Life has changed dramatically in 2020. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, many of us were forced to stop and fundamentally reevaluate our lives.
As she launches a new series for The Correspondent, journalist Emily Dreyfuss talks to managing editor Eliza Anyangwe about why we’re so obsessed with living a good life and who gets to define what that means.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:00:00] Hello, I’m Eliza Anyangwe, the managing editor of The Correspondent. I’m so excited to share with you this conversation I had with San Francisco-based tech writer Emily Dreyfuss. Emily will be writing a series for The Correspondent exploring all the dimensions of how to live a good life.
Over the next 45 minutes or so, she and I talk about her personal fascinations with the topic, but also, what she learns as she starts to dig deeper into the philosophical, economic, and social dimensions.
I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed having the conversation with Emily. [music soundbite]
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:00:36] Hello. Hi, Emily. How are you?
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:00:39] I’m pretty good, how are you?
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:00:41] I’m great. Well, I’m a little wet because Amsterdam is being Amsterdam and it has been rainy. God! We’ve started a series that has great philosophical, religious, metaphorical potential with weather events that are also larger than life. [laughs]
What a perfect backdrop to How to Live a Good Life!
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:01:04] Yes!
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:01:04] So before we get talking more about the series that I’m so excited that you will be writing for The Correspondent.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:01:12] Me too!
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:01:12] I would love for you to tell our members and our listeners a little bit about yourself. So who is Emily Dreyfuss?
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:01:19] It’s a very easy and hard question, right? I mean, I don’t know. No, I mean, so in a basic way, I’m a writer and an editor. I’ve been a journalist since I graduated from college, which was in 2006.
Most of my journalism experience has been in tech journalism and I worked for WIRED magazine. Recently, after WIRED, I left and was a founding editor at a new tech publication called Protocol.
My focus in my journalism has been on how technology changes society, how it changes us as people, and kind of more just like what it’s doing to us, and what it says about us in the way that we use it.
I’m a mom. I have two little kids. I am going to talk a lot about myself in this series. [chuckles] So all of the listeners and subscribers of The Correspondent, and members of The Correspondent are going to learn a lot about me.
But the, like, the gist of my bio is that I grew up in LA, in Hollywood, surrounded by movie industry people because my dad is an actor. I left there when I was a young child and moved to the countryside and grew up for most of my, like, formative years where I read philosophy and started smoking pot and had dreams [laughs] in, like, a very small town in the mountains.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:02:46] And this is in Idaho?
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:02:47] In Idaho, where I am now. Yeah. And I’ve been with my husband for 17 years. We met when we were teenagers.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:02:55] Wow.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:02:55] So there’s a thing about me that people think is crazy.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:02:59] Your story seems both entirely modern and quite traditional at the same time. Like, do you feel it that way, too?
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:03:05] Yeah, I definitely do. I mean, sometimes I think about the fact that I’ve been, like, with one person for so long and that I’m, like, in a heteronormative marriage [chuckles], raising two boys.
It’s kind of shocking to me because I definitely felt myself to be like a radical when I was a teen, and I didn’t believe in the institution of marriage. And my own parents, you know, had divorced. And it seemed to me that marriage was a sham and that, you know, no two people could ever be together forever. And it was all a lie or whatever. I don’t even know. And then it turned out my life went completely differently.
Although, you know what I would say is that I think a lot of people have a life that is in reaction to their parents’ lives in some way. And I would never say that I consciously did that, but my parents had very exciting – have, they’re both still around and having a lot of adventures, but they had very exciting, non-traditional lives and in some unconscious way, I have had a very normal linear-ly progressing life. [both chuckle]
So, the exact opposite.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:04:14] It’s one foot firmly in front of the other.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:04:17] Yeah.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:04:17] Well, I think this is in many ways right. Let’s dive straight into some of the things that I’ve been thinking about as we’ve been talking for months now, contemplating your writing for The Correspondent. And this idea of progress is so much at the heart of how we have collectively come to imagine what it means to be human, that our progress is inevitable. That each generation will be better off than the next. And suddenly we have been forced en masse to reckon with the fact that while progress might indeed be true, it is not always linear and it is not something that we can take for granted, not for a second. And that we only have ever moved as quickly as the people who are slowest among us or actually, you know, we are actively leaving behind.
