you reached a point in your life where technology, digital technology, seemed to become disenchanted. It felt like it was making your life small, which is interesting, ’cause you’ve made a career writing about digital technology. You’re deputy editor at Ars Technica, which is a digital news tech site. So, walk us through the process. How did a guy who has spent his life working with digital technology, writing about it, thinking about it, kind of be like, “Eh, I’m getting kind of tired of this.”
Nate Anderson: Yeah, the book comes from a place of real love for technology. When I was a kid, I’m from the generation where my first computers were magical but very difficult devices. I mean, we’re talking, you had to type in programs out of magazines if you wanted cool stuff to run. So, these devices were all about tinkering, about coding, so much learning and creativity required even to get your computer to do something. That, for me, was a really magical experience as a kid. As I grew up, as we got more digital technology in our lives, the smartphones and the internet came in, I felt a real shift that I think a lot of people have felt to where technology becomes about consumption and about interruption. If you think in your life, how much of your time with technology might be taken up by Netflix and Spotify, or how many times your train of thought is interrupted during the day by texts, emails, notifications, pings on some kind of device, that was a real shift from what I experienced as a kid. In the words of the techies, things got frictionless. That’s been a hot description of what people have been trying to do for years now, and they’ve largely succeeded. Unlike in the old days where everything was hard, things now are engineered to attract and addict.
And I think of it a bit like the difference between baking your own cookies versus buying them from the store. Cookies are never gonna be super healthy for you to consume in large quantities, but if you’ve gotta do the work of making a batch of cookies, making the dough, baking them for 20 minutes, you’re not likely to stuff your face with cookies all the time everyday. When you can just add them to your shopping cart, they’re pre-made, they’re right there, they’re ready to go, it’s much easier to engage in unhealthy behaviors. I feel like the same way about technology. As it became frictionless, as it became easier, as companies really began pushing consumption, as the tech itself began to interrupt our lives in a bid to lure our attention, then it became somewhat unhealthy, at least for me. So I just found that so much of my attention, which is to say my life, was going toward these devices, toward these glass screens. It was safe, it was easy, it was entertaining, but I guess it all felt somewhat motionless, and given that life itself is motion, things began to feel perhaps a bit lifeless.
Brett McKay: Okay, so you’re feeling lifeless thanks to the way digital technology has directed us towards more frictionless living. How did the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche end up as your guide on how to navigate this frictionless, tech-saturated world?
Nate Anderson: Yes, sort of an unusual choice there, but my path in college, I majored in philosophy and had a real love for that sort of thinking and reading and learning, and had really let that go for quite a while. But in my bid to sort of remedy some of these problems, I’d turn back to some of that, and Nietzsche was one of those figures who you always hear about. You hear about him today. He’s the most meme-able of the philosophers. He’s a great quote machine. And so I went to his work because I’d never studied it much, and what I found there was someone who was not advocating for life that was either safe or easy. He was passionate about finding or creating meaning in life, about striving in and against reality, not becoming detached from the world or experiencing at a remove through screens and lenses, but about struggling to do new and creative things in yourself and in the world.
So, his work hit me hard, in part because it was so readable compared to every other German philosopher I’ve ever read, and I just read all of it. And it occurred to me, as I was working through all this material, that Nietzsche was a good pairing with this tech world where I’ve been working and thinking in. It’s a world where everyone says they want to change the world. That’s the common mantra for everyone who founds a start-up company these days, but I looked around, saw that many of them seemed more interested in an IPO or selling advertising. This wasn’t exactly the change-the-world creative struggle that I was looking for and that Nietzsche talked about. So, I thought they’re interesting to put Nietzsche’s voice into this conversation with the tech world. But I guess I do want to be clear that I don’t take Nietzsche as my guide. I think anybody who knows enough about Nietzsche knows that he had some pretty controversial opinions and ways of expressing himself that, in some cases, are unhelpful, and I look at him more as someone to think with, rather than someone to follow or to become a disciple of.
