Have you used a lifehack? How does one exactly hack life? Chances are, you’re not a hacker. Using a binder clip in new and mind-blowing ways does not bestow a title upon you held by the likes of Kevin Mitnick and Sandra Bullock’s character in The Net. You just used a trick, a tip, or one bullet of listicle clickbait to use something in a different way.
Ushered in by the wildly popular Lifehacker blog (which I readily admit to reading), the term hack has come to replace a variety of words meaning tip. Perhaps it’s a desire to be hipster and ironic, or frame everything in terms of technology, or perhaps as Nikil Saval of the Pacific Standard called it in 2014, the “cult of self-optimization:”
Life-hacking wouldn’t be popular if it didn’t tap into something deeply corroded about the way work has, without much resistance, managed to invade every corner of our lives. The idea started out as a somewhat earnest response to the problem of fragmented attention and overwork—an attempt to reclaim some leisure time and autonomy from the demands of boundaryless labor. But it has since become just another hectoring paradigm of self-improvement.
To be sure, the underlying rationale for a “hack” is productivity, and even the cupcake-eating hack is about eating smarter, not harder (and maximizing the amount of cupcake you can get in your mouth with the least amount of mess). Yes, leave it to the lifehackers to turn something as innocent and joyous as eating a cupcake into an exercise measured in input, output, and waste.
When we move from tips and tricks to hacks, we introduce the assumption of “you’re doing it wrong.” Think of every single one of these lifehack lists as the annoying IT guy in your office who makes you feel incredibly stupid when you ask a simple technology question. I’ve been eating cupcakes for over 30 years and I don’t find anything particularly wrong with how it’s done. I know the different keys on my keyring without painting them in nail polish. I was a straw through the inverted tab of a soda can when I was a teenager, well before any clickbait list instructed me to.
So my quarrel is with both the word and the assumption. Calling something a hack doesn’t make it any more useful or chic than it was when it was a tip or a trick; in fact, it’s the etymological equivalent of a hipster flannel shirt and scarf. Likewise, it carries the pretentious assumption that it is inherently better while at the same time being fashionable before it was cool – think of George Costanza indignantly eating a Snickers bar with a knife and fork. Hacks are for the computer security world. Outside of that realm, it’s only short for hackneyed, and it most certainly is.
Finally, I’ll leave it to the folks at RightThisMinute.com to put a slightly more blunt spin on this.