And so when we’ve been talking about your series and thinking about what can otherwise seem very sort of, you know, quintessential sort of normal life, quite mundane, quite small, actually is so important to think and talk about at this time where it seems that actually, these sorts of things like "what is a life" and "how to live a good life" are superfluous discussions to have against the backdrop of: global pandemic, global march for, you know, to counter white supremacy and for rights, global marches for housing, to protect to the rainforest. All of these big struggles.
How do you understand what we’re trying to do together? Against the backdrop of all these really sort of momentous, you know, societal global shifts.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:06:02] Yeah. I think about it in the sense that I’ve never felt more that we are all in it together. And, like, as a human race, right? We are all together on the planet, whatever. Not even just humans, animals on this earth. You know, this is our one home. This is our one place. And, you know, back when I used to do drugs, that was like the conclusion I would come to, like, we’re all one, huh! You know, but then you would like, wake up and be sober. And what would the – what would the next step be? Nothing.
But I think that we’re in, as you say, this moment of mass tumult is a way I’m thinking of it, where we’re all a little bit shaken from the normal progression of our one foot in front of the other lives. And so I think about it from the perspective that I am personally going through, you know, an interruption. And it feels very intimate and personal and unique to myself.
But everyone I know is going through that exact same thing in a different way. They’re experiencing different struggles, different circumstances, you know, different challenges. But collectively, we’ve had kind of, because of the pandemic specifically, six months of this intense feeling that something can come out of nowhere. That was not expected by most of us, although there were some people who had been warning for a long time that this was possible. And out of no volition of our own, no fault of our own, [it] can completely derail our plans or take our loved ones from us or remind us that this world is just not something that we can predict and count on in the way that we thought. And I think that it really is revealing a lot of the broken systems that are usually invisible.
And I think that’s what’s so important about, you know, the fact that we’re having marches and movements for racial justice at the same moment that we are all being, you know, upended by this literal biological attack on our bodies and our people.
You know, we’re all living in societies and those societies and those invisible strictures that hold them up, keep some people in one place and others in other places, and those invisible structures that are white supremacist to their core, to the point like in [US] America specifically, that our whole entire society was built on the backs of other people having stolen lives and land and dignity not that long ago.
And then we have this pandemic that suddenly people are like, "I wonder why the pandemic is affecting the black community in [US] America worse". None of this is a coincidence. And I do think that people are seeing that now. And it’s not [just] now. I guess I don’t want to sound like people weren’t seeing it before.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:08:55] Sure.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:08:55] Lots of people were. But it’s a moment of not being able to ignore something.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:09:01] Yes!
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:09:02] And of everyone not being able to ignore it at the same time.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:09:05] Absolutely. That’s what feels really special about the moment we’re living through, right? Which is that when the pandemic seemed to no longer be an epidemic and was moving to sort of like global – spreading across the globe.
I was about to leave my new home in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, to go travelling across east Africa for a month. It was really interesting, well, on one level, to be heading to the global south from the global north and for the fear of disease to be reversed for the first time, right? You know, I got to Uganda and had my British passport palmed for a long, slow minute while the woman asked me at the airport when did I leave the Netherlands.
Because, usually, tourists from the west are received with open arms. Actually, Ugandans and other people from the global south trying to enter the global north are viewed with suspicion. And here I was coming from what was now the new epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic. And suddenly I was the bearer of death, disease, and destruction. And as a European, and not, this time, as an African.
So there was that observation, which was really interesting to me. But it made me so aware of the ways in which we are indeed all connected, particularly thanks to sort of the global 24-hour news cycles.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:10:32] Oh, my goodness!
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:10:33] We’re consuming the same news so, to some degree, we think we’re living the same lives. And what that stops us from being able to see is the ways in which these things, these systemic problems, manifest in a local way. But it is also sometimes in the ways in which the transnational nature is obscured by the focus on the local, right?
