"#Borderless Hacking"

Joseph Reagle


The question

[How do] emerging media technologies affect human interaction in different aspects of social life including politics, health, well- being, sociability and entertainment?

Life hacking is a computer practice
outside the borders of circuits.

The iKettle

“Taking the p*ss”

“Hacked that together myself”

Life is increasingly like the iKettle, a complicated system.

And to succeed, like Rittman, you must hack it together yourself.

Hacking the system


  • composed of parts, which can be decomposed and recomposed;
  • it is governed by rules, which can be understood, optimized, and subverted.

Early hackers

from MIT Museum

people were obsessed with the way The System worked, its increasing complexities, how any change you made would affect other parts, and how you could put those relationships between the parts to optimal use. (Levy (1984/2010), “Hackers”, p. 8)

A hacker avoids the standard solution. (Samson (1959))

Two rule-sets

Every system has two sets of rules: The rules as they are intended or commonly perceived, and the actual rules (“reality”). In most complex systems, the gap between these two sets of rules is huge. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of the truth, and discover the actual rules of a system. Once the actual rules are known, it may be possible to perform “miracles” – things which violate the perceived rules. (Buchheit (2009))


Hacking isn’t limited to computers though. Wherever there are systems, there is the potential for hacking, and there are systems everywhere. Our entire reality is systems of systems, all the way down. This includes human relations (see The Game for an very amusing story of people hacking human attraction), health (Seth Roberts has some interesting ideas), sports (Tim Ferriss claims to have hacked the National Chinese Kickboxing championship)… (Buchheit (2009))

Life hacking sits …

at the intersection of technology & culture

and larger concerns about work, wealth, health, relationships, and meaning.

productivity-hacking growth-hacking bio-hacking

mind-hacking relationship-hacking meaning-hacking

all informed by an ethos

The ethos

The hacker uses…

…an individualistic and rational approach of systematization and experimentation.

(Levy (1984/2010), “Hackers”; Raymond (2001); Thomas (2002); Suiter (2013); Eschenroeder (2015); Thomas (2015))


Knowledge is power, and whether you use that power for good or evil depends on you. Sometimes evil is justified, or sometimes it can help you fight evil. Learning to crack passwords teaches you security practices. A better understanding of lying and manipulation earns you the ability to detect such tactics (or use them in situations where it’s actually the lesser of two evils) (Gordon (2015)).


  • LessWrong is an online community dedicated to “refining the art of human rationality” (LessWrong (2009)).
  • The Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) is a small Bay Area non-profit that offers workshops on “patching the problems” of human thinking (CFAR (2016)).
  • Algorithms To Live By: The Computer Science Of Human Decisions advocates approaching personal and social concerns the same way computer scientists think about and solve their challenges (ChristianGriffiths (2016), “Algorithms to live by”, p. 5).


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… So 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))



Generational context

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)

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

The critical sneer

It is terribly easy to accord self-help books the usual pop-culture treatment: the shake of the head, momentary sneer, superior smile, and benign neglect. (Starker (2002), “Oracle at the supermarket”, p. 2)

“GTD: A New Cult for the Info Age”

A HOLY BOOK for the information age is turning stressed-out worker bees into members of an unlikely new cult obsessed with keeping an empty inbox. (Andrews (2005))

This is hyperbole.

We all have moments of being overwhelmed, especially members of the “creative class.”

“a technologized form of self-help”

[premised on] the idea that we must all master ourselves using technology, make do with less, ignore structural conditions, forget about the past, and work, work, work to make ourselves more productive like good little robots.(Thomas (2015), p. 210)

This is true, but not the whole truth.

Tech criticism

Constructive tech criticism

Criticism that only offers rejection doesn’t do us much good in the real world. Criticism that instead takes into account the realities and practicalities of users’ lives guides readers in choosing how to use technologies for themselves, and can also influence how technologies are designed to meet users’ needs. (Watson (2016))


  1. Geek and gurus
  2. Nominal and optimal
  3. Ethical gradations
  4. Near enemies

1. Geeks & gurus

The difference

Geeks are the enthusiasts looking to improve their lives.

Gurus sell lifestyle advice and their role as its vendor.


Many geeks share their hacks and experiments, but few desire or manage to become lifestyle coaches.

What motivates them and what meaning do they take from hacking?

Dating isn’t just a search problem, but one of negotiation.


Even if guru is not always flattering, I don’t use it as an insult.

What assumptions underlie their advice, and is it sound and worth the cost?

A techno-hype con predicated on get-rich values.

2. Nominal and optimal


is within the expected range.

The power at my outlet is between 114–126 volts (120V ±5%).


is at or pushing the leading edge.

A theoretically optimal solar cell would yield 86.8% efficiency.

Their difference for hackers

is related to intention: of keeping up versus surpassing.

The nominal swimmer wants to be good enough to safely enjoy the water.

The optimal swimmer wants to be the best at racing upstream.

Punting on “normal”

  • Critique of “normal” is important, but
  • my distinction is like that between:
    • reconstructive and cosmetic surgery, or
    • therapy and enhancement.

This distinction can be seen in every domain of life.

