The Information Diet

Asceticism and Attention

IN HIS YOUTH, BEFORE HE BECAME THE MOST FAMOUS preacher in Constantinople, John Chrysostom was a Syrian monk. He retreated from urban life in Antioch during the 370s CE and found his way out to caves in the mountains outside town. There he joined a group of ascetics who wore animal skins and ate a single meal each day—bread and salt. (The luxury-minded among them might add a bit of oil; the sick and the weak would also get green vegetables and lentils.)

This regimen proved insufficiently strict, and John retreated for 2 years to an even more distant cave where he could live completely alone, pray, and avoid most bodily pleasures, including sleep. According to his biographer Palladius, John never lay completely flat; if he did eventually give in to exhaustion, he slept sitting down or leaning against the rocky wall. By the end of the second year, he felt worn out and ill; Palladius says that his “gastric regions were deadened, and the functions of his kidneys were impaired by the intense cold.” He returned to Antioch and became a priest.

In the desert, John drew a bounding horizon around much of human experience so that he could focus on those few things that he felt truly mattered in life. His embrace of extreme limits is seen across religious traditions, in both strict and quite loose forms, suggesting that humanity has some deep-seated need for ascetic renunciation.

Nietzsche is well known for his hatred of asceticism. He saw it as turning one’s back on life, a No-saying to the world. “The ascetic treats life as a wrong road on which one must finally walk back to the point where it begins,” he complains, “or as a mistake that is put right by deeds.”

Nietzsche’s basic project is to affirm life, even in its most difficult and painful aspects. He says that he does not even “want to wage war against ugliness.”

I do not want to accuse, I do not want even to accuse the accusers. Looking aside—let that be my sole negation! . . . I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yes-sayer!

Yet even Nietzsche the Yes-sayer came to admit the value—no, the necessity—of the ascetic attitude.

Life itself is a given thing, and it exists within certain brute barriers, such as the reality of death and the need to “waste” much of our lives in sleep. Ignoring those limits guarantees unhappiness; we can only flourish by accepting them. Then there are limits that are not imposed upon us by biology but which are freely chosen in order to thrive—limits to sexual activity, to eating and drinking, to playing video games 8 hours a day.

Nietzsche supported such limits. This may sound strange coming from the champion of the self-overcoming übermensch, but he acknowledges the reality and necessity of them even in his earliest work.

And this is a universal law: a living thing can be healthy, strong, and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon.

This sense of the value of limits allows the banished ascetic spirit to slip in through the back door. Though Nietzsche opposes attempts to bypass or denigrate the body and its senses, he also recognizes a need for boundaries around our experiences. That’s because, as finite creatures, an infinite Yes-saying—whether to food, to books, or to relationships—would hobble us. We simply lack the time to indulge every life option; even if we proved immortal, many of the options on offer would prove toxic. The wrong text message, read at the wrong time, can be a killer.

Nietzsche flips asceticism on its head. He accepts the need for restriction, for discipline, for No-saying, but only when it is done in the service of life. That is why we find Nietzsche late in his career saying things such as, “All honor to the ascetic ideal insofar as it is honest! so long as it believes in itself and does not play tricks on us!”

Asceticism might seem like a strange departure gate for a journey into “information and its discontents.” It sounds alien and harsh, a world of hair shirts and pole-sitting that has little to offer the modern age. But, in our world of abundance, we may need to rediscover the idea. Our digital ecosystem has created, collected, and curated so much content that even to sample its riches feels hopeless, like a skinny kid confronted with the world’s largest Greek meze platter. And, though some of this information sits silently on data center servers and library shelves awaiting our interest, much more has been weaponized to seek us out, to proactively appeal, to cram us well beyond satiety.

Andrew Sullivan, the controversial polemicist and an early convert to blogging, focused most of his work on politics. Yet even when bounded within this domain, the amount of information he faced became incapacitating. In a 2016 essay, Sullivan wrote about how constant reading and writing had made him feel spiritually and mentally and physically adrift:

I tried reading books, but that skill now began to elude me. After a couple of pages, my fingers twitched for a keyboard. I tried meditation, but my mind bucked and bridled as I tried to still it. I got a steady workout routine, and it gave me the only relief I could measure for an hour or so a day. But over time in this pervasive virtual world, the online clamor grew louder and louder. Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades—a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise. So much of it was irresistible, as I fully understood. So much of the technology was irreversible, as I also knew. But I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.

We do not have to like it, but many of our longings and responses are evolutionarily fitted to a pre-technological world. We reflect that world and its patterns in complex ways. If we disrupt them too thoroughly, too quickly, there are consequences.