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:10:54] I was just going to say, yeah, in the US, I think that it is true that, like, we all kind of read about the same stories in a sense, you know, we read the kind of macro same stories. "There is a global pandemic," we read about that. But I think that in the US in particular, which is the only one I can really talk about from my own personal experience because that’s where I’ve been stuck for six months and spent my entire life.
The US is such a navel-gazing media ecosystem. We specifically care so much about ourselves only. And think of ourselves in an isolationist way.
I don’t even mean that, like, politically. But, I just mean American people often, and American media often, just relegates the rest of the world to a section at the back of the newspaper. You know, in a very, like, physical, real way. And as coronavirus has been, you know, sweeping through the US, there were all of these earlier places where the virus had already been, you know, Europe, Asia ...
There were lessons to have learnt. And yet we really didn’t pay any attention here. I don’t actually think on a political level, or even on just a news reading level, we’ve really paid that much attention. And so there’s the sense that we’re all reading the same story. But it’s a very, very different story, depending on the frame. The cultural frame. The national frame.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:12:23] Can you remember? Describe for me, if you can, in as much vivid detail as you can, when the penny dropped for you that you wanted to write about the good life.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:12:36] Hmm. Well, I had just been laid off from my job, which came as a huge shock. And so I was in that state of reassessing. I was you know, I say reassessing that makes it sound like I was looking back and being like, "what have I done wrong?". But actually the second I lost my job, I was just thrown into utter and complete panic. And it was highly motivational because I simply needed a new job immediately. I just did not, you know, I did not have the luxury to continue to, like, pay for my home literally, and keep a roof over my children’s heads unless I immediately got a new job. And so there was something in that moment that was incredibly clarifying of purpose. You know, there was no moment or opportunity for really kind of having any existential doubt. I was more like, this is horrible. I didn’t see this coming. I don’t know what to do about it. But now I have my marching orders. I have to make a certain amount of money so that we can live here because we live in San Francisco. It’s an incredibly expensive place.
And I have two kids, and my husband’s job is tied to that place. I think that at that moment, had my husband been someone who could work remotely for his job, you know, we could have done something like, well, let’s reassess everything and go live with our families and take a load off. But we really can’t. He has to go into the office every single day. And so I just had this kind of like narrowing in of focus, and it was on being able to provide stability for my children and my family.
[00:14:16] And I think that that is when I began thinking about the good life, as I had always talked to myself about it in my mind, and realising that this was one of those moments where I guess I just was feeling that I wasn’t sure that that intensity of purpose in terms of just needing to get the mechanics of my life in order was in line with the "good life". And I also felt maybe the good life is irrelevant.
Like as a kid, as a child, I was like, I’m going to grow up and live a good life. And I didn’t mean the good life, like the sweet life, the life full of joy and happiness. I meant a good life. I’m going to be a good person who is not selfish, who is not making the world worse. It was so important to me and like I just really was so obsessed with that notion.
And now here I am, an adult with, like, the life around me that I have made. And so many of my choices are behind me. You know, like, I am who I am now. And the question of like in that moment "what can I do that would be the best life, the good life for me, for my children?" was actually irrelevant. I was literally just like, I need to just get immediately a way to maintain a roof over my children’s heads.
And then I guess that, like in terms of the actual specific moment that I wanted to write for The Correspondent about the good life was, you know, in the middle of the night, you and I often correspond in the middle of the night. I don’t know if you know that. But because of our time difference with you being in the Netherlands and me being in California often, like, I’ll email you when it’s daytime, my time, and you get back to me when it’s the middle of the night, my time.
And so I read our correspondence like in the middle of the night.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:16:04] I was a nocturnal relationship.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:16:06] Yes, it is. Which is good because sometimes you have your most strange and vulnerable ideas in the middle of the night.
And I guess it was late at night and I was just thinking about how my life felt so completely unmoored. And it was because of the pandemic where the whole world felt out of whack. And it was because suddenly one of the consistencies of my life, my job, my paycheque, my sense of what I do all day. Like, our job is so much more than just a paycheque, even if we hate it. It’s literally the activity that you do all day. And that activity was gone in a flash, in an unexpected flash. And it was this, you know, an intense reminder that things can happen beyond your control that you don’t see coming.