Brett McKay: Well, and he would actually agree with you on that approach. He never wanted disciples; he wanted fellow thinkers with him.
Nate Anderson: He did, right, right. I’ve got a great quote here from him that was in his autobiography. He says, “I’m no man, I’m dynamite, I want no believers. I never speak to the masses, I have a terrible fear that one day I will be pronounced holy. I do not want to be a holy man.” And I think that’s right, and he really tells people to take what he’s saying, but to apply it to their own lives in their own ways, and not to make him their guru.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about Nietzsche’s idea of the good life. I think you hit on it a little bit. The idea of the good life that he had was striving, having a goal, living with passion, not a life of ease, right? He believed in the kind of strenuous life. Things should be hard, that’s where you find meaning. How does Nietzsche’s idea of a flourishing life differ from the flourishing life that our digital technology offers?
Nate Anderson: Right, so I think you put your finger on it, that it’s about struggle and creative exertion. I don’t think that has to mean for Nietzsche that life is miserable, or that we’re always struggling in the sense of being at war, but we’re striving to do creative and interesting things in ourselves and in the worlds around us to overcome our human limitations and press forward. That’s what he’s talking about. He refers to this as being the Übermensch, the overperson, the person who transcends our humanity or tries to push the boundaries of it forward. That’s what he respected in life, that’s what he tried to do. And what he said in contrast was that we just don’t want a life where the goal is comfort, ease, and safety. And I think some of this comes out of his own personal biography. He was very ill all of his life, he gave up his tenured professorship as a fairly young man, and wandered around Europe with very little money until he went insane. So, he did not have a comfortable, easy, or safe life, and I think he looked at people who did and who seemed to value only that, and he looked at himself, and he said, “This is not an option for me. And if this is what life is about, I’ve already lost.”
And so he set about looking for different ways to think about it. He calls this in one place, living that way to try to be comfortable, safe, and easy, he calls living the life of the last man. Not really because it ends the human race in a physical sense, because ease, safety, and comfort tend to keep life going because you’re safe, but because in a sort of spiritual, moral sense, it’s kind of the end of human striving, effort, and ambition, that we’ve given up on trying to be more than we could be. So, that’s what Nietzsche calls for, is the good life, is this goal of struggling forward. And he has this amazing quote, that’s what he means by that. So he says, “The secret for harvesting from existence, the greatest fruitfulness, and the greatest enjoyment is to live dangerously. Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius. Send your ships into uncharted seas. Live at war with your peers and yourselves. Be robbers and conquerors as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors, you seekers of knowledge.” So, it’s important to note that he is talking to seekers of knowledge. He’s not calling for people to be jerks or warmongers, but this is the sort of vision of life that he has is the good life.
Brett McKay: And I love a… I think what our digital technology does with this, it encourages this frictionless, easy consumption. I think the type of person that it creates, like that last man that Nietzsche describes, it perfectly encapsulates that. There’s a Nietzsche scholar, Robert Solomon, who described the last man as the ultimate couch potato. And I love the quote about the last man and their ethos towards why. This is from Nietzsche. This is from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It says, “‘We discovered happiness,’ say the last man, and blink.” So I just love that idea like they just blink. It’s just sort like they’re not really thinking, they’re just kind of just there existing, they think they’ve got happiness and their comfort, but actually they don’t.
Nate Anderson: Yeah, I think if you’re talking about digital technology and if you just look at a physical sense of what it can do to us, there are lots of things it can do, and does do, in people’s lives. But at least in my life, I looked around and found that it was leading me to spend a lot of time sitting on the couch or sitting on a chair or looking at a screen. And that seemed a very limited range of things to do with my life, with my time, with my attention, and yet so much of it was going into those postures. And that was kind of, for me, a sign that what Nietzsche is saying about being the ultimate couch potato, like, this works, you can live, you can enjoy yourself. It’s fairly undemanding, but there’s a hollowness to it. And it just felt like the digital technology I was immersed in, at least I was not using it in ways that were helping me serve life, grow, move forward. And so Nietzsche helped me find new ways of thinking about what I would want from my technology.