We saw earlier that technology critic Neil Postman calls the modern flood of information “a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems.” Such garbage does not simply smell bad. Without coherence, informational garbage can actually harm us “when it has no place to go, when there is no theory to which it applies, no pattern in which it fits, when there is no higher purpose that it serves.” This is disorienting, and it engenders feelings of chaos and confusion.

Avoiding informational garbage requires us to make sometimes painful choices about what (and how much) we read, listen to, and watch. But many of us have lost the communities and traditions that in past centuries helped to shape and even constrain our life choices; instead, we have embraced a boundless global freedom. This can be liberating, but we also risk incoherence or simply wasting our time. In the absence of tradition or culture or religion or some other organizing principle, commerce can easily sway our choices. Matthew Crawford, in The World Beyond Your Head, sees the problem this way:

As autonomous individuals, we often find ourselves isolated in a fog of choices. Our mental lives become shapeless, and more susceptible to whatever presents itself out of the ether. But of course these presentations are highly orchestrated; commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority.

Our attention is the searchlight that can cut through the fog of choices, showing a coherent path forward. The problem is that our attention is unavoidably limited. We must choose how to spend it if we want to spend it in any coherent way. “To attend to anything in a sustained way requires actively excluding all the other things that grab at our attention,” Crawford says. “It requires, if not ruthlessness toward oneself, a capacity for self-regulation.”

Ruthlessness toward oneself—we are not so far from Chrysostom here, are we?

This need to discipline our attention is well captured in Alan Jacobs’s 2016 piece “Attending to Technology: Theses for Disputation.” His first two points:

1. Everything begins with attention.

2. The question of what I should give attention to is inseparable from the question of what I should decline to give attention to.

“Attention given to one thing cannot be given, then and there, to another,” Jacobs adds. “And no moment comes to us twice.”

I have been far too prodigal with my own attention, an occupational hazard for those who live “online.” For the past 15 years, I worked in front of a screen through which I monitored my world like a spider waiting motionless in the center of a web. Every delicate tremor—an email, a Twitter notification, a breaking news link pasted into our corporate chat room—would send me scuttling off in search of the next morsel to fill some kind of yawning info-chasm within.

Some of this was essential to my work as a journalist. The information I acquired often led to stories that (hopefully) educated and (perhaps) entertained the reading public. But let’s be honest: much of it did not. Working constantly at a computer where distraction was never more than a click away, I became that guy who knew a bit about everything from Alaskan oil to Zambian cuisine—so long as it had been covered in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, or a dozen other papers that week. I had Deep Thoughts on everything from health-care policy to intellectual property—so long as they had been covered in Atlantic or New Yorker think pieces. I was awash in memes and other “viral” content shared by colleagues and friends. Much of this information was acquired for no real purpose; little of it affected my life.

More disturbing were my new habits of mind. Like some kind of laboratory animal, I responded instantly to stimuli such as the arrival of a new email, a chat notification, a text on my phone. The reward for this response was some tiny fragment of novelty, something that might be more interesting or important—though it usually wasn’t—than what I was currently doing. It was a 15-year-long education in training my attention to flick rather than to focus. My thoughts too often felt jumpy and jumbled.

By not discriminating about what I most needed, about what truly mattered, about where I wanted to spend my attention, I blew tens of thousands of hours digesting material that was ultimately of limited value to my life. As Postman notes, every educational institution must manage information to teach what its students need to learn. It will do this, “to a large extent, by excluding information.” This is as true in the school of life as anywhere else.

Let’s put this in perspective. Counting . These are hard pieces for a wretched pianist like myself, but mastering their difficulty would have been infinitely more satisfying than reading anything about Donald Trump.only the hundreds of hours I spent reading horse-race coverage of the 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections, I could have learned to play some of my favorite Chopin nocturnes

We are shaped by that to which we attend. The shaping process exerted on our minds by smartphones and constant Internet usage often involves interruption, skimming, aimless clicking, and a constant desire for novelty. This is not all that it involves, but years of online immersion gave me more of these things than I had hoped. They are not the habits of mind I want to develop—and it has taken more years to start shaking free of them.

There’s no point in getting too rigorous or regretful about such things; humans have been ingenious time wasters for millennia. But when so many people report real distress over the amount and quality of the time spent with their digital tools, we might wonder if we can do better. To navigate our Information Age, we need to control the attention we pay to “content”—even the term treats information as a commodity—which means learning how to tune out.

Nietzsche’s own illness, which forced him away from the books he used to love, made him unusually sensitive to the ways that information consumption affects a life. As such, he is a surprisingly useful guide on our ascetic journey.

