Review by David Starkey
At the beginning of In Emergency, Break Glass: What Nietzsche Can Teach Us About Joyful Living in a Tech-Saturated World, Nate Anderson, deputy editor of the website Ars Technica, is in techie heaven: “My life demanded little physical exertion, it required no risks, and it piped endless information and amusement right to my eyeballs. It was, in that favorite word of Silicon Valley CEOs, ‘frictionless.’” However, Anderson, like many of us, has come to believe that the lifestyle forced on him by screens is “intolerable.” Then, “during one of those aspirational moments when I put down the laptop and picked up a book,” he reads Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, and it’s game on: Nietzsche, who obviously never set eyes on a computer, becomes Anderson’s guide to forgoing the easy world of screens in favor a much more demanding ethos.
Among the many lessons the German philosopher teaches his twenty-first century pupil, often obliquely, are the following: stretch your attention span, seek less controlled settings, take charge of your device experience, set devices aside, cultivate communal focal practices, note differences between digital and analog work, engage in skilled activity, the body is not a battery, and forget the inessential. Sometimes, as in the case of the last piece of advice, Nietzsche is fairly straightforward: “It is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget….He who cannot sink down on the threshold of the moment and forget all the past…will never do anything to make others happy.” Other times, though, Anderson has to stretch. When Nietzsche wrote that he was “in favor of those moral codes which urge me to do something again and again, from morning till evening, to dream of it at night, to think of nothing but: do this well, do this as only I can, and to the best of my ability,” he might not necessarily have been wild about Anderson’s own list of chosen activities, which include learning how to play bass guitar, installing Shimano click shifters on his daughter’s bike, and dancing with his wife.
It doesn’t take long to realize that the irascible, sometimes misanthropic Nietzsche is hardly the perfect guide to anything. First of all, as he sank into debilitating mental illness, Nietzsche became more and more monomaniacal—a truly unpleasant character. Even before then, his sometimes conflicting advice and rants against “herd mentality” can make him come across as the world’s biggest crank.
To his credit, Anderson acknowledges Nietzsche’s flaws throughout the book, especially towards the end. Although much of what Anderson has culled from Nietzsche’s work is used to suggest that we need to build community with others, Nietzsche himself would have wanted no part of this. “The need to pull away from others marks [Nietzsche’s] whole life,” Anderson writes. And: “Nietzsche could not feel himself part of a community.” Anderson’s solution to this conundrum is to argue that “the most productive way to read Nietzsche is Nietzschean.” In short, we hold on to those elements of his philosophy that encourage “creative self-overcoming, the restriction of other voices, and the need to engage the physical world with the body,” and ignore what doesn’t free us from subjugation to technology.
In fact, many of the most astute observations about technology come from contemporary thinkers. We learn from Tony Faddell, one of the inventors of the iPod and iPhone, computer scientist Cal Newport, sociologist Nathan Jurgenson, and, in particular, from MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who tells us, “The ties that we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.” Those are the ties that Anderson sets out to cut, and by the end of In Emergency, Break Glass, he has successfully severed himself from his former life of easy but unsatisfying accomplishments.