Brett McKay: So, Nietzsche is an existentialist, and existentialists are all about finding meaning in life. And the problem that Nietzsche was grappling with is he saw and he described that in modern life, we killed meaning that was given to us by God. So people before modernity ordered their life around this idea that there is God and God provided meaning. Nietzsche said in the 19th century, we killed God with science and whatever, and he said, “This is terrible.” Actually, that whole thing, “God is dead,” Nietzsche thought that was actually a bad thing, because it means people no longer have a meaning in life. And so he said, “Okay. If we can’t look to religion to provide us meaning, we have to create our own meaning.” So Nietzsche is all about goals, but it was a certain type of goal that Nietzsche had in mind for life. What made a goal Nietzschean?
Nate Anderson: So like you said, it’s all about meaning. And there are some people who think of Nietzsche and brand him with the name of an nihilist, someone who just wants to tear everything down, there’s no point to existence. I think that’s a radical misreading of Nietzsche. His entire existence was about trying to find meaning in a world where he felt like it had collapsed. And that’s what he struggled for his entire life. So like you said, for him, he found it in self-created goals. He has a great quote where he says, “If we possess our why of life, we can put up with almost any how.” And I think you can see that in the life of every sort of revolutionary who’s ever lived. You can see it in many artists, you can see it in all sorts of people, including religious people. The goal and happiness is not always attained by being safe, easy, and comfortable on the couch. It’s often gained through struggle, through difficulty, through living in reduced physical circumstances, but with a goal of doing something that you love or that you think will really change the world. So Nietzsche is really in that tradition. And when he says, “We need a why of life,” these kind of goals he’s talking about are the sorts of things we’ve been discussing. He sees them as creative, self-overcoming goals that move us forward.
And what do we mean by self-overcoming? If you think of an artist who paints a style of picture and it becomes very popular, but most good artists are not content with doing that their entire career. The people who do stop and just keep churning out this thing that’s popular and they keep selling over and over with very little variation, we don’t always look kindly on that trajectory once they’re gone. We say maybe they didn’t really have the courage or the interest in kind of moving beyond that. But great artists are always changing and evolving and growing and trying to do something new they haven’t done before. That’s what Nietzsche’s talking about, applying that attitude toward our own lives. And it does not mean that everyone’s trying to be a revolutionary who changes the world in some kind of massive, big-picture historical sense. Nietzsche himself didn’t try to do anything like that. But he sought the truth, he sought new ways of writing and thinking, and he was always pushing beyond in style and content from what he had done before.
I think that’s the sort of thing he’s calling people to. In your own domain, in your own area of life, don’t settle for doing the same thing over and over, for coming home at the end of a work day where you’re working for somebody else and you’re just reduced to tiredness, and you have no bigger-picture things that you struggle for, there’s nothing left that you create or that you strive for. So that’s what he’s calling people to. And if people can find that for themselves, the thing that really animates, and that’s the why of their life, and then they could put up with all sorts of different hows in terms of how they live and the circumstances in which they live.
Brett McKay: Do you think our frictionless digital world offers substitutes for Nietzschean goals? Like kinda distract us from actually going after those type of goals?
Nate Anderson: I think it can, but I’m not a total pessimist. I think technology can serve these kinds of creative goals. As a writer myself, I found that digital technology has made, has been hugely productive for me in terms of writing. And I may need to spend more time in front of a screen in order to do creative and interesting things that I want to do. But I think it is too easy because of the engineering that goes into these things that are so designed to capture our attention and usually then to monetize it, that there is often a danger that digital technology today will try and do that to your life and that you’ll end up giving it more of your attention than it deserves. So it doesn’t have to be that way, nobody’s making you sign up for Facebook or play addictive mobile games or leave all your notifications on so you’re constantly being pinged by text message alarms. We’ve collaborated in allowing that to happen. The technology itself can go in lots of different ways, as long as we’re mindful about it and take charge of it, instead of letting it take charge of us.