Information as Nutrition

You don’t have to read much philosophy to know that it tends to emphasize words, distinctions, and ideas over biological needs—like dinner. What has an egg roll to do with speech act theory?

Yet Nietzsche valued nutrition. Because he saw humans not as brains trapped in bodies but as creatures of the earth—creatures driven by basic biology more than most professional thinkers, then or now, like to admit—eating and drinking mattered. In his autobiography, Ecce Homo, he devotes several pages to discussing what he drinks. (Water, no alcohol, though he could apparently pack away the booze when a young man.) Even with a breakdown weeks away, Nietzsche recognized that this was not standard philosophical practice, so he explains why he writes this way:

I shall be asked why I have really narrated all these little things which according to the traditional judgement are matters of indifference. . . . Answer: these little things—nutriment, place, climate, recreation, the whole casuistry of selfishness—are beyond all conception of greater importance than anything that has been considered of importance hitherto. It is precisely here that one has to begin to learn anew.

Elsewhere in the book, he puts the matter even more provocatively, saying, “I am much more interested in a question on which the ‘salvation of humanity’ depends far more than on any theologians’ curio: the question of nutrition.”

Though serious about his own diet, Nietzsche also uses nutrition as a metaphor. It stands for every human process of ongoing replenishment, processing, and elimination. As with food, too little information can kill us, while too much makes us ill.

Nietzsche felt this illness during his professorship at Basel. He burned up his energy and imagination there, he says in Ecce Homo, without taking proper measures to replenish them. Note the language of food:

During my Basel period my whole spiritual diet, including the way I divided up my day, was a completely senseless abuse of extraordinary resources, without any new supply to cover this consumption in any way, without even any thought about consumption and replenishment.

He had written this way for some time. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche compares experience in general with the act of eating. “A strong and well-constituted man digests his experiences (his deeds and misdeeds included) as he digests his meals,” he says, “even when he has to swallow some tough morsels.”

Remember how Nietzsche describes his Basel experience:

I moved out of the house of the scholars, and I even slammed the door behind me. Too long did my soul sit hungry at their table; I am not, as they are, trained to pursue understanding as a kind of nut-cracking. . . . I am too hot and burned by my own thoughts: often it almost takes my breath away . . . but they sit coolly in the cool shade: they want in all things to be mere spectators and are wary of sitting where the sun burns down upon the steps.

Nietzsche’s essential loneliness and hunger radiate from the page like the heat of the sun-scorched steps that he describes. If you have ever felt burnout as a knowledge worker or have ever worked in the academy, perhaps the frustration on display resonates. Nietzsche was, from his earliest writings, committed to academic study not as an “idler in the garden of knowledge,” not as someone who could “turn comfortably away from life and action,” but only insofar as it “serves life.” He could never reconcile himself to a community of scholars who did not see things the same way.

When he left the university behind, Nietzsche also abandoned its “know everything” ethos. He loved ideas, but he reacted strongly to the prospect of information crowding out one’s own reflections. He wrote increasingly about the value of selective rather than comprehensive reading, the need to read slowly and then to reread (and thus cover less material), and the importance of forgetting.

His approach to information was bound up with his goal-driven approach to life. Anyone focused on constant novelty and omnivorous consumption will not have either the time, the self-direction, or the mental clarity to pursue creative excellence. Nietzsche came to value instead his own thoughts and his own voice, which he worked to develop by freeing time for them.

Nietzsche’s rants about “herd mentality” don’t feel countercultural today, in our individualist world. But his approach to information still feels rebellious. It requires us to make peace with certain kinds of personal ignorance. It demands that we limit the constant interruptions of texts, emails, social media feeds, and phone calls. It celebrates depth over breadth, focused consideration over skimming. It deprecates the value of novelty.

Taken together, Nietzsche’s approach to information might make it harder to gab around the water cooler about what happened on this season of Stranger Things. It might become more difficult to offer pithy cocktail party comments, gleaned from a zealous reading of the New York Times, about French cheese-making in the Loire valley. But Nietzsche’s information diet might also improve our mental health.

Slow Content

No one ever accused Nietzsche of modesty. The man was convinced of his own world-shaking destiny, which must have been tough to sustain when only a few hundred people were reading his books. Still, Nietzsche offered his then-nonexistent readership tips for properly absorbing his works—especially his more “aphoristic” books. Nietzsche describes his ideal reader in the preface to Daybreak:

A book like this, a problem like this, is in no hurry; we both, I just as much of my book, are friends of lento [slowness]. It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading:—in the end I also write slowly. Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also to my taste—a malicious taste, perhaps?—no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is “in a hurry.”

