“Life Hacking”?

Bug Girl reports that Wired has a story laying out the concept of “life hacking.” Thus:

What is life hacking? Is it like computer hacking? Is someone going to break into my life?

Life hacking has little or nothing to do with home invasion. It’s the practice of using clever little tips and tricks to make your life easier, more efficient or more productive.

Really? That sounds kind of familiar. Hasn’t it been around for a while?

Yes, previously it was known as Hints From Heloise.

So why is it called life hacking?

Because a new name makes it sound like a new idea. Geeks can’t admit that anything worthwhile was invented before 1981. Soon, “making cocoa” will be called “milk hacking.”

As a geek, I am not impressed. By rights, “Life hacking” should refer to the invention of new and clever patterns in Conway’s Game of Life. But in their smugness, the people of Wired have made a gross misestimation of geek culture and personality, all for a joke which — I’m the blogger, I can decide these things! — isn’t all that funny anyway.

It seems that Wired can’t acknowledge the existence of, say, LISP (invented in 1958). And what about all that science fiction that was written in the Fifties and Sixties? Star Trek first aired in 1966, for crying out loud! And we geeks, nerds and other misfits do tend to speak of “grokking” an idea, a word straight out of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). I really don’t think we data-savvy social aberrations live in a delusional world in which the Invisible Pink Unicorn poofed all of culture and technology into existence with a tap of Her transparent hoof sometime early in the Reagan administration.

If we did, then why would Unix measure time as the number of seconds elapsed since midnight on 1 January 1970?

I thought everybody knew that the Jargon File began in 1975. Come to think of it, the word hack itself goes back to MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club, an organization so old its name refers to the “Tech” and not the “Institute.” To the TMRC of the late 1950s, hack meant the following:

1) something done without constructive end; 2) a project undertaken on bad self-advice; 3) an entropy booster; 4) to produce, or attempt to produce, a hack3.

To which Peter R. Samson later added,

I saw this as a term for an unconventional or unorthodox application of technology, typically deprecated for engineering reasons. There was no specific suggestion of malicious intent (or of benevolence, either). Indeed, the era of this dictionary saw some “good hacks:” using a room-sized computer to play music, for instance; or, some would say, writing the dictionary itself.

These usages are still, as far as I’ve observed, quite extant. Notice how counter they run to Wired‘s babble about making life “easier, more efficient or more productive.” A hack is only “productive” when it is an unconventional or spur-of-the-moment fix to a problem: “I’ll hack up a Perl script to reformat that data file,” or alternatively, “Yeah, you could filter the temporal noise with a flux capacitor, but it’d be a bit of a hack.” This might turn out to be “productive” in that it gets a particular task done (and done adequately rather than superlatively well), but that’s a contingent rather than a necessary attribute.

Incidentally, the word just before hack in the TMRC dictionary is grunge, which in 1959 meant “that which fills the Cambridge atmosphere”!

3 thoughts on ““Life Hacking”?”

  1. Presumably, the concept of “life hacking” was popularised by the Lifehacker website. Wikipedia says it only originated in 2004 or so.

    So, yes, perhaps the kinds of people who talk about “life hacks” have memories that only go back to 1981, but it’s silly to generalise that to all geeks. But, of course, Wired likes to think of themselves as being some cultural touchstone of geekdom, so it doesn’t surprise me that they’d make that mistake.

    And didn’t they also coin “New Atheism”. Two for two, Wired. Watch yourselves.

  2. Maybe they mistake our disdain for harmful cultural artifacts (their rose-glass 50s fetishism, for example) as a general disdain for the past? Hell, I dunno.

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