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And now back to the show.
And so, one thing you talk about in the book is that figuring out what your Nietzschean goals are gonna be, these existential goals that are gonna give you meaning in life. It requires you to listen to your inner voice, but as you make the case, the flood of information that we encounter from our digital devices can drown out that inner voice. Nietzsche, you look to Nietzsche for this, he might have some ideas. Nietzsche wasn’t a fan of asceticism, he thought that was too extreme. He didn’t like people who just fasted and wore sack cloths. He thought that was life-negating, right? They were denying life. But you argue there’s a type of Nietzschean asceticism that can be useful in managing information overload. What does that look like?
Nate Anderson: Right, so he’s against these sort of ascetic attitudes when he feels like they’re saying no to life, when you’re actually trying to limit yourself in the world, you’re trying to limit your intake of food, et cetera, but just for the purpose of saying that “Life itself is bad and I wanna come as close to death as I can.” If that’s the attitude, Nietzsche wants nothing to do with it. But there’s another kind of restriction and asceticism that he’s forced to admit is actually a very good thing, and in fact is required to live. It’s the sort of restriction, the limits, the asceticism that actually serves life and says yes to life. So, he’s got a great quote where he says, “Noise murders thought.” And I found that to be true in my life. And so, he advocates for learning to say no to many things, including information. As somebody who was himself a professor, he felt that information overload that we experience now, in a similar way, he talks about how overwhelmed he felt by history, by books, by libraries, by all that was before him, and this was 130, 140 years ago. So I think things have only gotten worse for us. And what he saw was only an infinite lifespan could truly say yes to everything that’s out there, could embrace every book, could watch every movie on Netflix, could read every text message that comes in.
We don’t have an infinite lifespan, so we can say a no, we can create a boundary line in our existence to rule things out, in order to say yes to life lived more fully, in order not to be overwhelmed by this information that just piles up all around us. So Nietzsche talks about this in terms of… Nutrition is a metaphor he comes back to and in the book, I call this a slow information diet. So he talks about our need to do four things. First, slow down our acquisition of information. Read more slowly, watch more carefully, listen more carefully, in order to pay attention to what’s being said or played or performed. And the second thing is to really ruminate on information, re-read, re-watch, re-listen, let things sink in, digest them, focus on them, in order to turn things into wisdom within our minds and our bodies. Always moving onto something novel may prevent that. The third thing is stop information intake completely at certain times in order to create space for our own thoughts to digest this kind of material, to think about our own way forward. And the fourth thing is maybe we actually need to forget some information so that it doesn’t build up around us like garbage, so that we can clear a mental path through these things that don’t serve us in life.
This is not the promise, I think it’s fair to say, of digital technology, which is basically become archive everything, keep all information, never forget, make it easily accessible to anyone, any time, anywhere. And Nietzsche might say, “Well, that’s great, but at least we as humans have to draw real boundaries around how much of that we’re going to spend our lives working with, consuming, listening to,” because if we don’t, it creates anxiety, it prevents us from thinking, it prevents us from hearing our own voice. And so digital technology has got a real role to play in that, and we need to manage information just like we do food: Too much and too little might both kill us.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, it’s an upstream battle, because digital technology, the way the media, digital media, is organized is that it encourages fast reading and skimming. In fact, you’re seeing this trend, and I think Axios, the website, they’re sort of standardizing this very skimmable reading format now where it’s just like bullet points. And you’re seeing other websites adopt this format. The digital technology, the algorithms put a premium on novelty, you only see new stuff typically, you never see stuff gets percolated from the archives from 10 years ago. So you have to actually intentionally decide, “You know what? I am going to read slowly. I’m not gonna skim. I’m going to not just focus on the new stuff, but really focus on the stuff that’s old, that has stood the test of time.” You have to decide, “I’m gonna be intentional about that.”