Anyone who has tried to read Daybreak straight through, as though it were a novel, will run headlong into Nietzsche’s “malicious taste.” The goal was to craft a form that embodies the qualities encouraged by the content: pithy nuggets demanding careful thought, mental experimentation, and wide-ranging curiosity about morality and psychology. By forcing his readers to proceed slowly if they want to make sense of the book, Nietzsche puts a preemptive stop to bingeing.

This call to read more slowly, and with greater engagement, is not reserved for Nietzsche’s books. In the same preface, he speaks more widely about European culture, which he thought valued speed and productivity above all else. (Sound familiar?) But we must value the ability to “go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow,” because careful thinking is “delicate, cautious work” that “achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento.”

Do we want to process information this way? Nietzsche thinks we do—that we will be enchanted by the opportunity to go slow in an “age of ‘work’: that is to say, of haste, of unseemly and immoderate hurry-skurry.” We must learn instead to “read well: i.e. slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes.”

To consume information slowly becomes, in this telling, an act of resistance against a dehumanizing technological order. Much like the Slow Food movement, Nietzsche’s Slow Content assumes a political and ethical dimension. When it comes to our information diet, it matters how we read, watch, and listen.

It’s not clear that many people today believe this, though. If “slow reading” is so liberating, why has every lit major with a Twitter feed written a thread about how they once loved big Russian novels such as Anna Karenina but now struggle to make it through lifestyle articles in the newspaper? In one sense, the reasons are obvious. We have too many tabs open! Someone texts me after each paragraph I read! I’m watching Netflix on my second monitor right now!

And yet, given the discomfort so many people express about binge-driven, skim-oriented, hyperlinked culture, one might expect more cultural support for slow reading. There is some—apps that store long articles for later reading, the whole genre of “longreads,” the continued existence of the New Yorker. But it’s hard to fight those dopamine hits of novelty that make sustained attention so difficult.

This can be true even in the centers of learning. English professor Mark Bauerlein complains, in the course of commenting on the Nietzsche passages above, that universities also struggle with slow reading.

Young people today process more words than ever before and in faster time—allegro, not lento. To meet them, more classrooms and more course assignments follow suit, for instance, assigning blogs instead of papers, short readings instead of long ones. The unfortunate truth is that fast reading and fast writing don’t make people more flexible, more capable of slow reading and writing when the situation demands them.

The faster information can move, the more we love it. But speed itself can have costs. As Henry David Thoreau remarked about the technology of his time, “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly.” He worried that “our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”

Nietzsche calls us to consciously resist speed and to guard our attention and deploy it in focused ways. Just as jamming food into one’s belly is liable to feel bad, information too should be consumed at a certain pace and with a certain care. As with food, there are always exceptions—the quick snack on the run, the rushed meal before the concert—but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.


Becoming one of the “friends of lento” sounds great—like joining an exclusive club. You, at least, will not become one of those degenerates who text their way through dinner parties and who have given up on novels! But there are implications to the Nietzsche Diet, some less convenient than others. Much as Slow Food demands good ingredients, Slow Content demands a certain quality of material.

Amid climate change, global pandemics, and a rising wave of authoritarianism, we might desire nothing but a dumb comedy at the end of the week. Or we might seek cathartic release in online outrage. Or we might obsessively consume the news. We may want, that is, the information equivalent of fast food. No matter how good it may feel, though, we need to limit this kind of content consumption to keep ourselves healthy.

Nietzsche was convinced that human life is about transformation and transcendence, and that our best hope for achieving them is reflection in the presence of strong ideas. That is, much of our reading and listening and watching should focus on artists and thinkers and friends who have something meaningful to say.

Arthur Schopenhauer, to whose philosophy Nietzsche was devoted as a young man, once wrote, “The art of not reading is a very important one.” Schopenhauer assumed most popular books were rubbish on the grounds that “he who writes for fools always finds a large public.” And so, for him, “a precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.”

Nietzsche embraces this idea of “not reading” and turns it into a radical principle of selection. He praises people who have an instinctive sense for the material that will matter to their lives. “What is it, fundamentally, that allows us to recognize who has turned out well?” Nietzsche asks.

What does not kill him makes him stronger. Instinctively, he collects from everything he sees, hears, lives through, his sum: he is a principle of selection, he discards much. He is always in his own company, whether he associates with books, human beings, or landscapes: he honors by choosing, by admitting, by trusting.