And I began thinking about what I had wanted for my life when I was a kid when I was first imagining my future. And the phrase "the good life" was always a part of that image to myself. And then I think it’s a kind of childish and simplistic idea in some ways, at least for me it was. But I went back to it. And I also think that in a moment like that, where my life felt very suddenly, you know, unsettled and the world felt very unsettled. I felt this would be an appropriate time for me to write about something that is so incredibly earnest.
And, like, I am a deeply earnest person and I’m embarrassed about it. I’m not embarrassed about many things. I’ll tell you so many embarrassing things about myself that other people will be like "Emily, you shouldn’t talk about that. That’s so mortifying and unprofessional. Why would you tell them that you know how to open beer bottles with your teeth? Like, that’s horrible." But that I don’t find embarrassing. But I am a little embarrassed that my actual instinct in a lot of moments is to just be, like, unbearably sincere. [chuckles]
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:17:54] Kill them with sincerity.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:17:58] Yeah. And there’s not a lot of room for it! People want snark or just irony. We live in, like, our era, our moment on this earth is so drenched in irony that it’s like post-ironic. And I kind of think that in a way, the pandemic was a break in that irony for a moment and everyone was like, you know what, we’re allowed to have deep, existential earnest questions and doubts for a second and let’s just be like completely real, we’re allowed to do it. And so into that void marched my thinking about "the good life" and the realisation that I have.
This is the realisation I have in the middle of the night, which was that since I was a child, I had promised myself I would live a good life, and that encompassed being a good person, and organising my life in a certain set of ways. And yet when I lost my job, I had the realisation that somehow, that concept has really been tied to achievement. The concept of achievement. Achieving, you know, career success, financial stability, a family. A list of things. And that thinking of it as this, like, striving up a ladder toward my death.
I mean, what the hell am I striving toward? But, you know, this kind of rung by rung set of goals and achievements. I don’t think that’s what I wanted when I first was saying this was what "a good life" was going to be. And it gave me this realisation that I don’t think I have been honest with acknowledging what my real definition of "the good life" has become as an adult.
And I also don’t necessarily have a real understanding of any other ways I could do it. Like if I were in that moment when I lost my job when my life felt untethered.
If I were to make some other choice and live some other way, I don’t know what those other ways really are.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:20:03] Right, you didn’t know what you didn’t know.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:20:05] I have no idea what I don’t know. And what I do know is that a lot of people around me are supremely unhappy. [laughs] But I also know that there are a lot of people around me who are living their lives in a different way, and not even just the people who are around me, like the people who I don’t know who are far from me. I just literally don’t know them. And I guess that it was one of those moments where I wanted to acknowledge for myself that there’s a shit ton I don’t know about how a life can be lived.
And in this moment where I’m going to restart, and so many of us are restarting in some way or another, whether they’re someone who was laid off, like I was, or someone whose life has been completely and unutterably changed because they lost a loved one or because the pandemic has, you know, destroyed their business. So many things that are happening in this exact moment. I guess I was thinking like this is a good time for me to explore this for myself because also so many other people are exploring it as well.
Maybe there are different, better ways. And even if there aren’t different better ways. I just want to know, like, how are other people doing it?
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:21:06] Yes, I think that’s really interesting because in some ways, exploring a topic like this that can only work because it is very much rooted in your personal experience. Because you’re willing to be so sincere because you are living through the experiment yourself.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:21:22] Yeah.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:21:22] On one level, you know, one can ask, well, what does this have to do with, you know, foundational issues, transnational subjects? When indeed, as you’ve talked about, we’re living through, still, a pandemic for which there is a virus out there for which there is no cure there. And that is the new kid on the block because in parts of the world, you still have other types of diseases that are still afflicting lots of people for whom equally there is no cure, and to everything else in between.
Then you add to that just from this year alone, the marches for racial equality and justice that may have really – the fire may have been lit in the US, but because of the sort of globalised nature of the exploitation of people there, they have resonated all over the world.
