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22 May 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 12:56pm

Life hacking: the Californian tech bro approach to self-help

By Houman Barekat

Unbeknown to his employers, a web developer called Bob clandestinely outsources his own job to some workers in China. He pays them one fifth of his salary and spends his working day dossing on the  internet. A tech entrepreneur called Maneesh hires a woman via Craigslist to slap him in the face every time he gets distracted by Facebook. This enables him to quadruple his productivity. A wellness author called Nick boosts his motivation with the help of the Beeminder app, whereby users agree to incur financial penalties if they fail to meet their personal goals. As a result he manages to work 120 hours in one week. A software engineer called Ron whittles his wardrobe down to a set of seven T-shirts, each with a day of the week printed on it, and subsists on the food substitute Soylent. He does this in order to reduce his daily “cognitive load” by not having to think about what to wear or what to eat.

These shenanigans are known, in the kooky parlance of the Californian tech milieu, as “life hacks”. For most of us – the OED included – the word “hacker” is synonymous with computer hacking; this particular colloquial usage, which actually dates back to the 1950s, means something more like “tinkerer” or “problem solver”. As Joseph Reagle explains in Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents, “life hacking” is about using creative nous to eke out a competitive advantage, whether in relation to time management, personal health or even romance.

“In the hacker’s sight,” Reagle writes, almost everything “is conceived as a system. It is modular, composed of parts, which can be decomposed and recomposed; it is governed by algorithmic rules, which can be understood, optimised, and subverted.” A lucrative earner for a coterie of self-styled gurus such as Tim Ferriss, bestselling author of The 4-Hour Work Week (2007), life hacking is a publishing phenomenon, “the latest chapter in the history of self-help”.

Some hacks are harmless: Amy Webb devised a points-based scoring system for vetting prospective online dates, and created a fake profile as a male user in order to scope out the competition; she gives TED Talks about finding love online. Others, such as the “seduction hacking” techniques used by self-styled “pickup artists” to manipulate women into sleeping with them, are unpleasantly sociopathic.

What they all have in common is a certain bet-hedging, game theory approach to tackling life’s challenges. Whether this is enough to constitute a distinct “subculture” with its own “ethos”, as Reagle proposes, is open to doubt. What he calls “the hacker mindset” is just regular human ingenuity repurposed for the 21st-century hustle. When Ferriss delegated the administration of his online dating correspondence to workers in India and the Philippines – “His teams were able to schedule 20 café dates into three days… And it cost him only $350” – he hadn’t solved some profound existential puzzle: he had hired some clerical labour.

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Reagle insists we “ought not to dismiss all of self-help (and life hacking) as a sham”, because its practitioners “seek what most people want: comfort, health, and connection”. Nonetheless, he concedes that some of the panaceas on offer are of questionable value. The mindfulness app Headspace helps thousands of users to meditate, but there is little evidence that it’s any more effective than taking a walk in the park. As for online dating, Reagle rightly points out that the spreadsheet approach does not allow for the possibility of affection developing over time: “a good match is not found but made”, he observes. There are some things in life you just can’t game.

Hacking Life raises interesting questions about the ethical and political implications of obsessive self-improvement. Most of the people described in this book are self-employed entrepreneurs on the make; if they wish to run themselves into the ground, that is their prerogative. Whether the rest of us would stand to benefit from the popularisation of their ideas is another matter. If, as Reagle suggests, “enhanced productivity accelerates the demands placed on everyone”, the assiduous “productivity hacker” is not so much a revolutionary as a scab.

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At a stretch, we might commend the minimalist “lifestyle hackers” who advocate a clutter-free existence as a way of articulating a timely critique of Western consumerism and its deleterious impact on the environment. But the overall thrust of the hacker “ethos”, such as it is, is implicitly reactionary. As with other recent success stories in self-help publishing – from Jordan Peterson to Marie Kondo, to the glut of pop philosophy books about the Stoics – its emphasis on radical individualism implies a politics of quietism. For all their interest in unpacking “systems”, Reagle’s life-hacking gurus are nobly indifferent to questions of power or social justice. Their peppy, pseudo-egalitarian geniality notwithstanding, they inhabit a bubble of uninterrogated privilege.

This is illustrated in a telling vignette towards the end of the book. During the 2014 edition of the preposterously titled “Wisdom 2.0” conference, activists stormed the stage to protest against the lack of affordable housing in San Francisco. One of the panellists responded by glibly inviting the audience to “use this as a moment of practice… check in with your body and see… what it’s like to be around conflict and people with heartfelt ideas that may be different than what we’re thinking”. It is hard to imagine any of them gave a damn, and why would they? 

Houman Barekat is co-editor of “The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online” (OR Books)

Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents
Joseph Reagle
MIT Press, 216pp, £20

This article appears in the 22 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake