Nietzsche foresaw how technology can make us miserable — and has a prescription to correct that

If you’ve read the sullen German philosopher, you might not believe that Nietzsche would have wanted you to be happy. But author Nate Anderson has done what few of us who only know the phrase “God is dead” have, and actually read the man’s corpus. And he has a hopeful message from the the German philosopher that might actually save you from some of your doomscrolling habit.

“In Emergency, Break Glass: What Nietzsche Can Teach Us About Joyful Living in a Tech-Saturated World” is a book rooted in real world experience. As the author of “The Internet Police” writes, he had reached a point in his life where “I had tap-clicked my way into a lifestyle of comfort, abundance, and immobility” — and found it intolerable. Enter an unlikely inspiration.

With a clear grasp of an often admittedly “tough sell” philosopher, Anderson isn’t advocating for a lifestyle of deprivation. Instead, he illuminates what he learned when he began exploring some of Nietzsche’s ideas about the power of turning away from tech at times, and the pleasure of “being able to say yes to something in life.” Salon spoke to Anderson via Zoom recently about what we can learn about life and pleasure from a man who never even had a YouTube channel. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Before you can even make the case for Nietzsche, you need to tell us who Nietzsche was. Why should we care about Nietzsche?

I’d want to start by saying, I’m not sure we need to use Nietzsche. He is going to be a tough sell for many people. He said some things that I think, especially in the modern world, don’t work for people, although he’s notoriously difficult to interpret. I want to be clear that this is not necessarily a requirement, that everybody bone up on Nietzsche.

But if you are looking for a thinker who comes at some of these modern digital issues in a really different way from a lot of the people who are speaking about this stuff today, who calls you to a different vision of life that then you can really back up from and say, “Is my technology use serving that vision of life?” Nietzsche can do that for you. If you’re in need of that, if you’re in need of something new, different, iconoclastic, he’s worth looking at. I don’t consider him my guru, I’m not a disciple of Nietzsche, but he’s someone to think with. I found him really powerful and profound, when he was not being hateful or simply irritating. It’s hard to find people who are unbelievably profound and different.

His insight was that you need to be able to say “yes” to something in life. You need a goal. You need something that lures you forward, rather than just saying “no” to something you dislike. 

There’s a lot of tech tips out there. If that stuff works for you, great. But if you need something that goes deeper, you’re probably going to come up against somebody who says some things that make you uncomfortable. It’s very difficult to find someone who will only say things that make you uncomfortable in a really good way.

Nietzsche is one of those figures who you have to exert your own judgment on and you have to engage with. You cannot simply read him and try to follow along with the program. You have to engage your brain as well.

If you start with the “Why?”, then the “How?” can follow. As you say, you can put your tech in a wicker basket without really getting at the, “What do I really want?” Because it’s not just, “I want to spend less time on my phone.”

Right. That is a purely negative goal, “I want to spend less time on my phone.” Modern psychology has really borne this out, but Nietzsche recognized that we are not going to stand up very long against the forces within us. There’s something in you that wants these things. Nietzsche realized that you’re not going to stand up against those internal forces by simply saying no. What’s going to wear you down? Hunger. Lack of sleep. All the things that reduce our levels of control.

His insight was that you need to be able to say “yes” to something in life. You need a goal. You need something that lures you forward, rather than just saying “no” to something you dislike. Nietzsche doesn’t have a reputation as a positive thinker, but if you read him carefully, it’s all a search for a positive philosophy that draws you forward into life, rather than just renouncing aspects of life.

Nietzsche looked around at a world that was increasingly technological. He looked at this and he saw it as providing ease, safety, and entertainment for people. He questioned whether that was really enough to make life feel worth living. He really calls people to look beyond that.

To bring it back to the tech question, if you’re just saying, “I need to spend less time on social media,” and if that works for you, great. But if you find, like I do, that your resistance gets worn down pretty quickly if all you’re doing is saying no. You need to find some kind of value in replacing that social media time, something I can do with the extra space in my life leads me forward into something more creative or profound or deeper. If you don’t have that, it’s going to be difficult just to stick with the no.

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All of us who have one of these glowing bricks in our lives feel its siren call all the time. It is designed to be addictive. How do we begin to work within a reframing? You talk about the search for value.

The tricky thing about Nietzsche is that he won’t give you an answer to that question. He will talk about a method. He will say that there are as many answers as there are people and that it’s an individual decision that you need to come to about your own life. Nietzsche will not give you an answer like, “This is what life is about. This is how you should live.” What he’s saying is, you need some kind of creative struggle in life toward a positive goal, and that’s going to vary for you. How do you get there? I think you start with that sense of dissatisfaction that you just identified. If you feel that, it’s telling you that something’s wrong.

Nietzsche looked around at a world that was increasingly technological. Obviously, no smartphones, but the industrial revolution had really taken hold. Factory work was becoming common. He looked at this and he saw it as providing ease, safety, and entertainment for people. He questioned whether that was really enough to make life feel worth living. He really calls people to look beyond that. If you feel a dissatisfaction with those values that technology often provides for us, that sense of control over life, and you want something maybe a little wilder, a little less controlled, he calls you to find the kind of goals that require creative exertion and struggle.

Those things, for him, are big. It is a philosophy of discomfort in a way, but it’s the joyful struggle. Not like he wants life to be really hard in the worst sense of that term, that is not what he’s against. He’s against when these things in your life become anesthetic, that keep you from engaging with reality in its complexity and its difficulty and in trying to make it a better place and trying to make humanity better than it was before you came along.

You lay out the idea of the herd values, which feels very where we are every day. There is a satisfaction and an encouragement and enticement to go along with those values. Tell me what those are, and what does it mean to challenge ourselves against them?

This is where Nietzsche can become a bit unpleasant because some of his discussion of herd values sounds extremely elitist. That if you ever do anything that’s popular, or that the community of which you’re a part of endorses, that you’re somehow giving in.

Nietzsche is a guy who’s like, “Oh, you’re a fan? Name five of their albums.”

He was a hipster before hipsters, in a way. I don’t think Nietzsche’s philosophy takes us necessarily to all the places we need to go. He couldn’t see the importance of community and friendship. He skews too much toward isolation, in part because of his own biography, his own pain, his own difficulty in relationships. If you can keep that in mind, you can hear his critique about herd mentality in a way that’s useful, not letting your life be just carried away by the values prescribed to you by other people or other forces.

Our phones, the apps on them, websites we visit, they’re all built specifically to capture our attention and to hold it. That’s not an accident. It’s not just something that happened. It is engineered. If you don’t have your own goals and your own values, your chance of not being swept away by that is almost nothing. Those are the kind of herd values that he was really resistant to. Nietzsche calls for people to become the Ubermensch, his famous term. The person who always transcends the limits of what was in place before in their lives, what it meant to be human. So it’s always a self overcoming.

It’s like the artist who makes a beautiful picture, but is not content then to churn out schlocky copies of that for tourists for the next forty years. Or a band who goes in a new direction after a great album, and the fans are like, “Well, we liked the old stuff.” Nietzsche saw why you can’t do that. You turn into a backward looking tourist act, in a way.That’s why you see so many artists always feeling the need to move forward. That’s what Nietzsche’s calling people to. In all aspects of their lives, not just if you’re an artist or something, but other ways in which you can always overcome the limits that you had before. To him, that’s human progress.

I see our collective thinking lately about embracing embodiment. We are not just gray matter, walking around on a stick. You talk so much in the book about just moving around. That feels like a very, very basic philosophical concept that we can very easily lose.

You mention the focus on embodiment is coming to the fore again. We’ve seen that technology so often reduces us, even in physical posture, to sitting in a chair, sitting on a couch, lying in the bed with a laptop. It seems to restrict our range of motion. Not all technologies, but certainly smartphones and laptops seem to have this effect on people. Nietzsche was so strongly against this. He did most of his thinking when he was out walking around. He found that the way you move and the way you move through the world and against the world, the way you test yourself against it, was part of the way that you think. Thinking is not just a reasoning, logical, rational process.

“In my own experience, I’ve been through something similar. I was in a graduate program in English trying to get a PhD, and found myself reading almost a book a day. Fast forward ten or fifteen years, well into the smartphone era, and I found I was still reading a lot, but it was Twitter. It was webpages. It was fragmented.”

He was an early forbearer of what today we might call embodied cognition, that the movement of the body, our activities in the world are part of the ways we think. We learn things about gravity by falling out of a tree, right? They’re embodied. They’re not just things we learned in textbooks or from formulas. Nietzsche was big on that. You’re right that that’s coming back to the fore today, although I think there’s also a strong countercurrent. Think of Meta’s whole shift to the metaverse, or this stuff about the singularity that you see coming out of Silicon Valley, as technologies move to the brain and human consciousness as divorced from the world. We can recreate the world in virtual reality So while there is a lot more talk these days about embodiment, I think you still see both streams..

Who you are is in your gut and in your skin and in your experiences. But that’s hard to push against because it does ask for a degree of discomfort and challenge. One of the ways that one might start, for anyone who’s done cognitive behavioral therapy, would be distress tolerance. Getting to just five of attention and what that might feel like, if we are so inclined.

I can speak personally. Let me back up and just say a word about Nietzsche for people who may not know this much about him. He gained a chair at the University of Basel as a very young student, before he even completed a PhD. He was a wunderkind. He went down there and became horrifically disenchanted with the academic life in the late 19th century. He became terribly ill too, to the point that he eventually renounced his job and spent ten years of his life wandering around Europe on a very small pension until he went insane. So he discovered that all this time spent among books in the libraries, among all these voices that were speaking into his brain, was really, really profoundly unfulfilling for him. I talked a lot about that in the book, about how he dealt with information and his rules for dealing with it, which was largely to restrict it. Now, that’s difficult.

In my own experience, I’ve been through something similar. I was in a graduate program in English trying to get a PhD, and found myself reading almost a book a day. Fast forward ten or fifteen years, well into the smartphone era, and I found I was still reading a lot, but it was Twitter. It was webpages. It was fragmented. It was links. The word count may have been the same, but the effect on me was very different. It felt like my own attention was difficult to control anymore. The process of reclaiming that was a long and slow one and was uncomfortable. But it did start with, for me, it was important to use paper books, because you can’t click away. You sit yourself in a chair, put your phone out of reach, and you read until you feel that discomfort, that itch inside that wants to click on something, that wants a distraction. You push through it as long as you can. You’ll build up tolerance for this and go further and further.

But you need some larger goal to make you want to do this, or it’s going to collapse. For me it was just realizing I was really missing out on the level of storytelling, or of thought and argument that you can get in longer form material. That felt like a real absence to me and I wanted it back. Without that desire, I don’t think I could have tried to reclaim it. I certainly am not back where I was, and it’s taken a long time. The pandemic has set everything back by asking us to sit in front of screens and not go out in the world as much. It’s back and forth. But I think that’s how you do it. Slowly, building up your tolerance, with a goal in mind and in front of you that you really deeply want.

Where are you now in this experience? What can you tell me, from further down the road, about how you’ve changed?

I talk about things called focal practices, that help focus your attention, and often focus attention on real things in the real world. These can be things like playing the guitar, but they can be things like having a fire. The hearth is the definitive example. It brings people together. They naturally tend to sit around it and share their attention with each other and create these communities. For me, this work with Nietzsche, writing the book, has not led me to give up technology, but it’s led me to be a lot more critical of it. And to be more critical of the ways in which I still fall short of where I want to go, because I have a stronger sense of what I want my life to be. I don’t want it reduced to tapping a screen or watching a TV, which is what half of my life had become.

Practical things I’ve done in the last few years have been, really getting into guitar in a new way. Investing in a better instrument. Taking lessons, virtually actually, over Zoom, which has worked out really well. It’s been a fusion of technology with the real world, with focusing my attention on something that can create beautiful music. Those kind of practices have been far, far more rewarding for me. I’ve never regretted a minute spent on that, in a way that I regret all the time, the amount of time I’ve spent on either social media or Reddit or clicking among news articles all day.

It’s a long process. It’s back and forth. But Nietzsche’s given me new tools to think with. That’s been the most important thing. I have seen those lead to real practical effects in my life. I love the fact that Nietzsche is not a guru selling you on, “Here’s the way you need to live.” He’s somebody who creates the mental tools for which you can think about your own life and your relationship to technology, and hopefully come to a place where you take that technology and put it into the service of the life you want.

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