A Hacked Life
From Skill Share to afterlives and alienation.
‘Life Hack’ is a term I broadly loathe. But equally, I do a lot of what falls under that umbrella. Lately I mind mapped my gender transition to give myself (a calming) overview of it. (It did not work, testifying only to the scale of the undertaking and my general paralysis.) I keep a whiteboard by my desk where I maintain a preset daily habit list, a changing daily priority task list, and an overall to-do list. On my wall I keep a visual image goal board, which I composed on my partner’s advice. I journal, meditate and exercise at home.
Lists form such a major part of my existence I have already devoted a blog to them. I love lists; the instrumentality of them, but also just the aesthetics of them. The satisfaction (dopamine hit to use the unnecessarily reductionist language of life hackers) of working through them. Carving up complex tasks into more achievable, less intimidating ones. The record they leave behind them is even something enjoyable, a testament to tasks done and left undone.
So why is it that I hate the notion of life hacking, then? Given that I freely admit to journalling, planning, and apping (apologies for that neologism) my way through some large portions of my life, what is it about this concept and the subculture it represents that fails to appeal to me? Even after I recently joined the much over-advertised Skill Share, one of the great bastions of the life hacker… “community”.
In fact, it is not the activities themselves that bother me. Nor the tools they draw on to achieve these things. My issue is really twofold, and the first problem I have seems trivial. It is the ethos of life hacking. Life hacking has a set of associations with the tech world of Silicon Valley, with an army of self-mades and living brands. On an aesthetic level, it reduces habits, rituals, vocations and passions to the language of business: to disruption, synergizing, conferencing and the production of content.
It represents a wholesale subsumption of every part of the person’s life first into becoming the successful entrepreneur (a.k.a. overcoming alienated exploitation by becoming a yet more alienated exploiter) and then taking the life hacking to new and quite delusional spheres. (Possibly to cope with that alienation.)
That is, it takes the person into fantasies of immortality (either by biohacking or consciousness uploading, redolent of the dreams the aristocrats of ancient honour cultures) and omnipotence (terraforming new planets, dominating markets, reordering politics to serve your further aggrandizement). Or perhaps not even your aggrandizement, even, as I will argue.
(It is maybe possible that the earliest forms of alienation to emerge in highly stratified society’s gave rise to the very notion of afterlives. At least, afterlives not as some spiritual continuity that implies some dissolution of the self’s particularities, but a distinctly aristocratic fantasy of preserving the ego. After all, if the ego has no meaningful relationships, how else can life be bearable but the endless prolongation of the atomised self?)
All of this comes down to the second and critical problem I have with life hacking. Namely, its relationship to time. The ability of people to project themselves and their projects meaningfully forward is crucial to what many philosophers have regarded as most significant about human life. This is differently true for Aristotle, Augustine, Nietzsche, Pascal, Hegel, Marx, Bloch, Dunayevskaya, and many others. But for most philosophers, the goal is finally the cultivation of the self as its own pursuit or in veneration to a greater totality.
Life hacking might seem to be concerned with such an end, too. Life hackers will, after all, often use value-laden words such as ‘authentic’ and ‘genuine’ that seem to connote such an idea of cultivation. However, it is always an ‘authentic brand’, forever a ‘genuine symbiotic corporate ambassadorship’. The goal of life hacking is a deeply fanatical devotion to becoming a vehicle of capital accumulation, but self-betterment or less ambitiously, even personal debauchery (which at least offers immediate gratifications), is never really even a pitstop.
The image of the typical capitalist or aspiring capitalist as a selfish being driven only by their own whims is understandable when you see their efforts at self-promotion and perpetuation, but then you realise that the self is just the brand, the brand just the profit generating enterprise. And far from some slovenly aristocrat many a CEO will boast sleeping a few hours a night, eating ready-to-hand mass produced gruel to avoid ‘wasting time’ and putting every conscious moment to some productive (trade mark) end. (It is still far worse to be exploited, but capitalism reduces even the powerful to dehumanized misery.)
In this existence, nothing is enjoyed for its own enjoyment besides the brand itself. Even leisure is made productive, purposeful, is captured to be reallocated back to that priestly duty to the cultivation not of the self but of the product, the next piece of content, the next throwaway innovation. As for a greater totality, there really is only capital, a faith without fulfilment, a goal without meaning but is own voraciousness. Life hacking is a capitalist faith tradition, the final corruption of protestant salvation anxiety into a form that no longer has a way to even understand salvation as a concept.
Given this, it is most perverse that life hacking operates on the logic of self-actualization (a term deeply rooted in humanist psychology, in the work of Maslow and Rogers) or even eudaimonia and flourishing (to use the virtue ethics language of Aristotle). It encourages planning and ritual and putting tools available to us towards the realisation of our intentions, but then, in a bait-and-switch, denies any realisation that honours plans and rituals, that nurtures and creates new ways of living. Instead, for all the technical marvels, the lives it produces are monotonous and interchangeable.
The best stuff on Skill Share focuses either on what might seem frivolous hobbies (from sketching to making paper flowers, the stuff of the cuter sides of Instagram) and highly technical capacities (like graphic design or speed reading). The worst stuff is about, unsurprisingly, branding and personal productivity. We need to rescue ritual and habit from this undead subculture of entrepreneurial aspiration, we need to offer a better reason to create to the children of Thatcher and Reagan, to the aspiring CEO buying cryptocurrency to escape their hyper-exploited uber job, before we lose what makes us human altogether.
If you enjoyed my essay, you can become a Rowan Tree Editing patron for as little as £1.00 per month and receive essays five-days early as well as other benefits.