Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents

Review by Btihaj Ajana of the book, “Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents” by Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. (2019).

Life hacking has become a ubiquitous trend in recent years. Everyday culture is now awash with self-help books, articles, blogs and an endless stream of social media posts on how to live a happier, fitter and more productive life. We are also witnessing the proliferation of a wide range of smart technologies that allow individuals to self-track in order to improve sleep, perfect diet, enhance fitness, optimise performance and micromanage almost every aspect of their lives.

Much of the allure of life hacking lies in its promise that it will make life easier with less effort, by freeing up time on everyday tasks so we can devote more time to activities that make us happier and more fulfilled. In fact, the growing cultural interest in life hacking is partly born out of a desire to reclaim some autonomy and leisure time from the boundless demands of work and everyday responsibilities. Yet life hacking seems to have turned living itself into a job, a task to be managed at every turn by subjecting even the most mundane tasks of daily existence to managerial, systematic and metric methods that can also be labour-intensive.

This is the paradox that lies at the heart of the life-hacking culture and one that is captured throughout Joseph Reagle’sHacking Life. He traces the history of life hacking, highlighting some of its key figures and developments: from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanackto the “quantified self” and minimalism movements. He surveys the different hacks adopted by the “geeks” and “gurus” discussed in the book as well as the various spheres that have been penetrated by hacking practices, including sleep, time, motivation, health and, even, dating and intimate relationships.

Reagle describes life hacking as a philosophy of self-help that is “steeped in American culture” and its neoliberal ethos of rational individualism, self-reliance, self-optimisation and entrepreneurialism. At the same time, life hacking is not only about the self or the individual but involves a web of relations, some of which can be exploitative in nature. Reagle interrogates, for instance, the ethics of the outsourcing of tasks to Asian workers (one famous life hacker employed a Filipino villager to remind him to floss his teeth). He also critiques some of the relationship hacks and seduction techniques adopted by “pick-up artists” for the way they objectify women and treat others as quantifiable “wet machines”. The life hacker, he warns, “should be careful to hack the system, not the other people caught up in it”.

These are but some of the many complex issues that Reagle grapples with as he sets out to reveal the benefits and downsides of living with the hacking mindset. He does an excellent job in articulating, through myriad examples, the nuances and contradictions inherent in life-hacking culture. A small but not insignificant criticism is that Reagle over-relies on online sources and pop literature to build up his arguments without sufficient engagement with relevant and more robust academic work. Still,Hacking Lifeis to be welcomed as a useful meditation on the neoliberal culture of our time and the kinds of selves we are rapidly becoming in this digital age.

Original review on The Times Higher Education:https://www.timeshighereducation.com/books/hacking-life-systematized-living-and-its-discontents-joseph-m-reagle-jr-mit-press