Such people do not indiscriminately welcome content into their world. They are “principles of selection,” thoughtful about what they choose to admit, because each admission is an act of trust. If we are going to put ourselves in the hands of a writer or a director or even a conversation partner, and if we are going to give that person our full attention over the course of many hours, we hope that the process will be worthwhile. We are shaped by what we consume, which makes our information inputs not just matters of aesthetic taste but also matters of morals and ethics.

Few are worthy of such trust. In his early career, Nietzsche names only eight: Epicurus, Montaigne, Goethe, Spinoza, Plato, Rousseau, Pascal, and Schopenhauer. Only from them, he says, “will I accept judgment.” He has judged them important enough that they will guide all his habits of mind. “In all that I say, conclude, or think out for myself and others, I fasten my eyes on those eight and see their eyes fastened on mine,” he writes.

You may not be surprised to learn that Nietzsche is exaggerating. He read widely in areas such as evolutionary theory, science, and moral philosophy, and his letters contain numerous requests for books and other materials. (He of course had to read widely to find his “personal eight” in the first place.) But he was completely serious about the importance of selection and restriction; this was how he could, in the end, get by with only that single trunk of books.

In a world that was even then inundated with more information than one human could possibly manage, Nietzsche calls for a revolution in attitude. It is not about a proud illiteracy or a refusal to read widely; it is simply a recognition that humans have limited time for both thought and action. To spend so much of that time consuming novel or “news-y” content of ancillary value to our lives seems to Nietzsche a waste.

The further implication of the Nietzsche Diet is that we will digest our Slow Content like ruminants chewing the cud. As we identify the information that matters deeply to our lives, we will return to it many times. “One thing is necessary above all if one is to practice reading as an art in this way, something that has been unlearned most thoroughly nowadays,” writes Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morals. “Something for which one has almost to be a cow and in any case not a ‘modern man’: rumination.”

He is not talking about “great works” that we experience once so that we can pass a test or sprinkle cultural references throughout our letters to the editor. What Nietzsche holds up for “rumination” are the movies we could watch a hundred times, the books we have dog-eared into submission, the music that might rewire our brains. To these things we give our trust, and they reward it.

In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche makes this point clearly:

I almost always seek refuge with the same books—actually, a small number—books proved to me. Perhaps it is not my way to read much, or diverse things: a reading room makes me sick. Nor is it my way to love much, or diverse things. Caution, even hostility against new books comes closer to my instincts.

This was not a new sentiment. One hundred years earlier the English essayist William Hazlitt wrote, “I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire ever to read at all. . . . The dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality.”

The Nietzsche Diet features a crucial trade-off: Slow and repeated reading of your personal canon can transform your life, but you will necessarily be deeper than you are broad. Nietzsche is . . . okay with this. “Once and for all,” he writes, “there is a great deal I do not want to know.—Wisdom sets bounds even to knowledge.”

This approach can be extreme; for instance, if you literally read just eight authors, I might ask whether you are open enough to the stunning diversity of the world. But as a general principle that we should more carefully curate our information intake, Nietzsche’s approach offers a counterweight to a world in which indiscriminate information has become the intellectual equivalent of “empty calories.”

Nietzsche gives us the courage to resist the tyranny of the new, and he provides the space for us to master (or to be mastered by) the works we consume. This pursuit of mastery—insofar as we are capable of choosing our personal canons well—is far more likely to end in personal transformation than is any unfocused, onetime consumption of trivial information.

But can we choose our personal canons well? And how are we to do so if we don’t read widely enough to know what’s out there? Nietzsche offers little practical guidance, talking instead in big-picture advice. “What am I really doing, and what do I mean by doing it?” he suggests that we ask ourselves. “That is the question of truth which is not taught under our present system of education, and consequently not asked, because there is no time for it.”

So committed is Nietzsche to the idea that we each have our own path—even our own morality—that he offers little beyond the Delphic Oracle’s injunction to “know thyself” and some complaints about how few of us do.

Perhaps our course of life offers clarity. Youth and early adulthood lend themselves naturally to wide exploration; I think we would all suspect that anyone who closed a “personal canon” at 17 lacks the basis for doing this well. But as we age, we come to know both ourselves and the world better. At some point, we may want to be shaped by certain writers or directors or musicians.

I experienced this as I entered my forties. The wide reading in philosophy, literature, and technology that characterized my early years gradually lost some of its interest. I found myself, though still hungry for the new, increasingly attuned to the old—material that can be mined again for pleasure and profit, material that can shape me. I will miss out on some new discoveries, but the march of years makes this less concerning. Given how little of even the best content I will consume in my life, there seems little sense in trying to master everything. Instead I find my own principles of selection narrowing as Nietzsche describes them. Increasingly, I want works “proved to me” by time. And on each reading, viewing, or listening, I judge anew—in the face of always-increasing life experience—whether this is a work that should “remain in the collection.”

