Beyond Frictionless Living
with Nate Anderson, Deputy Editor, Ars Technica
Deputy Editor, Ars Technica
Nate Anderson is the deputy editor at Ars Technica, a website covering news and opinions in technology, science, politics, and society. He's also the author of In Emergency, Break Glass: What Nietzsche Can Teach Us about Joyful Living in a Tech-Saturated World.
Co-founder & CEO of Alation
As the Co-founder and CEO of Alation, Satyen lives his passion of empowering a curious and rational world by fundamentally improving the way data consumers, creators, and stewards find, understand, and trust data. Industry insiders call him a visionary entrepreneur. Those who meet him call him warm and down-to-earth. His kids call him “Dad.”
Hello and welcome to Data Radicals. On today's episode, Satyen is joined by Nate Anderson, deputy editor at Ars Technica. After freelancing for publications like The Economist and Foreign Policy, Nate joined the publication in 2005 and covers technology, law and policy. He's also the author of In Emergency, Break Glass: What Nietzsche Can Teach Us about Joyful Living in a Tech-Saturated World. In this episode, Satyen and Nate discuss forming positive connections with technology, saying yes to life, and what Nietzsche would have to say about tech.
This podcast is brought to you by Alation. We bring relief to a world of garbage in, garbage out, with enterprise data solutions that deliver intelligence in, intelligence out. Learn how we fuel success in self-service analytics, data governance, and cloud data migration at alation.com.
Satyen Sangani: (01:01)
Today on Data Radicals, we have Nate Anderson. Nate is the deputy editor at Ars Technica, where he covers technology, law, politics and culture. He combined his high-tech background with a love of writing to freelance at publications like The Economist. At Ars Technica, Nate helped transform the site into a high-traffic destination, which now sees more than 30 million page views a month. Nate, welcome to Data Radicals.
Nate Anderson: (01:23)
Thanks for having me.
Satyen Sangani: (01:24)
You recently wrote a book and it's titled, In Emergency, Break Glass: What Nietzsche Can Teach Us about Joyful Living in a Tech-Saturated World. That is combining a lot of complicated people and topics. Would love to understand what the book is about and what your inspiration was in writing it.
Nate Anderson: (01:43)
Nietzsche is not a typical figure for these kind of discussions, but I think that's the thing that really drew me toward using him to bring a new voice into some of these discussions around what technology is doing to our world and to our lives, to discussions around screen time, to discussions around the values (sometimes hidden) that technology has, and sometimes exerts over our lives. I was reading some Nietzsche, rekindling my undergraduate philosophy degree. As I began reading some of his stuff again for the first time in maybe 20 years, it began to seem unusually prescient to me for this situation we find ourselves in today. And I began reading more, digging in deeper. Eventually I read everything that he'd written, and I just found that it spoke to — although Nietzsche is not usually thought of as a philosopher of technology in the way that some others are — he had quite a bit to say about deeper themes that I thought had a lot of connection to this moment we find ourselves in. I decided to try to bring his voice into this conversation and did that by writing the book.
Who is Nietzsche?
Satyen Sangani: (02:47)
That begets the question of “Who is Nietzsche?” And maybe just introduce the audience that's perhaps either lightly heard of him or never heard of him, to who he was, and when he lived, and what he wrote about.
Nate Anderson: (03:00)
Friedrich Nietzsche lived in the 1800s, was born in Prussia, which later became a part of Germany. Became a professor, but suffered a lot of discontent. He had a lot of illness, a lot of health trouble, and he became increasingly restless with this world of books and ideas. After less than a decade in this world as one of the youngest tenured professors in Europe at the time, he left it all behind and began a sort of itinerant life wandering around Europe on very little money, very few possessions, writing books and seeking to make meaning in a world in which he felt like religious faith and a purpose, a divine purpose, was absent: How can we find that purpose in our own lives? He wrote all these amazing books that absolutely no one read. And then he went insane when he was 44, and spent another decade or so not being able to communicate. During that time when he was insane, his books exploded in popularity across Europe, and he's been a major figure in philosophy ever since. His writing, unlike most philosophy, is exuberant. It's over the top. It's sometimes theatrical and dangerous. He's been beloved ever since people began discovering these works because it's so different than what you traditionally get and what you traditionally think of as philosophy.
Why Nietzsche? Why now?
Satyen Sangani: (04:25)
Can you give us some examples of that and sort of what in particular captured your imagination in bridging to the modern world? What were the principles and even the excerpts of writing that really captured your thoughts and thinking?