“The Hacker’s Diet”

I’m an engineer. I decided to approach weight loss as an engineering problem.

This book isn’t written for people who are or wish to become obsessed with their health. (Walker (1991/2005))

“I’m 32 and spent $200k on biohacking”

I have optimized my sleep, nutrition and exercise, done thousands of tests, taken dozens of prescription drugs and hundreds of supplements (part of the pills I take every day below), worked with some amazing doctors, meditated 1000 times, did psychotherapy, took MDMA, and spent ~$200,000 on all this. (Faguet (2017))

Self-optimizing can be suboptimal

  • … optimize the wrong thing.
  • … optimize one thing at the expense of everything else.
  • … optimize for too long, especially when the context has changed.
  • … optimize when you should do something else.

3. Ethical gradations

Hacking as rule breaking

Ugly and imaginative solutions have something in common: they both break the rules. (Graham (2010), “Hackers & painters”, p. 50)

Little thought is given to the ethics of rule breaking.

Virtuous hacks are “white hat,” and the most hawkish are “black hat.”

There are many shades of gray between.

How to Get Beautiful Women into Bed

Push each set as far as you can just for the practice. Use kino escalation and compliance testing as much as possible. Kino escalation is by far the most important concept to master. (Mystery (2007), “The mystery method”, p. 123)

The Practical Guide to Attracting Girls

When a guy is faced with the harsh truth he has to improve himself to have a better dating life, he can either ignore that and dismiss pickup wholesale, or he can begin down the difficult road of learning social skills, understanding women, and becoming the kind of guy that girls want to be with. (Tynan (2012))

Is a hack…

  • self- or other-oriented?
  • exceptional or universal?
  • beneficial or harmful?

4. Near enemies

Virtues’ enemies

virtues often have an obvious opposite

animosity is the far enemy of compassion

there are also sentiments that masquerade as virtues

pity is the near enemy of compassion

Consider the near enemies in: work, wealth, health, relationships, and meaning.


In an economy that prizes immediacy and flexibility, how do we manage time?

In a culture that values autonomy and self-reliance, how do we motivate ourselves?

(Winter (2019))

Soon my addiction grew worse. Lifehacker, Bridging the Nerd Gap, podcasts, you name it, I was immersed in it… I was addicted to the idea of being productive of finding a way to make it all easy. Evernote, Omnifocus, Things, Gneo, Mailbox, Lift, Flava, Simplenote, Fantastical, Agenda Calendar, Timewerks… (Bedell (2013))

efficiency ≠ effectiveness


In a world in which material excess is now as much a problem as deficiency, how do we relate to stuff?

(Tynan (2018))

It just seemed like a facade, another pattern we all fell into, though shouting all the while we weren’t like the rest of the herd. So I got out. Scrapped the website, all the posts, any links or interviews I may have put out there. (Holt (2017))

minimalism ≠ freedom


In a period of increasing uncertainty but ubiquitous monitoring, how do we know what really works?

In August, at a Quantified Self meeting in San Jose, I told how butter apparently improved my brain function. When I started eating a half-stick of butter every day, I suddenly got faster at arithmetic. (Roberts (2011))

(Roberts (2014))

bio-hacking ≠ wellness


When others are within a finger’s reach on our devices, how ought we connect and relate to one another?


I’ve also taught the Mystery Method to other geeks! … They’re not geeks anymore, and neither will you be. With me as your friend and guide, you’ll start uploading Venusian arts programming into your behavioral system… By reading this book, all you’re doing is hanging out with a guy who figured it out. I figured it out. I know how. I know for a fact that I know how because I have a girlfriend. (Mystery (2007), “The mystery method”, p. 9)

I’ve been stuck inside without friends or a girlfriend or hope of ever seeing my children again for 30 days since New Years. It’s maddening. I’m having a difficult time with survival now. I hate existence. It’s futile. It’s lonely. It’s boring. I didn’t deserve this. It’s almost too hard to keep going. (Mystery (2016))

sexual conquest ≠ connection


When we realize that nothing, even the most clever hacks, will save us from uncertainty and loss, how do we find meaning in life?

Everybody knows EI [Emotional Intelligence] is good for their career… And every company knows that if their people have EI, they’re gonna make a shitload of money” (Meng Tan, Google/SiY, in Shachtman (2013)).

Wisdom 2.0 ≠ wisdom


I toyed with titling this book “Blinkered.”

The metaphor of horse blinkers conveys the tensions inherent to life hacking.

Life hacking is a tool

In an age of ubiquitous distraction, blocking the periphery is helpful.

In an age of economic turbulence, staying focused on a better future is valuable.

I’m not alone in concluding this.

today’s workers who are required to demonstrate high levels of performance are demanding personalised spaces.—WEAR SPACE

It “create[s] visual and psychological boundaries instantly” and is “handy in daily life, such as learning a new language, building up focus, or working at home when a spouse is playing with the children” (Dot (2017)).

Life hacking creates tunnel vision, which has merits.

But it also leaves much overlooked, especially among those bent on optimizing.

Hackers can fail to appreciate they are in danger of stepping off the edge.

For those around them, there is the risk of being bumped aside or trod underfoot.

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