This sounds incredibly serious—all peas and no French fries. But it need not be. One of the heroes of my personal pantheon, in works that have been tested by 20-plus years of rereading, is the British comic genius P.G. Wodehouse. His Jeeves and Wooster novels are sublimely ludicrous farces of no particular heft, yet I would lose all my philosophy before losing Wodehouse. He was of course a master of his craft, an expert plotter and a true lover of words. But his view of the world is one I need: a place wondrous even amid danger, where laughter can bring down dictators and aunts alike, where joy does come in the morning. It is a profoundly comic view of life. And it is no less “serious” about that for not being, well, serious. Wodehouse rewards my repeated attention.

Even if you value novelty far more than Nietzsche, perhaps you can take something from his somewhat curmudgeonly commentary: Approach information with your eyes open. With every texting relationship, every group chat, every email chain, every book we read, every series we binge, every link we click—we place our fragile attention in the hands of someone else. It is an act of trust, and we benefit from taking that act seriously.

Info Dump

Unleash the jokes—it’s time to move our metaphor down the alimentary canal. We have discussed what information we consume and how we consume it, but Nietzsche’s unique take may be most apparent in his praise of information evacuation. That is—forgetting.

“Forgetting is essential to action of any kind, just as not only light but darkness too is essential for the life of everything organic,” he writes in an early essay. “It is possible to live almost without memory, and to live happily moreover, as the animal demonstrates; but it is altogether impossible to live at all without forgetting.”

Our brains are notoriously selective. They latch onto the new and they remember the extraordinary, but unchanging stimuli are quickly filtered and forgotten. This can be frustrating, but discarding information seems necessary in order to focus our attention and to take action. Indiscriminate processing and retention of all incoming stimuli would truly turn information into garbage; we would be swamped.

This is essentially the plot of the Jorge Luis Borges short story “Funes, His Memory” from the 1944 collection Artifices. In the piece, the narrator encounters one Ireneo Funes, a young man from a poor part of Argentina. His “gift” is a perfect memory, but this turns out to be a paralyzing curse. The narrator explains why:

With one quick look, you and I perceive three wineglasses on a table; Funes perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Río Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho. Nor were those memories simple—every visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, and so on. He was able to reconstruct every dream, every daydream he had ever had. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; he had never erred or faltered, but each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day.

The story concludes with the observation that “to think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars—and they were virtually immediate particulars.”

Borges’s story is not mere fiction. We know that certain human minds can maintain a nearly photographic memory—but we also know that this can be disruptive. Jill Price, a 42-year-old United Kingdom woman said to have “hyperthymestic syndrome,” in 2008 described the experience of being able to recall every day of her life since she was 14.

“Some memories are good and give me a warm, safe feeling,” she told the Telegraph newspaper. “But I also recall every bad decision, insult and excruciating embarrassment. Over the years it has eaten me up. It has kind of paralysed me. . . . My memory is too strong. It’s like a running movie that never stops. Most have called it a gift. But I call it a burden. I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!”

We must be able to rid ourselves of what does not serve us. Nietzsche sees this as more than a passive process; it is an active bit of mental meal prep, as we decide which bits of information we will literally “in-corporate” within our body as memories. Consider this long passage linking nutrition and forgetfulness from On the Genealogy of Morals:

Forgetfulness is . . . an active—in the strictest sense, positive—inhibiting capacity, responsible for the fact that what we absorb through experience impinges as little on our consciousness during its digestion (what might be called its “psychic assimilation”) as does the whole manifold process of our physical nourishment, that of so-called “physical assimilation.”

The temporary shutting of the doors and windows of consciousness; guaranteed freedom from disturbance by the noise and struggle caused by our underworld of obedient organs as they co-operate with and compete against one another; a little silence, a little tabula rasa of consciousness, making room for the new, making room above all for the superior functions and functionaries—those of governing, anticipating, planning ahead (since our organism is structured as an oligarchy)—such is the use of what I have called active forgetfulness, an active forgetfulness whose function resembles that of a concierge preserving mental order, calm, and decorum. On this basis one may appreciate immediately to what extent there could be no happiness, no serenity, no hope, no pride, no present without forgetfulness.

On the other hand, Nietzsche says, the scientific worldview “hates forgetting, which is the death of knowledge, and seeks to abolish all limitations of horizon and launch mankind upon an infinite and unbounded sea of light whose light is knowledge of all becoming.”