Nate Anderson: (04:39)
It's hard to distill Nietzsche into a few thoughts because he was so wide-ranging. There was a moment that I talk about in the first chapter of my book that sums up both his appeal and maybe his danger. And that is this idea of the “last man.” It's a parable, he tells in a book called, Thus Spake Zarathustra. This sage, Zarathustra, comes down from the mountain where he's achieved this sort of enlightenment. He comes to these villagers at the base of the mountain, and he tells them that he has a story about the most despicable human. And so you as the reader think, "Wow, this has got to be somebody really bad who's done some really terrible things." And Nietzsche says, "This person is the last man." It represents in some ways the end and extinction of humanity. But when he goes on to describe this last man, what he ends up talking about is sort of a middle class, bourgeois, comfortable, safe, secure person who no longer seeks to excel, seeks to strive, takes risks, lives a life of danger and overcoming, who seeks to transcend the human condition. All of that has been left behind in this desire for ease and safety. And the amazing thing is, well, this is the last man in a sort of spiritual and mental sense because humans, he says, are no longer striving and trying to achieve. It is not the last man in any sort of actual sense. People who live like this can flourish like insects. They are very difficult to destroy.
Nate Anderson: (06:03)
They live very safe, comfortable lives. By definition, they can live a long time. But he thinks this is a terrible thing. That really captured me because so much of the rhetoric around technology is about creating things that make life easier, safer, more comfortable. We see this even in the common use of the word frictionless to describe the experiences that technology is often trying to create. Yet Nietzsche was somebody who kind of came in there and tried to blow all that up and at least make you think about the sort of premises of this way of life. Are we losing something when those become some of our highest goods? As I looked around at my own life, and the ways technology had provided me with a fairly easy, comfortable existence, I worked from home as a journalist. It was very safe. It was very peaceful. It was relatively easy. Netflix is on offer. You have cell phones that provide you any information you want at any time. It's sort of unlimited in the amount of easy information that it offers. And yet reading Nietzsche made me really step back and think, maybe we're going down the wrong path here. That critique, which he expands on throughout his works, that life is not about being safe, easy, and content, those might be by-products, but those are not the point, I thought spoke to quite a bit about what technology is trying to accomplish in our world and was accomplishing in my own life and made me rethink some of that.
Choice or a curse?
Satyen Sangani: (07:25)
In your personal experience, there's kind of this idea of friction reduction, ease of use. Obviously, there's entertainment related to that, giving people unlimited choice. Those are all things that technology brings. There's also an aspect of empowerment and possibly giving people greater capability than they otherwise might have. Are you feeling like the world of tech has really veered towards the first category and focused on that to create almost addiction as opposed to creating more power in the people who are using it?
Nate Anderson: (08:01)
I think it's difficult to say exactly what percentage of those two things are present in the world in technology, but certainly they're both there. I recognized in my own life the sort of uncomfortable binging of Netflix shows, the sense in which my queue was always building up. I was never getting through it, and yet it was always kind of addictively presenting me with options to watch more and more. And yet I never got anywhere. I never felt like I accomplished anything, and much of what I watched that way was maybe not even the best material that has been produced. As I looked in more aspects of my life with technology, I could see a lot of those things. But I also saw all the other things that you're talking about, the things that let you be creative, let you have an interesting career. I was a journalist working from home at the time, and technology made that completely possible. Without technology, none of that could have happened. So I really hold to both of those things, and I think Nietzsche did too. The book is a way to say Nietzsche gives us some ways to think through when technology is leading us toward ways that say yes to life, which was Nietzsche's biggest concern. And when technology is leading us toward things that maybe in ways we don't even realize are actually ways to say no to life, or to reject what life has to offer, and to seek something else that might not be as good for us as it initially seems.
Nate Anderson: (09:26)
So I think both things are there, and Nietzsche gives us a way to think through them. If you read more recent things coming out of Silicon Valley, like this techno-optimist manifesto that came out a couple of months ago and has been widely talked about, it's by Marc Andreessen, the venture capitalist. It's much more the one-sided, tech is basically all good. Tech can basically fix any problem, even the problems maybe that sometimes it creates, but it's all kind of a good thing. He ends by quoting Nietzsche and seems to see him as one of these techno-optimists who agrees with this way of thinking. I just don't think that's correct. I don't think Nietzsche was about that. I think Nietzsche would have had very hard questions about how the frictionless ease of things like our screens, and our devices pulls us out of the present moment, of the physical world in which we exist and are placed, and in the way it always seeks to overwhelm us with information, sometimes purposely, right? Many of these apps, many of these streaming utilities and services are designed to be addictive. So I guess my view is, both those things are there. Nietzsche helps give us a way to think through them. But I think some of the people in Silicon Valley who I've been reading recently, advocate a much less nuanced view, and I think Nietzsche can help us think about why maybe that's not the best way to think about things.