And so it’s possible to look at the series and think, what does that have to do with any of these bigger, existential, critical, systemic issues? How would you answer that question? Because I have my thoughts on that. But I would say I’m so intrigued about what yours are.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:22:28] You know, I mean, I guess in a basic way the idea of how to live a life, and what is the best way to live it, and what options do we have and do we even have choices. It’s a question that faces people individually but that collectively leads to the worlds that we have. And I think also that the idea of "I’m going to try to live my best life" or "I was raised with a certain set of values and so here’s what my goal is for my life" is really formed, is really, maybe invisibly, influenced by the societies that we’re in and the structures that curtail and oppress and form those societies.
And I think so much of what the coronavirus has laid bare for everyone in an unignorable way is that we are living in a set of broken systems. And in some ways, you know, the systems may be different, whether you’re in like the global south or whether you’re in the United States of America with a history of slavery and destruction of native peoples.
You know, there’s different issues wherever you may be, but we are all living in places and in times that are controlled by systems that we often don’t have the time to see. We’re too busy hustling. We’re too busy paying our rent. We’re too busy trying to take care of our kids and paying for, you know, health care.
And I think that in this moment, a lot of people are able to have a moment to see, even if they knew it already. There’s just like we’re all kind of literally stuck in our homes. There’s nothing to do but see the shit. I think this idea of "how to live a good life", "what is a good life" is something that individuals face, but that also our communities and our histories and our systems that lock us in place influence, and they can curtail the potential of those dreams.
And so I guess I think this is the perfect moment to look at it, because as people are fighting for justice, you know, I think there are some people for whom the notion of a good life means making an impact and positively influencing change. And, like, the people who are organising movements for equity and justice in the US, you know, that’s a form of fighting for and attempting to achieve the good life. And I want to inspect those ideas and learn about them.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:25:00] As I was listening to you talk. I was struck. I’m sure you knew it before and have probably come across it again now. I have a master’s degree in management. I don’t know. That’s where, you know, I was trying to live my parents’ good life by providing them with a degree that is respectable in our community.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:25:22] Yes so much of it has to do with living up to our parents’ expectations.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:25:24] Absolutely. And even that was just barely, you know, just barely – my uncle said "Eliza, are you going to be buying bananas in Lagos and selling them in Nigeria? Is that what business is?" So, uncle, I’m so sorry. I still have not I have not arrived yet.
But on this master’s programme, we were obviously, as any business student will have come across Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right? And I was so struck by when you were talking, hearing how actually, like with so many things, probably this hierarchy of needs, which essentially is if you imagine it’s a pyramid and at the bottom is sort of the basic things that we all need to just survive. And then it kind of heads towards what, you know, he calls self-actualisation, right? And so at the bottom is just housing and shelter and those sorts of things.
And rather than it being a way to understand a set of tools that people needed, it has become the end goal itself. And I wondered if that was sort of Maslow’s intention. You know, that when you were talking about how your identity has become so intertwined with the work that you do, your sense of purpose, and how the child within you who was striving for the good life probably didn’t mean: "I want a job in an office doing, you know, X, Y, Z things". But that child to be able to achieve the things which truly made her happy in this world that we live in would indeed have needed a job. But now the job itself has become the end goal, right?
Like how the hierarchy of needs is no longer a way to achieve something. But it’s the achievement. It’s the attainment in itself. And I wondered as you’ve been researching and thinking about what you wanted to write about. What are some of the things that you can hint to already that you have been questioning and that we can expect to interrogate alongside you?
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:27:16] Yeah. Well, I think one of them is the commoditisation of the good life. This sense that I have been finding that the good life is something that you can buy. I’m going to be talking about that.
I’m going to also talk about where the idea comes from. Like you can say, it’s a phrase you can say and people know what you mean. But actually, everyone means something completely different. But at least in western philosophy, it’s one of the oldest ideas that comes to us from ancient Greek philosophy. Socrates talked about it in the writings of Plato. Aristotle talked about it a ton. And I think that in that interpretation, it’s something called Eudaimonia.
I’m going to explore what that phrase means. And a lot of people nowadays interpret it to mean happiness. So I’m also going to research – there’s a lot of people who research happiness. So we’re going to meet some happiness researchers, as well as some people for whom happiness really is the kind of goal in their hearts.