Nate Anderson: Yeah, intentionality is at the core of all this, because if you’re not intentional, the people who create all these digital systems, they were intentional and they have a goal, and it’s to capture your attention, usually through novelty, outrage, things that sort of excite interest and attention. That may not… A steady diet of that where that’s mostly what you consume, I think it’s pretty clear by now that that is not good for us. So, without intentionality, you give yourself over to that.
Brett McKay: So, one thing, a takeaway from that. Read slowly, go ahead and read those long-form articles. Take your time with it, read an entire book. And then I like the idea that Nietzsche had, like have a library, that’s like four or five books. Think about it, if there was the apocalypse and I can only keep four books with me, what would those four books be? And then just read those over and over again, throughout your life, and just chew on it. I like… You ruminate, like you’re a cow chewing on its cud over and over again.
Nate Anderson: Right. So, this is sort of the desert island book scenario. And yeah, Nietzsche loved this. He said at one point, he only had eight authors that he read over and over again, which was clearly not true, but in his hyperbolic fashion, indicates what he’s getting at, that if there are books or authors or albums or movies that have been profoundly meaningful to you and yet you don’t really go back to them as much as you’d really like to because you’re always in search of the new, I think maybe something’s being lost there, and that maybe we’d gain more by spending more time returning to the things that really have this kind of shaping quality on our lives and really incorporating them into the way we think and see the world and talk. And so, that’s what Nietzsche’s talking about there.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about Nietzsche’s idea of the role of the physical body in a flourishing life. With a lot of philosophers, it’s all in their head, but Nietzsche said that was the wrong way to look at a flourishing life. What role did the body play in Nietzsche’s idea of a flourishing, happy life?
Nate Anderson: It’s interesting that Nietzsche focuses so much on the physical and on the body and the importance of it, given how ill he was much of his life. And in fact, maybe that’s the reason for it, that health, life, motion seem more precious to someone who was often ill and on his bed. So Nietzsche’s big thing is that the body really matters. It doesn’t just matter as a way to move the mind around. The body’s not the robot, and the brain is like the controller. Everything is integrated. Nietzsche thinks that we think through the body and the emotions, not just with our reasoning, logical mind. And in fact, he says several times that the body, the emotions, these kind of… The passions, the things that are not always logical and rational, might be more important to thinking, and here, he means, broadly, processing the world around us, than those pure, reasoning, logical minds.
He’s got this great quote in Twilight of the Idols where he says, “The only ideas won by walking have any value.” And that was something that he lived out in his life. He wrote many of his books while going on long walks around Switzerland and Italy with small note cards in which he’d jot down aphorisms and thoughts. He found that was an immense stimulus to thought, and that sitting in a room, sitting in front of a typewriter or with a page in front of you and just trying to come up with a book out of your mind, just trying to think without being mobile, without involving the body, didn’t work for him. And I think that’s borne out today by psychology that we’re seeing, that recognizes that there’s much more to us than this kind of logical, reasoning faculty.
Brett McKay: And how does our digital technology separate us from our bodies?
Nate Anderson: Well, we just talked about the posture thing, and I keep coming back to that, because I think of the stereotypical… What is somebody with a screen doing? They’re often sitting on a couch, sitting on a chair, or they might be walking down the sidewalk, but with their head down. So, you’re in very constricted positions. You’re not out and embracing, and even looking at, the world. You’re perceiving reality increasingly through sheets of glass of different sizes, whether they’re phones, tablets, TVs. That’s a hugely different experience of life. It’s a much more controlled experience of life. We can control online exactly where we go, who we interact with. We can close apps. We can delete emails. We can block people on Twitter. But the world itself is just not quite that pliable, and many times, that can be frustrating, but it’s also the source of many of the most interesting things that happen to us. It’s the source of many of the most serendipitous things that happen to us, things that we didn’t expect, that we encounter in a world we don’t fully control. And so, Nietzsche is huge on using the body, thinking with the body, not just treating it as a lesser adjunct to the mind, that both matter, and the kind of technology that would stress one against the other is perhaps not being fully healthy.
So, if there’s a way for us to use our technology in ways that encourage the use of the body and the mind together, that’s terrific. But if we find that our technology is pushing us onto the couch and we’re spending 18 hours a day staring at a screen of some kind, we might start to suspect there’s a problem here.
Brett McKay: Yeah, there’s a writer that you quote frequently in the book, and it’s… We’ve had him on the podcast before, Matthew Crawford.
Nate Anderson: Yeah.
Brett McKay: He’s written and thought a lot about this. And I love his idea that… His idea of embodied cognition. The way you can really know something is through the body. It’s not just the mind; it has to be through the body. And he really hits home this idea that one way that we gain knowledge about something, but also about ourselves, the way we know that we are self, is when we bump up against other selves or other things that are not us. And I feel like oftentimes online, there isn’t that boundary, that hard boundary. And so, sometimes you’re gonna get sort of lost in this weird digital mass, and you feel like you know or you’re learning something, but you really aren’t, because you’re not bumping up against that friction, in a physical way, sometimes.
Nate Anderson: Yes. The online… If you live your life almost completely online, it can be a good experience socially. I’ve worked online for many years. I know many of my colleagues very well. We interact digitally quite a bit. But in many cases, it leads to a certain kind of solipsism, where you’re in control, you’re gazing at yourself and the things you’ve chosen to look at. And being in the real world, being with real other people physically, just makes that more difficult, in ways that are frustrating, but like you said, in ways that can be really, really fruitful for our development as humans. If we think about… Embodied cognition can tell us that doing physical things over and over is a way to learn about the world in a really different way, than just kind of mental, in a way of just typing words on screens. So, I play guitar. That requires hundreds of hours of practice. But it’s a very, very finely tuned physical discipline of having your fingers know exactly where this fret is, landing on it, at exactly the right time, that you have to rehearse millions of times. It’s that friction against the world, against getting it wrong, refining your results, that ultimately train you in these kinds of skills. You cannot do some of these things simply by using a mouse, a screen, a cellphone. There are just limits to the type of thing that you will experience.
Brett McKay: So Nietzsche had this idea of the Dionysian. And this comes from the god, Dionysus, the wine god, Bacchus. And it was all about chaos and chance, and risk and everything. And I think we’ve made the… That our digital technology can eradicate the Dionysian, because you have control over it. Right? You can completely control how you present yourself online, who you interact with. So, how do you think we can welcome the Dionysian back in our tech-infused lives?
Nate Anderson: Yeah. So this comes from Nietzsche’s early book, The Birth of Tragedy, in which he talks about these two Greek gods, Apollo, sun god, who Nietzsche associates with order, reason, rationality, structure, control, and a certain kind of controlled detachment from the world, that creates and shapes, but maybe doesn’t lose itself in the moment. The Dionysian, coming from Dionysus, the god of wine, is in the moment. It’s almost orgiastic, it’s physical, it’s passionate, it’s sensual, it’s… Today, we might use the word “mindful.” It’s not trapped thinking about the past and the future. It is in the present and experiencing the world now. So, Nietzsche doesn’t say that we all need to become Dionysian. What he says is that our culture has become too Appolonian, that we are too in love with control, Order, reason, structure, detachment, and that we need this kind of balance. And I think when you pair this up with what technology promises us, it’s usually much more Appolonian. Not exclusively, but when you think about the promises of technology to give you more control over your smart home, over your health, over your life, over the map, you will have always with you, so you will never get lost, everything about the world that was kind of wild and unconstrained, and sometimes very difficult, becomes much more ordered, controlled, rational.