Moral decisions about our values
Satyen Sangani: (10:48)
Yeah, and there's so much to delve into there. But maybe just looking at your own experience. By the way, I absolutely resemble that notion of, "The email box never ends," and yet it's always there. And then you sometimes look and you say, "Did I actually get anything done? Does that control me, or do I control it?" It's a real question, and whether it's likes on Facebook or Netflix, is it giving you agency or is it taking away agency? And that question's pretty nuanced and pretty individual. Although you mentioned kids, and it's funny because we have the screen time debate, and you see our teenager, who obviously — great kid — and yet is also very tied and connected to his phone. So there's one perspective, which is like, "Ah, you know, new stuff. Old generation is always looking at the new generation saying that that's different." As you've thought about this work, have you thought about this question of like, well, how do we assess or how do we judge whether we're on one side or the other, and whether this progress is in the net good or bad? How do we think about that, and how ought we contend with that question for ourselves, even if not for other people?
Nate Anderson: (12:01)
I think we have to make what are really moral decisions about our values in the world. So what does it mean to say yes to life? We have the same debate in our family. I have three kids. Two of them are old enough that we have allowed them to have phones, and we set some limits around that. But we're really trying to encourage them to think about values and goals rather than you have screen time limits of certain number of minutes or things, because I don't think those help you in the future once you're free of those limits. So for us, saying yes to life is things like, "Does the technology that I'm using, the thing that I'm doing, lead to greater and real, authentic human connection?" So many of these text chats and things with friends, I have no problem with that. It is helping my kids to connect during periods when they don't see their friends. If that starts happening at the dinner table and interferes with our authentic human connection as a family, it's no longer the good that it was when they had the time to do that, and so we put limits around that. So it's things like, you have to make these moral choices about what do you value? And so we value connection, creativity, which I think you were just talking about. Does this technology empower you to do, to make, to learn, to experience, or to enjoy deeply? Or is it giving you sort of the equivalent of snack food, right? These are enjoyable, but it's all diversion.
Nate Anderson: (13:26)
It doesn't have much meaning. It's sort of surface-level entertainment. Those are the kind of things that we try to encourage our kids to spend a lot less time on than the other category. I don't think you can start by just putting limits on the technology. It's what the technology is enabling us to do and training yourself to think in a way, "Is this serving the goals I've set for myself and for my life?" Nietzsche offers, I think, a way to think about that without telling you what those necessarily should be or exactly how to live. He's absolutely against prescriptivism. But Nietzsche recognized in everything he wrote that the one thing you couldn't do in this area was have nothing but negative values, right? You just cannot set up a system that is all, just don't use your phone for more than 30 minutes. Don't do this. Don't do this. Don't do this. There's nothing pulling you forward. And that's where positive goals, a positive sense that like, this thing I'm doing is useful to my life, it's a valuable way to spend my time. Those things help guide you as you start learning to use this technology in a way that mere rules, mere negatives never will. So I think that's kind of a discussion that each family has to have for themselves. One of the best parts of that approach is that it lets us have real conversations with our kids about what we think matters in life, what they think matters in life.
Nate Anderson: (14:48)
We can talk about this and sometimes have deeper conversations that might be sparked by thinking about something that kids love doing, text messaging, using their phones. And yet we can get to a fairly deep place and have a meaningful family conversation. I think that approach has had a lot of benefits to it. Maybe you could tell me what have you been doing with your kids and has that worked well?
Offer agency, not just prescriptive rules
Satyen Sangani: (15:07)
I think we're trying to do many of the same things. Why are you using this technology? Are you present and conscious about when you're using it, what you're trying to accomplish? You know, it's funny because I do think that there is this question of do's and don'ts, and the things that you're running from versus the thing that you're running toward. And if you're running toward something, then you can evaluate all of your actions in the context of that work. Different kids are obviously different, but sometimes I've found that having sort of clear lines, like in this case, a family that engages with each other at the dinner table, and therefore the implication of that is no phones at the dinner table. But balancing that is hard. I think it's hard because it requires a sense of recognition, which sometimes kids don't always have. And so we're struggling through it. I think we're hopefully getting to the side of what that ends up meaning. But to your point, it ultimately means that people have to be conscious of what they're doing, and whether it's kids or adults in the world and you sort of have to give them tools of that agency about consciousness so that they can make the right decisions for themselves.
