In Hacking Life: Systematized Living and its Discontents, Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. explores the cultural trend of life hacking in its myriad forms as rooted in both the increasing pressures to perform to the maximum of our abilities and technological advances that are enabling us to monitor and quantify the world in unprecedented detail. The book not only lays bare an increasingly popular ethos of our time, but also exposes the layers of exploitation it potentially engenders, writes Ignas Kalpokas.
Hacking Life: Systematized Living and its Discontents. Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. MIT Press. 2019.
We seem to live in a world in which we face ever-greater pressures to perform to the maximum of our abilities, while at the same time technological advances allow us to monitor, quantify and analyse the world in unprecedented detail. It is most probably from this dual trend that life hacking, the drive to extend ourselves beyond our ‘ordinary’ capacity, derives its impetus, as Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. describes in his insightful, and simultaneously disturbing, book.
Perhaps the most fundamental element of the hacker ethos, as demonstrated in Hacking Life, is the perception of the world as a system of systems that can and, therefore must, be gamed. And if one is capable of exploiting the otherwise unknown underlying rules of a system, one becomes capable of performing what from the outside would seem to be ‘miracles’ (7). To that effect, it is not surprising that Reagle conceptualises life hacking as ‘the latest chapter in the history of self-help’, reflecting the currently dominant vision of success (5).
Indeed, in addition to fascination with systems, life hacking is rightly shown to derive from a very specific system of cultural and economic organisation. Culturally, we seem to be entering a stage where a significant proportion of the workforce ‘feel[s] that working too much is better than counting the minutes before the end of the day’ and is more likely to ‘complain of too little time rather than too much work’ (4). This is further exacerbated through the breakdown of regular employment and the casualisation of work, either through the gig economy or the necessity for individuals to be their own entrepreneurs, content/product creators and self-promoters simultaneously, the latter particularly characteristic of the ‘creative classes’ (15). In this context, self-discipline and the constant effort to get the most out of yourself (essentially an ideology of effectiveness, a combination of efficiency and a clearly defined purpose) become crucial.
The current world, characterised by the necessity of being available and ready for work 24/7, is indifferent to, and under normal circumstances perhaps even irreconcilable with, the bodily conditions of human life (35). Nevertheless, Reagle demonstrates how for some life hackers, an escape from these dredging demands has become the prime obsession. Under the label of ‘lifestyle design’, they aim to combine an effective and regimented routine for what must be done in person and then outsourcing all that remains while spending time on the beach yourself. This, as with many life hacking solutions below, undeniably shows more than a hint of arrogant privilege, such as outsourcing your work to low-paid virtual assistants in developing countries or hiring an (again, low-paid) assistant to prompt you when necessary. In fact, what for some is ‘lifestyle design’ that enables things like a four-hour week and a luxurious lifestyle is for others mere continuation of exploitation.
As time, for life hackers, is money, tools, from flowcharts to apps, allegedly enabling optimisation and streamlining of the use of time, are among the most popular hacks within the community. As Reagle shows, such tools can involve anything from a simple method of deciding what to do and what to put aside to elaborate systems that allow you to manage your load. In contrast to the ‘lifestyle designers’ above, such life hackers aim at squeezing as much as possible into the usual working hours. Moreover, and in stark contrast to the comforts of ‘lifestyle design’, the maximum increase in working hours might be the precise goal, thereby turning attention to hacking motivation for working long and hard.
To account for the latter, Reagle subsequently goes on to describe motivation hacks through goal tracking, group challenges, gamification (such as getting virtual points for completion of tasks) and even apps for pledging to pay a fine for failure to complete a task. Hence, through a combination of time and motivation hacking, one can move from a four-hour to an 120-hour week if one is seriously engaged in what Reagle repeatedly terms ‘productivity porn’. Still, such regimes may be not only gruelling but also indicative of something disturbing. Reagle again accurately pinpoints the problem: through their extreme behaviour, ‘productivity hackers sometimes seem to be cheerleading for things that will be abused by corporate regimes’ (40). In other words, while for some scheduling software, behaviour-tracking wearables and motivation through relentless competition or monetary deductions are merely chosen add-ons, for others they are an enforced unavoidability in the labour market. In other words, choice emerges as a key variable marking privilege.
The life hacking phenomenon that, albeit internally incoherent, is nevertheless united by a desire to hack the system, is also demonstrated in a particular attitude to things. Thus, approaches to hacking stuff vary from fascination with cool gadgets (being able to outsource routine tasks to things instead of low-paid humans) to minimalism and roaming the world with just a backpack of possessions (e.g. challenging yourself and others to possess less than 100 things) or ‘decluttering’ your home to become more orderly and (of course) productive, in the two latter cases breaking the system of possessing things. And yet, once again the issue of privilege cannot be avoided simply because one needs to be able to afford to either buy the gadgets or to throw things away in clear conscience that one will be able to buy them anew whenever the need arises. As Reagle stresses, once again the matter is the ability to choose – whether to embark on a minimalist quest and to drop it as one pleases – as the present hallmark of wealth.
However, an impression that keeps on recurring throughout the book is that despite such wealth (whether in traditional monetary form or in the shape of choice), there is also a fair amount of insecurity lurking in the background. A characteristic example can be found in Reagle’s observation when introducing health hacking: the constant self-measurement and quantification aimed at optimising health and, therefore, performance. For him, that is ‘a variation on the idea that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”’ (83). The answer may lie exactly here: given the underlying insecurity of an increasingly unmanageable world of rapid pace and automation, the belief that every system can be calculated and hacked can be a welcome sign of at least some degree of mastery or ‘a sense of control and meaning’ (105).
A similar idea might be extended, much less comfortably, to the subsequent chapter on relationship hacking. This clearly reveals the nastiest aspects of the hacker approach: objectifying women both intellectually and sexually, treating them as any other systems to be hacked. While time, motivation and one’s own health are also objectified, it is when this is directed at other people that the problem of instrumentally trying to (ab)use somebody or something begins to acquire its full weight. The issue is, most probably, still one of insecurity, prompting hackers to seek allegedly reliable rules for guaranteed sexual encounters. Nevertheless, this is one of the occasions when explanation should by no means come even close to justification – and Reagle is explicit about that.
The pattern thereby established – the luxury of choice mixed with the fear of a lack of control – is further repeated in chapters on consciousness hacking through medication and psychedelics to not only deepen spirituality but also to increase performance. Reagle also discusses hacking meaning through, among other things, the introduction of apps for something that normally requires disconnection, such as meditation. Overall, however, life hackers are often oblivious to the exploitative systems of productivity regimes structuring the lives of the creative class today, trapping them in their own game: after all, if some embrace the regime, thereby becoming more effective, others have no other option but to follow suit. Paradoxically, then, the more engaged life hackers get in hacking everyday systems, the more they become subjected to the ultimate system of exploitation. That, in addition to laying bare an increasingly popular ethos of our time, is perhaps the key contribution of this book: ensuring that, contrary to many of the hackers, we are not oblivious to such (self-)exploitation and the perils of instrumentally treating both ourselves and others.
Ignas Kalpokas is currently assistant professor at LCC International University and lecturer at Vytautas Magnus University (Lithuania). He received his PhD from the University of Nottingham. Ignas’s research and teaching covers the areas of international relations and international political theory, primarily with respect to sovereignty and globalisation of norms, identity and formation of political communities, the political use of social media, the political impact of digital innovations and information warfare. He is the author of Creativity and Limitation in Political Communities: Spinoza, Schmitt and Ordering (Routledge, 2018).
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.