Mailee Hung is Bitch Media’s 2017 Writing Fellow in Technology
Medical doctors-cum-tech millionaires in Silicon Valley claim that we can “hack the code of aging.” The thrill you get (or at least, some people get) from watching sports is described as “hacking your emotions.” Ivanka Trump has a tag on her website dedicated to “life hacks” for optimizing your (white, upper-middle class, normie) day-to-day. It’s clear that the term “hacking” has reached a level of ubiquity now that it’s entered the general lexicon, even in contexts that don’t appear at first to be either technical or technological; rather, the term itself brings the technological into the conversation. In the very broadest sense, both the verb and noun form of the word suggests the act of meddling in creative and unconventional ways outside of the user manual, of circumventing the intended bounds of usage or experience to access hidden opportunities, exploit weaknesses, or improve functionality.
According to the New Yorker, the term “hack” was first used in the way we’ve come to know it in the 1955 minutes of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club AI Lab, warning whoever is “hacking on” the radios to turn the power off first. The Jargon File, an online glossary for terms specific to computer programmers (and whose print version is even called The New Hacker’s Dictionary), has eight different definitions of “hacker,” the first being “a person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.”
As it’s moved into the cultural understanding, the word’s breadth has allowed it to apply a sense of “system” or network to pretty much anything—the idea that disparate parts connect to a larger whole, and for which a little tinker here or there could improve its broader functionality. So when Lifehacker offers tips for everything from creating the perfect açai bowl to hacking meditation with apps, it’s essentially saying, first, that your life in the very broadest sense of the word is a system made up of interconnected parts in aggregate; and second, that small improvements ultimately become larger ones due to flow across the system. Perfecting your açai bowl will indeed have an impact on the overall quality of your existence.
It’s a comfortingly optimistic idea—maybe all it takes to, say, heal your disputes with your partner is using one easy method for picking out where to eat. And most of us can agree that small changes can lead to a broader sense of happiness and well being, if only because we’re applying a little more care to our day-to-day. But perhaps the most fundamental premise of the term “hacking,” whether it’s applied to your life or your body, is the implicit belief that technological thinking is the magic bullet to fix whatever’s broken. That with the creative application of a tool or a technique, you can optimize anything—your mile time, your sock drawer, your relationships, your consciousness. Hacker mentality dictates that, with the right tools and knowhow, you can deepen your understanding of a system and make it work for you.
But here’s the problem I have with this way of technologizing our existence: It’s reductive, and it’s inherently technophilic. By revisioning our bodies and lives as systems that can be hacked, we are imposing a kind of orderliness that dictates simplification. Every problem has a solution, and the solution is usually tech. It’s this kind of system/hack episteme that gives rise to one of my favorite quips to whatever ails you: “There’s an app for that.”
This narrowing of existential perspective is something Ellen Ullman explores in her 1997 book Close to the Machine. In her own experience as a software engineer, Ullman is no stranger to the seductive application of technological thinking to her everyday life, and she too is cognizant of how the extrapolation of “the formal logic of programs and data” onto the world creates a potentially harmful paradigm. She warns that the computer “is a projection of a very slim part of ourselves: that portion devoted to logic, order, rule, and clarity. The more we surround ourselves with a narrowed notion of existence, the more narrow existence becomes.”
The imposition of systemic orderliness, even one that is not all-encompassing or inviolate, begins to reshape the way we see the world. It creates a kind of tunnel vision that excludes all things that would contradict the orderliness the system requires—and if those are the stakes, we all know exactly who gets excluded. To be sure, thinking in terms of hacks broadens this logic, but only minimally. The hacker ethos tweaks, exploits, or even subverts the system, but it does nothing to change it.
Certainly, no one thinks that just because they’ve learned eight (or 16, or 20) paperclip hacks that they’ve figured out the secret of life. We are capable of contingent, context-specific thinking without utterly rearranging how we conceive of reality. But the very proliferation of hacking as epistemology across the spectrum of culture ought to give us pause. When a hedge-fund manager claims that mortality itself is just a system that needs the right hack, is that a radical new way of thinking or merely blind faith in technological development over any other kind? This narrow way of thinking is how we have some of the brightest (and best-funded) minds working on technologies to artificially extend human life when, as author and futurist Paul Graham Raven pointed out, we already have them: “clean water; […] free access to healthcare; a guaranteed minimum income; a good, free education.” If it is simply used to justify an expected return on investment for the next app or tool rather than encourage broad, creative thinking, then the hacker ethic no longer feels like a liberating or empowering way of making the system work for you. It starts to feel like a justification for the system itself.
We’re in an age of technophilia—improvements to wireless technologies add more and more objects to the Internet of Things, and most of us carry computers with us every day to interface with those things and with each other. While the hacker mentality can be extremely empowering and liberating in such a technologically saturated world, it is even more necessary that we maintain a distinction between our tools and ourselves. Our ability to think radically may depend on it.