Nate Anderson: (16:13)
Yeah, and it absolutely sort of opens up and changes as they age. You can't start your 10-year-old or perhaps even younger just giving them no rules and just being, "Think about what really helps you say yes to life." That's not going to get you real far at the start. But I think that's the end state that you're hoping to kind of get them to over the years through these family conversations and things about this. One of the good things about it and that Nietzsche was a huge proponent of, is this kind of mindfulness that really anchors you to the present moment. And to think about why you're using technology. Is this simply to fill just a void? Do I feel a dis-ease when I'm alone with my own thoughts that I'm simply trying to erase? To really understand what you're doing. Am I having a real authentic connection here or am I just wasting time?
Nate Anderson: (16:58)
I think paying attention to that internal sense of why you're picking up these highly addictive devices is really useful and not just about technology. Because we see the same things in our lives and our relationships to food and to other people. Why are we snacking now? Is it really because we're truly hungry or do we want a distraction? So I think this training around devices in particular for our family, has been a useful way just to really think about what's going on inside us that prompts this. Because so much of our life will be changed if we're more conscious of why we're doing what we're doing. And then can take some action and ownership based on that.
Satyen Sangani: (17:34)
Yeah, it's a really interesting set of questions. And I think gets back to a lot of mindfulness is obviously a topic that's really important. Self-inquiry is a topic that's really important. And technology in some sense just can prohibit that because it allows you to have a distraction from doing any of those things on some level. When we first reached out to you, you responded by saying, "Well, I'm not quite sure this is something that your listeners are going to be interested in." Which I think has some merit. I mean, there's lots of people working inside of companies who are trying to build experiences that are engaging and maybe even addicting. What would you say to those people? I mean, you have that audience in front of you. Now, I think many of these folks also probably have some fairly altruistic or idealistic views in terms of the technology that they're building. But how do you want them to think about the things that they're building?
Nate Anderson: (18:23)
Yeah, that's a great question. I think it depends on what you're building. Let me just give you one example of some of the ways Nietzsche can help us think a little bit differently and then what that might mean for constructing, say, a massive data library that could be put to all sorts of uses, from Netflix to AI. But if we step back and think about collecting and using data, Nietzsche was one of the people — certainly not the first, you've seen this throughout history, but he articulates it well — this idea of information overload. You think, "Well, how can you feel that in the 1870s?" And yet there were more books around him than he recognized. He could spend all his life reading and never get to the end of them. And even if he did, all he would know was about ancient Greece, which was his area of specialty and not about anything else. And he really came to a crisis moment that he had a vision of himself sitting in libraries his entire life, struggling to get through information. And that was the way he would spend most of his time on Earth. And for him, that began to feel like not actually living.
Nate Anderson: (19:24)
We wanna take information, we wanna take history, we wanna take everything that he was studying and use it to live, not have it be this sort of God that we... This idol we set up in front of us that ends up consuming all of our time and demanding all of our lives. So he sets up a very different way of approaching information. And he lived this out. Because as I said earlier, he left his academic job completely. He didn't get another job. He had no job until he went insane. He lived on a very small pension. He was willing to be poor. And he talks about how following these desires will often... You'll need to make sacrifices. But he talks about his relationship to information. And instead of being overwhelmed by it, he realized that having this more goal-directed view of saying yes to life of what I need that will help me live, provided him a limiting principle that allowed him to make much better use of the information that was around him.
Nate Anderson: (20:16)
Rather than feeling overwhelmed by this massive onslaught of books, he recognized that he could go deeper. He talks about eight authors who he's discovered are deeply meaningful to him. And he realized that spending more time rereading their work, pondering that work, having silence in his life where he's not reading anything so that he can think and process what he's read and then have his own thoughts and reactions to it. He also talks about the virtues of forgetting. It's one of his key points, that we cannot live without forgetting where we are overwhelmed by the burden of information that piles up around us like garbage. Because information is forgetfulness, I should say, is what is sort of the sieve that lets us filter out the stuff that we're no longer using. If we kept using it, we'd remember it. He adopts these very different information diets than the people he saw around him, and I think are really helpful for us to think about today.