So, how do we seek out this less controlled thing? I’m not sure we can always do it with and in our technology. I think what our technology is telling us, as we pay attention to this dynamic, is that we may need to seek these sort of Dionysian things outside of the technological world. And that’s where this returned to the physical, to walking, like Nietzsche did, playing a musical instrument, board gaming, going to religious services, going to rock concerts, going to yoga classes, these are the sorts of things that immerse us in present, physical experiences. They get us out of our minds, which often lean to the past and the future. They keep us in the present, and they give us a moment and an experience, and something physical and tangible. So, if you can experience that using your physical devices as aides, more power to you. But I think they often push us to the kind of life where we feel most comfortable when we’re fully in control. And we’re often… In that controlled state we’re often thinking about things we did in the past or worrying about things we’re gonna do in the future. And Nietzsche calls us to break out of that.
Brett McKay: I feel like we think we want to control everything, but once we get it, we actually realize this doesn’t actually make us happy. And it made me think… I think it was a Twilight Zone episode that really captured this.
It’s the one, A Nice Place to Visit, where the gambler dies, and he goes to what he thinks is heaven. And he’s winning every craps game he plays, roulette. He’s got all these nice clothes. First, he thinks, “This is great.” Then after a while, he’s like, “This stinks.” And then, he realizes he’s not in heaven, he’s in hell. And that he’ll have to do this… He’ll just have to a win every… His life is gonna be great forever, and it made him miserable. But it was funny, he’s like, he asked like… Well… Or his guide was like, “Well, we can make you lose sometimes if you want, if that’ll make you happy.” And he’s like, “No! I know that I’d be losing on purpose. You guys would be in control of that, so it’s not the same.” And I’ve heard this discussion about control and lack of control being discussed with the metaverse. There’s ideas like, well, if we wanna make it fun, we have to make it unpredictable and make it feel like people don’t have control. But it’s like, “Wait, well, if people know you are injecting chaos on purpose, then it’s not the same.” Philosophically, it doesn’t have that same effect of knowing that it’s completely random and out of your hands, ’cause you know that someone is actually controlling the uncontrollability. Does that make sense?
Nate Anderson: Yeah, it’s just a different layer of control.
Brett McKay: Right.
Nate Anderson: Right. And then it gets to the question of, do we ultimately want that kind of control? That’s what technology has always promised us. We control over the weather, bridges give us control over crossing rivers, on and on. Technology always helps us control these forces that have dominated human life for millennia. But it does seem like we’re coming to a place where we are in such control of our lives that sometimes we look around and say, “Maybe I don’t actually know what the best thing is from… ” And this is where testing yourself against the world and striving in it, in all its unpredictability and sometimes frustration and sometimes futility, may ultimately be more rewarding than having the kind of lifestyle where you’re talking about where someone is just totally in control of everything they do. The unpredictability has been sanded off. Life is very safe, it’s very easy, but it’s also fairly predictable. I’m not sure I wanna live in a world in which I know and control everything that’s gonna happen to me.
Brett McKay: No, I don’t, either. I don’t, either. And I think we said throughout this conversation, you’re not against technology. I wouldn’t say Nietzsche was against technology. In fact, he used one of the first typewriters ever invented, it was like this ball thing with keys on top of the ball, it was really weird. And he actually noted that the typewriter changed his writing style, it made it a little more punchy, which I think is interesting. So how do we figure out what role tech will have in our life without turning us into the sort of blinking, potato head, last men?
