Hacking Life

Joseph Reagle

MIT Press, 2019

In an effort to keep up with a world of too much, life hackers sometimes risk going too far.

Life hackers track and analyze the food they eat, the hours they sleep, the money they spend, and how they’re feeling on any given day. They share tips on the most efficient ways to tie shoelaces and load the dishwasher; they employ a tomato-shaped kitchen timer as a time-management tool. They see everything as a system composed of parts that can be decomposed and recomposed, with algorithmic rules that can be understood, optimized, and subverted. In Hacking Life, Joseph Reagle examines these attempts to systematize living and finds that they are the latest in a long series of self-improvement methods. Life hacking, he writes, is self-help for the digital age’s creative class.

Reagle chronicles the history of life hacking, from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack through Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek. He describes personal outsourcing, polyphasic sleep, the quantified self movement, and hacks for pickup artists. Life hacks can be useful, useless, and sometimes harmful (for example, if you treat others as cogs in your machine). Life hacks have strengths and weaknesses, which are sometimes like two sides of a coin: being efficient is not the same thing as being effective; being precious about minimalism does not mean you are living life unfettered; and compulsively checking your vital signs is its own sort of illness. With Hacking Life, Reagle sheds light on a question even non-hackers ponder: what does it mean to live a good life in the new millennium?

Endorsements

“Hacking Life is a pitch-perfect history of the early days of ‘life-hacking,’ a meticulous exploration of how those ideas grew into a movement, and a dispassionate analysis of what that success – if it can be called a success – says about all of us.” —Danny O’Brien, writer and coiner of “life hacks”

“Joseph Reagle is a brilliant demystifier of tech culture. In Hacking Life, he chronicles the all-too-human urge to think of our bodies as machines to be tinkered with by changing our diets, social interactions or sleep patterns. Writing with great sympathy for those hoping to fix ‘bugs’ in being human, whether Seneca, Henry David Thoreau or the current wave of tech leaders, Reagle also questions the mindset that sees life as something to be solved.” —Noam Cohen, author of The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball

“At turns inspiring and disturbing, this masterful account of life hackers’ experiments in systematized living tells a larger story about the paradoxical pressures—to keep up and to surpass, to achieve minimalism and to maximize—that selves face in a world of technological optimization.” —Natasha D. Schüll, Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University

Reviews

“this insightful, evenhanded book… delves into the motivations and mindset of ‘life hackers,’…. [a] lively, well-written take.” —Publishers’ Weekly ⭐ review and Book of the Week

“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.” —Ignas Kalpokas, LSE Review of Books

“… a comprehensive look at the recent history and major personalities (also known as ‘the Geeks and the Gurus’) associated with the emergent phenomenon known as ‘life hacking.’” —Dov Greenbaum, Science

Hacking Life is 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.” —Btihaj Ajana, Times Higher Education

Hacking Life raises interesting questions about the ethical and political implications of obsessive self-improvement.” —Houman Barekat, New Statesman

“Reagle’s other books include a history of Wikipedia and 2015’s Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web, which makes him the de facto historian of the subjects that I and every journalist I knew once talked about obsessively.” – Laura Miller, Slate.

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