Nate Anderson: (21:14)
It's a model of information as nutrition. We take it in, we think very carefully about what we consume, just like food. We don't shovel in junk food all the time. We chew slowly and carefully. We digest, we are like ruminants, he says almost like a cow chewing the cud. We go back to books and to movies and to songs that have really shaped us, that are powerful. And we go deep with those, not broad, where we just dabble in everything, where we just are awash in hyperlinks, our brains can't focus. And then we focus on forgetting that which no longer serves us so that we can use the information that does serve us to move forward. So that's a long answer, but it's kind of at odds with the way many of these products work today. The model — from Google to the NSA — it's largely try to collect everything, try to store it all, and try to store it perpetually.
Nate Anderson: (22:06)
But I think there's a way in which you can think about that that avoids some of the problems Nietzsche and many other people have seen with this sort of information flooding through us. We can use that information and we can build tools that actually alleviate some of the problems of information overload. Just to give you one example, so what I'm talking about is something like, there's been a lot of discussion of AI recently, and AI turns out to be in its current incarnation, amazingly good at digesting massive corpuses of text and synthesizing them and providing reactions to them. So you might build a data warehouse, and I think do so with no qualms about what you're doing, that becomes used to train these kind of tools that can in some way themselves relieve us from the burden of feeling like we have to master that much material ourselves, which you quickly realize is impossible.
Nate Anderson: (23:01)
So then you partner with AI in a way — perhaps you still need to read and process plenty of information for your career, for your life — but we can start using these tools that have actually been trained on the whole corpus of Western literature and history, of Eastern literature and philosophy, of stuff we've not even considered. And we can ask them to help digest it and provide us with new information that might give us new places to go, but might free us from feeling like we personally have to explore or read or do or see or listen to all of that material on our own. So I think there's a way in which you can build massive data stores with the goal, sort of somewhat paradoxically of relieving the pressure that people feel. But of course there are also plenty of companies who work in a much more addictive model where the goal is continuous and constant user engagement, and where their metric of success is we take this massive data store of videos, music, text, whatever, and we are successful only when we capture the most of this person's attention. I guess I have questions about that model because I think it leads to some of the problems we've just been discussing with feeling like your life becomes subsumed to these screens and this information.
The loneliness of technology
Satyen Sangani: (24:17)
Yeah — because it feels like the ordinal capability is curiosity. On some level, these things are sort of using your curiosity against you versus servicing your curiosity so you can learn more about the world and yourself. And that's obviously a hard struggle. Now for yourself, it sounds like you've chosen the path of restraint, a path of really being intentional about your diet. A lot of people obviously don't do that. You have a perch where you are able to look over obviously societal trends and in and across people. I was just listening to NPR and it was a interview with David Brooks. He was talking about how people feel more lonely and more disconnected from their neighbors. It's hard for me to not correlate that with a lot of the rise of social media and technology. Do you have any answers or prescriptions to — and first of all, do you agree with that? You may not. And second of all, do you have any answers or prescriptions to how people might exercise or think about their diet of information, as it were and make progress to make it more healthy?
Nate Anderson: (25:16)
As to the question of whether I agree with it, I think it's such a complex question that we've seen this massive rise in loneliness, especially in the U.S. going back into the '70s and '80s — so certainly well before the internet was in widespread use and before social media. But it does appear that technology more recently has played a role. It's just harder to go outside and to literally encounter other people when life is so easy inside in an air conditioned paradise with a big screen TV and a cell phone and all the other pieces of technology we have that makes our lives immensely easy, frictionless in many cases. And so in that way we're sort of living the dream. But I think this is where Nietzsche can be so valuable and so provocative. He can ask, "Is that really a dream or something of a nightmare? Is there not value in struggle, and struggle toward a goal?"
Nate Anderson: (26:14)
So that is struggle with purpose, not in the kind of struggle that comes just from grinding poverty. I don't think Nietzsche sees any value in that. But the struggle that comes from ambition, from connection, because that always encourages risk, it requires risk. So what do we do with our technology to help with some of those issues? I think it goes back to making those central to the goals that we have for what it means to say yes to life. So for us, connection to other people is important. So we use technology to kind of create that connection. That might mean a Friday night game group over Zoom or Twitch or Multiplayer with your friends. I have several colleagues who do things like that. It helps create a connection with them for people they cannot necessarily see.
Nate Anderson: (27:00)
But it may also be using technology to organize and create and to foster better and more often gatherings in your home or with other people. There are sort of endless ways to apply this stuff as long as you have the goal in mind, that's where it requires your creativity. That's where you're using the tools creatively to produce outcomes that you want in life. The problem with not thinking in sort of a goal-directed way is that technology itself is not completely neutral. Well, technology has no goals of its own. It was created by people and companies who have plenty of goals. Some of those don't necessarily take you to places where you would choose to go. That's why if you don't have the kind of goal-driven approach to technology, you may find technology is actually driving you.