And I want to interrogate this notion of happiness, Eudaimonia, the scholars and the kind of classicists I’ve spoken to really think that that’s not what they meant back in ancient Greece. They meant something very specifically different. It’s fascinating. All of the different kinds of schools of Greek philosophy had a different definition of Eudaemonia.
So Aristotle’s definition loosely was that one component of it was that you needed to have a virtuous life. And that really speaks to me because I think that’s what I meant when I was a kid. I wanted to be virtuous. But of course, then what the hell does that mean? And then I’m interested in the way in which "the good life" is often a lie. Or often an actual impossibility, so we’re going to meet some people who have set out to achieve the good life by leaving society, by thinking that, yes, all of these kinds of invisible systems that you and I’ve been talking about and that, you know, that like social movements lay bare, that there we need to have progress and change. And there are some people who believe, you know, society is never going to get better enough.
So we’re going to meet some people who, you know, have then, therefore, chosen to drop out of society and look at the kind of pitfalls and also joys. One thing that is very important for me in the series that I really want all of our members to understand is that this question is a very basic eternal, essential human question. And I could never in a million years deign to speak for other people about it. I don’t want to generalise and say like this is what the good life is. All I can do is say this is what I have felt it is for myself. And here’s what other people are telling me it is for them.
But I think that the danger of this series would be that if I were to remove myself from it too completely and pretend that I’m speaking about some kind of universal truth. And that’s part of why it’s so exciting to do it in The Correspondent because it’s a community of members.
And so I hope that people who have thoughts about what makes the good life, who, you know, the common notions of the good life leave out. How do you know the myths that our specific cultures rear us with? How do they describe the good life? And how do they tell people from the earliest possible ages when our personalities are forming and our goals are forming, how do they speak to us and tell us, like, what is the good life for you?
And we’re going to speak about disability rights, I think it’s something that can’t be disentangled from this idea because the good life is really about how should I live, but how should you live also is incumbent upon how can you live? And we live in a built environment that is built for specific kinds of bodies, for specific kinds of people.
And people are not all the same. And so, you know, if you are visually impaired or have some other, you know, physical difference, the world that you’re interacting with may not allow you to access it.
It’s fascinating that the stories we tell children, the environment we present children with, the privileges that they’re given really can become a blueprint for what they can imagine is possible.
And I know that from my own self, you ask me who I am, which is a hard question and an easy question. But I grew up with a father who I just want to be open about. You know, from the beginning he was an incredibly successful actor. And having the proximity to that level of success made me think that level of success was normal and possible.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:31:59] Absolutely, yes.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:32:01] And like later in life, I realised how completely insane that was and also how, you know, my dad worked incredibly hard and also was a recipient of a lot of luck. A lot of the good life has to do with luck, and so I want to talk to psychologists about that. The idea of the good life, it’s personal and it’s general. And so I also really want to talk to, you know, macroeconomists.
There are people who have done this research where they look, not at individual lives and individual outcomes, but at the aggregate so they can say what is the determining factor of a life? And there’s this research I’m obsessed with that shows, via a map, that the most important determination for what you will become, for how much money you will have, for how long you will live, is the zip code in which you were born.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:32:49] Absolutely. You know, our world, as we experience it, is built on systems and systems sound really abstract, but essentially it’s just the sum of lots of choices and decisions people have made. And a lot of those people, each of them are not trying to act maliciously.
But in many ways, by upholding their part of the system, or by taking their specific action without questioning how it falls within wider actions, they uphold systems that then turn the world into a sort of postcode lottery, right? And not in the way that seems wishful to think about. Like there is an actual thing you can do called The Postcode Lottery.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:33:31] Oh really?
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:33:31] Yes. In the Netherlands, it exists. I think in the UK it exists, too. I’ve never played the lottery, so I’m the worst person to tell you how it works. But there is also a very literal postcode lottery, particularly in the UK, which is such a, you know, a classist society. And I would argue that everywhere that system has been expanded to and the Brits did a very fine job of exporting that system.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:33:53] Oh, yes. We’re using that system still here in [US] America.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:33:57] To some greater or lesser extent, there is this hierarchy and automatically, as we come into the world, certain lives are valued more highly than others.