Nate Anderson: Right. Well, I don’t think we can go back, and I’m not… I’m certainly not calling for us to go back. I don’t see very many people who are, even as they’re identifying these problems. Nietzsche himself, has a great quote where he says, “We are faltering, but we must not let it make us afraid and perhaps surrender the new things we’ve gained. Moreover, we cannot return to the old. We’ve burned our boats. All that remains for us is to be brave, let happen what may. Let us only go forward.” And I think that’s the situation we’re in. I wouldn’t give up the very useful, ease, control, comfort that technology has brought to human life. You have only to look at places in the world that completely lack those things and desire them greatly to think the goal here is not getting rid of all that, but it is to find a way to move forward that works with human life, that’s helping us serve life. I think Nietzsche’s answer to that is going back to those Nietzschean goals that help us find and create meaning, that help us advance the frontiers of what it means to be human, even in small ways, in our own lives, in our own communities. This cannot mean that everybody is the world’s greatest artist or a great statesperson or whatever. These can be very small things, but what’s always involved is forward movement.
And I think if we look at our lives and we say, is technology serving as a distraction, as a time-filler, as a source of information overload, as something that keeps us apart from the physical world, then insofar as it does that, there are problems. But we can also say, is it or could it be an enabler of creative struggle, of self-overcoming, of connection with the world, of enforcing the limits that actually help us to live? And I think it can be. There are ways to do that with technology, but they require intention. And this is why I don’t think… Some of the discussions around these issues, I think, are a little simplistic in what you end up with, or what I call in the book, tech tips. Things like just put your phone in a basket when you come in the room, or only two hours of screen time per day. And these kind of tips are often divorced from thinking about, what do I really need out of life and what’s the best way to get there? Because I think there are situations in which you need more technology to do certain things.
So I think if we keep the goals in mind, that when we have time and space to reflect on our lives, we think, “This feels meaningful to me, and I’m gonna take a shot at it, and then I’m gonna see what the next step is from there,” that’s gonna be better for us than retreating from that difficult responsibility and letting these tech companies and their services overwhelm our attention, take it captive, fill it, and eventually we find that our lives have been reduced to touching or watching screens of glass. And I think we’re gonna find that that’s not ultimately the best thing for us or for the world.
Brett McKay: For me, the heuristic is, it’s not a tip, but it’s sort of a guiding principle, when I know I have a healthy relationship with the technology is if it encourages me to be creative, to get out in the real world and do things. I think it’s great if people watch YouTube, they watch some guy building, I don’t know, doing survival skills on YouTube.
Nate Anderson: Yeah.
Brett McKay: It doesn’t just stop there, but they actually go out and start trying to do that stuff themselves. I think that’s a great example of technology being life-affirming and encouraging creativity. The same goes for different digital communication apps, whether it’s Facebook or Discord or whatever you wanna use, I feel like as long as it encourages people to get together and do the stuff, do things in person, then that’s healthy. I think that can be a really great way to incorporate technology in your life.
Right. And for as much as we hear negatively about sites like YouTube and the way that the algorithms might push people toward extremist content, et cetera, I agree 100% with what you said. YouTube is one of the best sites out there for learning new physical skills. I’ve used it to do all sorts of things involving construction. I learned how to fix bike brakes for my kids’ bikes. I have learned a bajillion things from YouTube that would be very hard to demonstrate just through a book and have pushed me back into the physical world with new skills that were very satisfying to use and execute, and that seeing somebody do them was hugely beneficial for. So, I absolutely agree that if we take control as much as we can of this technology, if we’re mindful about what we’re trying to do, these things can be powerful enablers of the kinds of things we’ve been talking about, and that it’s… Moving forward in this way is not necessarily some kind of total retreat from technology.
Well, Nate, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go and learn more about the book and your work?
Nate Anderson: So I work for Ars Technica, we’re a Condé Nast publication that writes about science and technology, so they can see my work there. Or the book is called, In Emergency, Break Glass, and you can get it at any fine book seller.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Nate Anderson, thanks for time. It’s been a pleasure.
Nate Anderson: Thanks so much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Nate Anderson. He’s the author of the book, In Emergency, Break Glass: What Nietzsche Can Teach Us About Joyful Living In A Tech-Saturated World. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show nots at aom.is/breakglass where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
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