Seeking that goal-driven place
Satyen Sangani: (27:51)
Yeah. There's that quote, "If you don't know where you're going, take any road. It'll get you there." I think that the message of struggle is... I think about that all the time, and my wife and I talk about it all the time. On one level you want to pave the road for your children, and make it easier, and give them the advantages that you may have never had. But on the flip side, it's hard to find people, I haven't found very many who haven't lived a life of substance and meaning that haven't gone through some struggle, and through that struggle grow. So it is a hard tension. It sounds like the biggest thing that you're really preaching is the awareness of it. Preaching is probably the wrong word, but that you're trying to advocate for is that people need to be aware of the fact that this stuff is maybe taken away from our ability to recognize the good struggle versus the bad and insulating us from those things that we otherwise might want.
Nate Anderson: (28:41)
Yes, although I think the awareness piece is out there. It is hard to go a week these days without hearing some story about the dangers of social media or why we need to put down our cell phones. I think people have been tuned into that. There was a time in which that was not the case when this stuff was newer and those sorts of discussions were themselves, newer and more interesting, and people began to be more aware and be, "Oh yes, I am doing this with my time and with my life." I think maybe now that awareness is crept in pretty broadly to the culture. Even my kids think and talk this way. They're fully aware of the dangers of spending all your life on your phone. But now the question becomes getting to that goal-driven place doesn't happen automatically. As I was saying before, when we think about that, what does it mean to say yes to life?
Nate Anderson: (29:25)
It's a very moral question that makes us think about our deepest values, who we want to be in the world, how technology can play some role in helping us get there. For Nietzsche, that sort of thing could only happen through long periods of sort of quiet and reflection because only... He has a great phrase: "Noise murders thought." He just felt like noise included everything, from reading books because that was another person's voice in your head. And if you never stop with those voices, whether they're coming from books, TV, Netflix, the radio, text messages, anything where the information is always pressing in from outside, there's very little chance and choice for you to reflect on your own ways of processing that, of your own values, of setting up these kind of goals. What you end up doing instead is just absorbing goals from the culture.
Nate Anderson: (30:19)
You might wake up in 20 years having a midlife crisis and think, "Maybe my goals here were completely wrong because I didn't really speak to my deepest self. I never did the hard work of making that time and space." So I think that's the next thing that we really need to work on because it is difficult. If you've tried this, if you've tried this with your kids, it's one thing to internalize the messages of like, don't simply distract yourself from any sort of feeling you don't wanna feel by picking up your cell phone. But it's much harder to actually sit down and sit with some discomfort, face existential questions about life, about what we're doing here, about who we want to be. But it's out of those kind of thoughts and experiences that can be difficult and uncomfortable, that can lead us to take the kind of risks Nietzsche is talking about, creative risks with our lives that feel valuable. As he says, "Even if they fail," because we might fail and leave an amazing monument rather than a molehill.
Nate Anderson: (31:18)
You could succeed all your life at being easy and comfortable and leave nothing behind of any interest, even to yourself or to other people, but you might take a risk, you might take a chance and you might leave behind something amazing even if it doesn't work out. But to do that, you're really gonna have to spend some time reflecting, processing, thinking. And that is hard, difficult work. So I think we've got the awareness piece, but can we move beyond that to really being intentional about our goals and then using that to control technology rather than letting technology control us?
Making change happen
Satyen Sangani: (31:51)
How do you see this change coming about? When you wrote your book, was the intention that if I can even reach N people, 10 people, whatever the number happens to be. And then this motivates them to sort of think differently and more critically to act on the awareness as opposed to simply just acknowledging the fact that there's lots of social media and I spend a lot of time on it. Is that the change you'd wish to see? Are there other things that you'd like to see happen societally or even with companies where we could motivate this change to occur faster?
Nate Anderson: (32:19)
I think it's a difficult ask to go to companies who are premised on a model that requires... I don't want to use the word addiction, let's just say user engagement. And the more user engagement, the better, with no limit, the more is always better. If that's your model and you're using information to try to drive that sort of engagement, I think it's very difficult to bring this message in a corporate way and say, "You should be doing something else completely." Because you're basically asking people to make less money, to have less engagement. That's not gonna be very popular. I'm not sure how realistic it is that a book like this is gonna bring changes like that. I do think, as we were talking about AI a little bit earlier, I think there are ways to be interesting and profitable that try to use the information people may be gathering, warehousing, transforming, and then putting out there for use in such a way that at the very minimum they don't seem overtly pathological.
