"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)
  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)
  3. as self-enhancement
    • the fashioning of a better self
      • Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets The American Dream (Elliott 2003)


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 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. (Giddens 1997, 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, 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 2009, 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, 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, p. 33)

The Ethos

Hacker ethos

  • problem solving (Raymond 2001)
  • mastery (Thomas 2002)
  • mistrust of authority (Levy 2010)
  • a sense of play (Suiter 2013)
  • living to learn (Marwick 2013)
  • 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)