This is an apt description of our technological approach to information. From Google to the NSA, the motto is: Collect it all; keep it all. If you run up against storage limits, build another data center. But this strategy won’t work for individual minds. Accepting our inclination to forget is to accept our human finitude. To hate forgetting is to lash out against limits; it is an attack on the necessity of selection and curation.

Years ago, I enrolled in an English literature PhD program and spent two happy and then two more less-happy years reading everything I could find about the English Renaissance. By the end of it, I could trace the Book of Common Prayer’s key revisions or tell you which of the “Caroline divines” had the ear of King Charles at any given moment. I had read every play by Ben Jonson and every word of The Faerie Queene. I forced my way through more terrible sixteenth-century poetry than one person should ever have to read.

Set aside for a moment the question of why it felt important to know these things. The point is that I did want to know them and spent an enormous amount of time consuming the 400-year-old literature and history of a small island. Yet when I decided to pursue a career as a writer instead of a literature professor, I was shocked at how quickly this knowledge fell away. Two years on, sitting at the dinner table or in the library, I would realize suddenly that I could no longer say anything about the Earl of Essex or the third act of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Nor could I remember if the Solemn League and Covenant was pro- or anti-Presbyterian. Or was it unrelated to Presbyterianism at all? Later I struggled to remember the dates of each English king and queen. Panic set in over losing so quickly what had cost so much to learn. What was the point of any intellectual endeavor if our minds were so apt to let us down?

But I eventually realized three things. First, I could have retained that information. I simply had to stay in the academy, toiling through seminars focused on the daily work of the Westminster Assembly and writing papers on the Inkhorn Controversy. It was my choice to disengage finally from that world; forgetting was a natural consequence. My body was releasing information that I had told it, through my actions, was no longer essential to life.

Second, I had lost many details but retained the results. Attitudes toward history and scholarship, habits of mind, patterns of critical reading, each had shaped me, and I remained in the new shape they imposed. The acquisition of knowledge changed the way I thought, even if some of the underlying data dissipated into the mists of the mind.

Finally, I saw that forgetfulness might serve as a hedge against anxiety. Because there is an anxiety attending information consumption in a limitless world. When have I read and watched and listened to enough? Another best-selling book, another prestige TV drama, another true-crime podcast—there’s always more. But in time I took comfort from the fact that soon I would forget so much of it. And if that were true, then it was not necessary that I “keep up,” that I try to consume it all. I could instead accept information with gratitude, focus on maintaining whatever personal canon I judged important to my life, and relax about the rest.

Nietzsche wants us to welcome this process of forgetting. Attempts to hold on to the past can prevent us from entering the present, and it is in that Dionysian embrace of present existence that we experience happiness.

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, who cannot stand balanced like a goddess of victory without growing dizzy and afraid, will never know what happiness is—worse, he will never do anything to make others happy.

Forgetting—the beginning of morals?

It’s a simple message: When it comes to information, do not be afraid. Open your hands and let information pass through them like sand. What remains after the sifting may not be perfect, but it will be enough.


The final part of the Nietzsche Diet is a practice that every good ascetic must master: fasting.

It is not enough to become a disciplined information curator immersing oneself repeatedly in the finest sources of knowledge and entertainment. It is not enough to adopt the ways of Slow Content or to forget aggressively. Sometimes we must forgo information altogether.

Consider Nietzsche’s complaint in Daybreak about people who are constantly distracted by each day’s news: “Whatever may be your desire to accomplish great deeds, the deep silence of pregnancy never comes to you!” Nietzsche says about such lives. “The event of the day sweeps you along like straws before the wind.”

This describes many of my days in journalism, where chasing the “event of the day” is part of the job. Many of us would benefit from more of the “deep silence of pregnancy,” where thought grows and develops until it is truly ready to be born. We need more silence and more solitude.

How much of this info-fasting do we need? We have already seen Nietzsche’s tongue-in-cheek answer: “How can anyone become a thinker if he does not spend at least a third of the day without passions, people, and books?”

Nietzsche sometimes claims that we need even more separation. In fact, when writing something long, Nietzsche avoided both people and other books completely. “At times when I am deeply sunk in work you will see no books around me,” he says. “I would guard against letting anyone speak or even think in my vicinity. And that is what reading would mean.”

As we’ve seen, Nietzsche famously found creative solitude in long walks. He would ramble for hours at a time in the paths around the alpine town of Sils Maria, Switzerland, where he often spent his post-Basel summers. No books, no companions—just Friedrich and a collection of small journals where he could jot down thoughts as he hiked.

“To set to early in the morning, at the break of day, in all the fulness and dawn of one’s strength, and to read a book—this I call positively vicious!” he says.