Nate Anderson: (33:17)
They are not just trying to, if they're really successful, suck up all free time in a person's life. I think if that's what you're doing, I think my message would be maybe you should think about what you're doing as a company and as an individual, and is that really what you want your life to be devoted to? There are ways to make money, to use information, but that serve people by offering them the information that can really help them, can free them from information overload, rather than just trying to achieve a certain kind of distraction. Now how that works will vary by industry. So it's difficult to give any specific predictions, but I think if you can step back and take the kind of time we're talking about, that would be hugely important. Because again, the awareness is there. Even in the tech industry, you're seeing plenty of tech executives complain about screen time and addiction and these sorts of things.
Nate Anderson: (34:09)
Everyone knows these are the issues. The awareness is there, but can you as an individual, as a team leader, as a corporation, take a little bit of time to read, reflect, and process in a goal-driven way on whether there are ways to still stay in business, to still use this information, but to serve life a little bit better for people? And I don't know what the answer to that question is because it will vary by business, but I think Nietzsche is not about answers. He says in many places he wants no disciples, he's not giving a system, he doesn't want a system, he doesn't think there can be a system, he thinks systems always distort because real life is more complicated than that.
Nate Anderson: (34:49)
And so in the same way, I don't think I can provide any answers to what this is gonna look like, but reading someone like Nietzsche really forces you to confront kind of the deepest questions about meaning and value. To question some of the things you thought were the most important, like frictionless ease. Nietzsche might say, "I'm not so sure that's as good as you think it is." Those are the kind of engagements that I think can lead companies to maybe rethink at least slightly what they do and how they go about it. And that without the time and the space to really ponder those kind of deeper questions, we end up with some of the problems that we've all seen around kind of addictive technology models that I think are just gonna involve increased scrutiny from parents, individuals, regulators that we're already starting to see. So I don't know how much of a future there is in continuing to go down that road. So you might as well get ahead of it.
Producing actual value
Satyen Sangani: (35:44)
There's even a parallel to our business. So this is obviously a podcast about data culture. And what does that even mean? So we talk a lot about helping companies develop a culture of inquiry and curiosity and helping them be motivated by scientific and rational thinking and to value those things as cultures and their behaviors and values. I was talking at the beginning of the year to somebody who is really well known in the company and a customer who's used us for a very long time. We have always talked about this idea of engagement and adoption, which I think on some level moves to addiction. So you're not like, "We're selling this product, it's helping you use data." And she said it back to me, and it sort of reminds me a lot of what you're talking about, she said, "Engagement and adoption isn't value if you're trying to get value from data."
Satyen Sangani: (36:34)
If all of what we're all trying to do, that the listeners, really in this case of the podcast, trying to get value from data. It's not about necessarily creating an addiction to the company using data. That might be a generally better thing than other things, but how do you actually produce value in the world and what is value and what do you think about in doing that? I think is a question for even us as an enterprise. And I think even for many of the teams that are trying to do this work, trying to change culture, trying to change behavior patterns, the why I think is really critical. So all that goes to say, I think your lessons are timeless and I think you were wrong in thinking that our audience wouldn't benefit from them. So appreciate the time and I think obviously your book comes from a place of a real generosity of spirit. So thank you for thinking about it and writing it.
Nate Anderson: (37:19)
I did just want to leave people by saying, this has sounded sometimes somewhat negative toward technology. And it can be, because I think we can all see the problems with it. But like I said at the beginning, technology has personally enabled me to do things that have actually been hugely creative and fulfilling. And without it, I wouldn't be where I'm at today. I wouldn't be the person I am today. So I think this is just really an encouragement to go to some unusual places. In this case, I think spent two hours thinking with Nietzsche. This book I wrote is not very long. It's not for technical philosophers, it's for regular people because sitting down with someone you've not really thought with before and experiencing the shock of these unexpected thoughts in the ways that he puts them can really shake us up and really help us use technology to be, I think what we all want, which is to be creative and empowered in the world, to build new things that are useful to ourselves and to other people that create connection. And technology can and has done all those things. I just think we need more of it.
Satyen Sangani: (38:19)
Yeah, I do too. Who can argue with that? Nate, thank you so much for joining Data Radicals. We really enjoyed having you on, and I'm sure many of our listeners will be picking the book up and following up.
Nate Anderson: (38:32)
Thanks for your time.
