"Life Hacking as Self-Help: The Hacker Ethos and Digital Milieu"

Joseph Reagle



  1. Introduce life hacking
  2. Frame
  3. The moment
  4. The ethos
  5. Conclude

Life Hacking

Life Hacking


Computer programmers have a very systematic way of looking at life, so I think that life hacks come from them taking that mindset and applying it to anything that they do, not just writing computer programs.

… the idea of a life hack is you kind of reprogram the way that you perform tasks, to make them a little faster and a little more efficient. (TrapaniDaoud (2010))


  1. practical philosophy
    • what is worthwhile and how to achieve it
      • A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art Of Stoic Joy (Irvine (2009), “A guide to the good life”)
  2. self-help
    • a how to genre in the context of American ideology
      • Oracle At The Supermarket: The American Preoccupation With Self-Help Books (Starker (2002), “Oracle at the supermarket”)
  3. as self-enhancement
    • the fashioning of a better self
      • Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets The American Dream (Elliott (2003), “Better than well”)


technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect … operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform I themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality. (Foucault (1982/1997), p. 225)

The Greeks’ precept of “take care of oneself” was supplanted with the Delphic principle, gnothi sauton (“know yourself”).


A lifestyle … [is an] integrated set of practices which an individual embraces, not only because such practices fulfill utilitarian needs, but because they give material form for particular narrative of self-identity…. not only about how to act but who to be.

The reflexivity of modernity operates, not in a situation of greater and greater certainty, but in one of methodological doubt. (Giddens1997ts, p. 81, 83)


Reflecting the moment

Self-help books … reflect their sociocultural context, revealing something of the needs, wishes and fears of individuals of their period. (Starker (2002), “Oracle at the supermarket”, p. 38)

… including notions of success …

Do we succeed

  • by being open to divine intervention, as in the 1890s?
  • by following the examples of the rich, as in the 1930s?
  • or by adopting the secrets of the alpha geeks of today?

Alpha Geeks

Danny O'Brien at ETech 2005

[IT] promises to make us all more productivealpha geeks reap the benefits more than anyone else. But how do they do it?

O’Brien will talk to the most prolific technologists about the secrets of their desktops, their inboxes, and their schedules. The little scripts they run, the habits they’ve adopted, the hacks they perform to get them through their day. (OBrien (2004))


Becoming a member of the NR [new rich] is not just about working smarter. It’s about building a system to replace yourself. (Ferriss (2007/2009), “The 4-hour workweek”, p. 128)


Every generation gets the self-help guru that it deserves (Mead (2011)).

The Generation

The American spirit

self-help books in this country … [are part] of that well-known American opportunism, self-reliance and determination (Starker (2002), “Oracle at the supermarket”, p. 7).

strains of self-help culture—entrepreneurship, pragmatism, fierce self-reliance, gauzy spirituality—have been embedded in the national DNA since Poor Richard’s Almanack” (Kachka (2013)).

Self-help literature is, of course, a longstanding part of American culture, and life hacking in a sense represents its “technologization.” (Thomas (2015), p. 40)

Californian ideology

a loose alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists and artists from the West Coast of the USA have succeeded in defining a heterogeneous orthodoxy for the coming information age

an anti-statist gospel of cybernetic libertarianism: a bizarre mish-mash of hippie anarchism and economic liberalism beefed up with lots of technological determinism. (BarbrookCameron (2004))


  • new capitalism: “personal change but not collective progress” (Sennett (2006), p. 178)
  • cognitive capitalism: “the accumulation of immaterial [knowledge] capital” (Moulier-Boutang (2012))
  • late capitalism: 24/7 environment of “machinic performance and a suspension of living” (Crary (2013), p. 9)
  • digital capitalism: “our lives are calibrated by and with machines” (Wajcman (2014), “Pressed for time”, p. 33)

The Ethos

Hacker ethos

  • problem solving (Raymond (2001))
  • mastery (Thomas (2002))
  • mistrust of authority (Levy (1984/2010), “Hackers”)
  • a sense of play (Suiter (2013))
  • living to learn (Marwick (2013), “Status update”)
  • fondness for tools and efficiency (Eschenroeder (2015))
  • technologizing and masculinist (Thomas (2015))

The example of Tynan

  • pickup artist
  • professional gambler
  • digital minimalist & nomad
  • software developer
  • self-help guru


In the same way I strive to need almost no possessions, I also want my emotional needs to be minimal. What does that look like? I think a simple test is to think of how long you could remain in solitary confinement and be okay. I think I could last there indefinitely and, in fact, there’s some appeal to the idea. (Tynan (2017))


When playing poker, Tynan has superior “emotional mastery, nothing is going to affect me” (TynanSonmez (2017), p. 38)


“What it Feels Like to Always Travel”

There are some benefits, like distraction-free plane time, but the switching costs of going to new places definitely take their toll. I’m currently experimenting with more permanent worldwide home bases to combat this, but the jury is out so far. (Tynan (2016))


I love one-time investments that pay off over the very long term. The reason I call my books Superhuman _______ is because you can often achieve results that look superhuman just by setting up lots of easy systems. (Tynan (2017))

Optimistic & optimizing

If it seems too good to be true, drop everything and check it out. (Tynan (2008))


Digital age & hacker ethos

  • the digital age
    • ubiquitous devices
      • far-flung interactions
      • pervasive distraction
      • remote and outsourced work
      • monitoring & tracking
    • modernity
      • information overload
      • overwhelming choice
      • regimented life
      • unsettled science
  • the hacker ethos
    • individualistic
    • rational
    • experimental
    • systematizing
    • optimistic & optimizing


Every generation gets the self-help guru that it deserves (Mead (2011)).

Do we “get what we deserve”?

This sounds punitive…

We can say the hacking ethos is well suited for the digital age.

Well suited?

Life hacking is not …

  • a cult (Andrews (2005))
    • no holy book, charismatic leader, no break of life
  • colonizing (Thomas (2015))
    • connotes a hegemonic agency or creeping cultural blob


(“duality of structure,” Giddens (1984))

The hacker ethos is a manifestation of a personality.

With the ascent of systems, so too the hackers who build and exploit them.

There is a reciprocal relationship between the hacker and their world, which is increasingly everyone else’s.

Thank you

Macaca nigra self-portrait (rotated and cropped)

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