And while we do not speak about it, while we talk about meritocracy, while we talk about choice, while we talk about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps by sheer virtue of where you live, and that’s what you see, the people in the middle, us good middle class folk start to scramble, particularly if you live in London, you know, you get pregnant and you start to think about where you’re going to live because your neighbourhood is going to determine the school your child goes to. And the school your child goes to is going to determine where they might end up later in life.
And so very much without you having to light candles or, you know, believe in fairies, we end up in a place where very few of your actual choices, if you have few choices you can actually make, determine the course of your life. And so, yeah, the notion, therefore, that you can somehow still choose and craft it is so interesting to explore because it remains true even outside of the system. And that’s where you talk about it on a personal level.
But collectively, on a general level, this is why I’m so excited about this because you look at it at face value and you think, you know, this is the stuff of Cosmopolitan magazine.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:35:14] Oh shit! I don’t read Cosmo. I didn’t know that! Am I ripping them off? [laughs]
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:35:20] No, because, you know, I think what I’m saying is that actually also because of how our world is structured, we have decided that subjects that seem macho and impenetrable and nothing to do with the human are those subjects that are serious.
If you’re talking about numbers and if you’re talking about systems and whereas actually at its very core, who we think of ourselves as being, how we organise ourselves to enable some people to thrive, while at the same time all of those things are foundational to how our societies work.
So the notion of the good life is not the thing that you read in the sort of women’s magazine next to the section on how to make the best green juice. It is so foundational, which is why it’s so perfect for The Correspondent, which is why it’s so perfect for how we see the world, that when you zoom out far enough, you start to be able to connect the dots in ways that were previously obscured, in ways in which people told us it didn’t matter. "Oh, that’s trivial."
Well, no, actually it’s not, because the answers might help us see ourselves in ways we otherwise didn’t see ourselves, might help us understand how we lived together in ways we have not seen that. So do you imagine that we will get to a place, through the lens of the good life, where we start to see how we can actually pull levers in the world so that it can be organised differently?
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:36:47] God, I hope so. One of the things I am the most interested in trying to figure out is whether it is actually truly possible to change your definition of the good life if you need to.
But I think it’s more that if you interrogate what your value system is and how those values have been given to you and formulated in your own self, then is it possible to truly change? And my plan is to speak to psychologists about that and also to people who have done that. You know, there are people who have changed their lives.
A lot of the people I know who have changed their lives, and this is, you know, strictly observational, are people for whom their life hit an incredible snag. They hit rock bottom, or they lost someone or everything they thought they knew was wrong, you know? And in those moments of intense vulnerability, they made a different choice.
They switched careers, or they moved away, or they like, you know, radically and with little warning, got married and had a child and now have a totally different life. You know, any number of things. I know somebody who moved onto a boat. Now they live in the sea.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:38:00] Now they live in the sea! [laughs] I’m just imagining someone floating in a little matchbox on the sea, having chosen to live a very different life. When you started saying this I was thinking, yeah, people get clean off drugs and things – no, no, someone is living in a matchbox in the sea. All kinds of choices. [laughs]
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:38:18] Clean off drugs as well, and you know, the idealist in me thinks that as we are going through this kind of global rupture of the normal course of events, that maybe that leaves room for more people to make a change if we want to make a change. What I know is, though, that I feel discontentment and I feel unsure and I feel acutely that I just have this one fucking life. So, yes, I hope that people are capable of change if we all are able to recognise that this plays a role in our lives, and what that role is, then that will lead us to our own decisions about what to do next.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:39:02] So by way of closing question, how does a tech reporter [chuckles] beeline to writing about Aristotle and people living in boathouses? And the potential to completely imagine a society without disabled people, without people of colour, etc, because they do not exist in many conceptualisations of the good life. How do you make that connection from what you were doing before to what you’re proposing to do now? Surely someone still needs to be covering Silicon Valley.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:39:44] There’s plenty of tech reporters who are covering it, number one. So the world of tech will be fine while I take a little hiatus to talk about the good life. I was certainly not holding it up on my own, but –
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:39:56] You’re too modest.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:39:57] Additionally [chuckles], you know, actually the history of Silicon Valley. I’m going to write about that as well. And I’m going to write about techno-utopianism.
Techno utopianism is the good life. A lot of technologists, where I live in the Bay Area, you know, believe in the power of technology to give people the good life. And that is what motivates them. And people roll their eyes at them and we say, wow, you really didn’t understand that by connecting the world on Facebook so that we could all reach our family and have much more connection and love, which is a form of the good life, you were actually going to enable white supremacists to create secret groups that they were then going to organise marches where they murder people.
You know, I mean, but the truth is technology is very wrapped up in the idea of the good life because technology is a tool to better ourselves. And it’s a tool for convenience. I mean, that’s what, many times, it has become lately, that technology basically becomes kind of like a shorthand. And I’m interested in, you know, we think of technology now as gadgets, but technology is ancient. Books are technology.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:41:03] Fire, right?
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:41:05] Fire! That’s the first. There it is. I mean, we harnessed fire. And as I wrote about in The Correspondent before, I mean, bread! The leavening of bread is a technology, an accidental technology, but an amazing one. And so I think that there’s something really interesting in the way that man has been harnessing tools of technology to make ourselves have a better life. Whether that was agriculture or whether it was the, you know, automatic washing machine. And now we don’t have to spend hours washing our own clothing. And I think there’s something really interesting in the fact that we keep doing that and we’re still so unhappy.
You know, like, we made the refrigerators and washing machines and computers and Apple watches that tell us when we should be walking more. There is a robot that I have in my house whose name is Alexa. You may have her as well. And if I want, she can read a book to my kids and put them to sleep for me. And yet, you know, we are all I don’t think anyone would argue that like everyone on earth is living the good life.
But even though that was what it was about. So I think in some ways that I have always written about how tech changes us and how we interact with tech. But in a reductionist, simplistic way, we interact with tech to have a good life. And it is in some ways a real means to it.
I’m thinking about this morning. I woke up and looked on Instagram, the place where the good life is presented to you. And I saw an image of two young schoolgirls in the US sitting in the parking lot of a Taco Bell with their laptops trying to get wifi internet so that they can do their remote school learning because many public schools are doing only remote learning, which means that you can only do it if you have an internet connection.
And these two girls who live in the Central Valley in California, where the majority of food that feeds this nation is grown, and their parents are likely labourers in the fields growing that food, and they are labouring right now amidst wildfires and smoke and conditions that are so incredibly dangerous.
I mean, so many, you know, confluences of tragedies are coming to bear in that area of the world. And here are these two young girls who need an internet connection. And like that doesn’t mean that if they get the internet connection, they’re going to be living the good life. I don’t think that that’s what that means. But without it, they are 100% cut off from it. Without it, they are unable to be educated. And that is the system we’ve created. You know, in this world technology plays a role. So, OK, so there’s my soapbox of why tech is relevant.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:43:55] Right. So we’re all excited because we know in September on The Correspondent, in our anniversary month, our birthday month, we’ll be launching your series on how to live the good life alongside with an audio component, which people will just have to hang around to see what good stuff will come from that.
And I’m really, really delighted because what we’re going to do – what you are going to do, I’m just gonna sit back and cheer from the sidelines because that’s what a good editor does.
Well, what you’re going to do is you’re going to take something that is so deeply personal and individual to each and every single one of us. And through the lens of your own experience, ladder it up. Is that the right word? Yes. So that we see how it comes together in a way that goes beyond the individual, towards the systemic. It goes beyond the frivolous, towards the foundational. And I really, truly cannot wait for it.
And I’m so delighted that you’re working with us, Emily Dreyfuss. And, yeah, thank you so much for making the time to talk to me across time zones while you’re in Idaho for a few days with your family. And safe travels and bye from Amsterdam.
EMILY DREYFUSS [00:45:15] Thank you so much. Bye.
ELIZA ANYANGWE [00:45:16] Bye.
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