Satyen Sangani: (38:35)
Much like Nietzsche, Nate is an advocate of mindfulness, especially when it comes to our relationship with technology. He explains that instead of setting limits on screen time, we should think about the goals and values we want from using tech, like forming greater human connection, driving knowledge or improving efficiency. Mindfulness helps us become more conscious of why we're using technology in the first place. Are we learning something new or are we simply using it as a distraction? This introspection enables us to formulate a goal-driven approach to using technology, where we can be intentional about why and how we are using it. Without mindfulness, instead of you driving the tech, you may find that the tech is driving you. Interestingly, professor Paul Leonardi made this same argument in an earlier interview, that mindfulness applies to data tooling with teams just as as much as it applies to individuals. Without a framework to evaluate and understand what you're expecting out of a technology, it's impossible to drive success with it. So take Nietzsche's advice and say yes to life by setting goals and values, practicing mindfulness, and using tech in meaningful ways. Thanks for listening, and thanks to Nate for joining. I'm Satyen Sangani, CEO of Alation. Data Radicals keep learning and sharing. Until next time.
Data mature organizations can effectively find and leverage high volumes of data. They're also more likely to acquire and retain customers while also outperforming peers. For a framework for benchmarking and advancing your data management capabilities, download this white paper. It's called The Path to Data Excellence: The Alation Data Maturity Model at alation.com/dmm.
Frameworks and the Art of Simplification
Advisor, Consultant, Thought Leader
Perfect is The Enemy of The Good
CTO of Orangetheory Fitness
Asking the Right Questions
Strategy & Analytics Ecosystems and Alliances Leader, Deloitte
Building the Company You Wish You Could Buy From
CEO of Qlik
Start with Story, End with Data
Founder of Qubole and Creator of Apache Hive
From the Outskirts to the Center
EVP & Global Head of Data Analytics and AI, LTIMindtree
Get Out of the Building!
Co-founder, Sudden Compass
The Scientific Integrity Crisis
Dr. Elisabeth Bik
Microbiologist, science integrity consultant
Data Governance: Any “Dummy” Can Do It!
Dr. Jonathan Reichental
Author and Founder, Human Future
Humanizing AI: Authentic Storytelling
Jepson (Ben) Taylor
Chief AI Strategist, Dataiku
Your RFP is Useless
Duca Family Professor of Technology Management, UCSB
Host of Cautionary Tales and Author of The Undercover Economist
How Extreme Focus Launched the Modern Data Stack
George Fraser and Taylor Brown
DataOps & The Data Catalog
VP, Principal Analyst, Forrester
Turning Data Librarians Into Supercomputers
Senior Director of Learning & Communities, Alation
From Data Strategy to Execution
CDO, The Very Group
Multiple Sources of Truth:
Decentralization and the Data Mesh
Creator of the Data Mesh
Truth, Data, and FAIRness
Chief Data and Analytics Officer, Ingka Group
Using Data to Fight for Human Rights
Data Scientist, HRDAG
The Data Behind Dating
Author of Don’t Trust Your Gut
The Beginning of Business Intelligence
Founder, Business Objects & Managing Partner, Balderton Capital
Knowledge Graphs 101
Founder & CEO, Stardog
Radical Data Politics
CDO at Tableau
Data is a Weapon
Retired US Army General
The Data on the Chief of Data
Founder & CEO, NewVantage Partners
The Death and Rebirth of Data Privacy
Michelle Finneran Dennedy
#1 CPO and CEO of PrivacyCode
Data Quality Is a Risky Business
Co-Founder and CEO of BigEye
The Science Behind Quitting
Former Lead Science Writer at FiveThirtyEight
Your Path to CDO Superstardom
Co-Founder & Director, Carruthers and Jackson
Super Chickens & the Productivity Pecking Order
Dr. Margaret Heffernan
5-time CEO and Author of Willful Blindness
Attacking Data Literacy
Chief Data Strategy Officer at ThoughtSpot
Your Guide to Corporate Controversies
Co-Founder and Executive Editor, The Information
Making Big Data an Asset in Medicine
How to be a Data Cheerleader
Co-Author of The Chief Data Officer’s Playbook
Data Governance: It’s the Final Frontier
Principal at Teknion Data Solutions
The Secret to Data Storytelling
Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic
Founder & CEO, Storytelling with Data
The Reign of Specialists is Over
Bestselling Author of Range
Emerging from the Data Dark Ages
Principal Data Strategist at Snowflake
Forging a Culture of Data Governance
President & Principal, KIK Consulting
The Bazaar in the Cathedral
Co-founder and CTO of Databricks
Subscribe to the Data Radicals
Get the latest episodes delivered right to your inbox.