His concern, here as everywhere, is that what makes us unique is too easily drowned out by a background drone of information. In the end, Nietzsche worries that we will know only how to react to someone else’s creation and not how to find our own creative voice. He is especially hard on the profession he left behind, writing:

The scholar who, in truth, does little else than handle books—with the philologist of average attainments their number may amount to two hundred a day—ultimately forgets entirely and completely the capacity of thinking for himself. When he has not a book between his fingers he cannot think. When he thinks, he responds to a stimulus (a thought he has read)—finally all he does is to react.

While modern digital technology encourages a kind of solitude—just me and my screen!—it is not generally a ruminative, pregnant solitude.

This is a persistent theme of technology critics. “Smartphones are the primary enabler of solitude deprivation,” says Cal Newport. “Technology gives us more and more of what we think we want,” writes Sherry Turkle, “but if we pay attention to the real consequences of what we think we want, we may discover what we really want. We may want some stillness and solitude.”

Nietzsche agrees—though as usual, he is far more quotable. “Noise murders thought,” he says.

All this talk about fasting from information presumes two things. First, that we want to be alone with our thoughts. For many of us, constant information has become mental junk food that we consume precisely to avoid our own mind and its anxieties. Second, that we have the mental resources to make solitude productive rather than boring.

Nietzsche, looking around at his own society, worried that the will to speed and to novelty was creating a class of people who had no peace within themselves. They wanted only to escape their thoughts and give themselves to every momentary distraction. But even if they could cultivate solitude, they lacked the creative and intellectual resources to do anything useful with it.

All of you for whom furious labor is dear and what is fast, and new, and strange—you tolerate yourselves poorly, your industry is flight and the will to forget yourselves. If you believed in life more, you would throw yourselves away less in the moment. But for waiting you lack sufficient capacity—and even for laziness!

While most of the Nietzsche Diet has focused on selection, on restriction, on fasting, these are techniques to profit from a world gorging itself on information. They are not an admonition to renounce information itself.

In the end, we should return refreshed to the broader world. “Why this solitude?” a voice asks in one of Nietzsche’s aphorisms. “I am not angry with anybody,” Nietzsche replies, “but when I am alone it seems to me that I can see my friends in a clearer and rosier light than when I am with them. And when I loved and felt music best I lived far from it. It would seem that I must have distant perspectives in order that I may think well of things.”

As Nietzsche critic Robert Miner sums up Nietzsche’s thought here, “Contact with friends and books is good. Yet a healthy relation to either is impossible unless one has a substantial freedom from both.”

The Meal

Tony Fadell is one of the original inventors of both the iPod and the iPhone. In 2018, the former Apple engineer wrote an op-ed in Wired about unhealthy device usage, a piece in which he went all-in on the “information as food” metaphor. Fadell didn’t argue to restrict device usage to some “healthy level,” however; he argued that we don’t even know what a healthy level is—and that it might vary by person.

Take healthy eating as an analogy: we have advice from scientists and nutritionists on how much protein and carbohydrate we should include in our diet; we have standardised scales to measure our weight against; and we have norms for how much we should exercise.

But when it comes to digital “nourishment,” we don’t know what a “vegetable,” a “protein,” or a “fat” is. What is “overweight” or “underweight”? What does a healthy, moderate digital life look like?

Nietzsche offers us some answers to these questions. We should consume much of our information with deliberation, rather than as a morsel meant to be eaten as quickly as possible. We should bias ourselves toward the kinds of information worthy of this treatment—sustaining meals, not potato chips. We should digest this information well, metaphorically “chewing the cud” through multiple readings or through engaged thought. We should evacuate what does not serve us, forgetting trivial or useless information. And we should fast regularly from information altogether so that we can discover our own thoughts and better appreciate information when we return from solitude.

Nietzsche, like Fadell, has doubts about simple prescriptions that apply to all. What matters is making information serve life—and if your information use actually empowers your creative goals, more power to you. Regimens such as “put your screens away one hour before bedtime” are fine as far as they go, but these are blunt instruments.

Nietzsche would rather we become artists of our own lives. True artists, he says, don’t simply invent but are also masters of “rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.” In a world of infinite content, we too need sharpen our capacities for selection and rejection—and we should treat those tasks as seriously as real artists do.

The information diet in this chapter advises us to resist a gluttonous world. Our devices make information quick, easy, and available on demand. These are great qualities in a snack—but sometimes we need a meal. And though we may learn something here from ascetics such as the young John Chrysostom, we need not limit ourselves to a diet of bread and salt.

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