An academic friend recently shared a draft of a book he is writing about the history of ‘life-hacking’ – that especially American approach for coping with the messiness of existence. You might be familiar with some of its techniques: sensors to measure how many steps you walk or how deep and long your sleep was; schemes for organizing your day, your email inbox, your closet; a willingness to experiment with certain foods or supplements or, even, bodily fluids to become more youthful, more clear-headed, more productive, as measured by that personal array of sensors.
In the broadest sense of the term, life-hacking isn’t new. These ideas in the West go back at least to the Stoic philosophers of early Rome, who promoted a strategy of detachment to deal with life’s ups and downs. The modern American incarnation of life-hacking, however, only emerged in the early 2000s and, instead of philosophy, its roots lay in computing. The word ‘hacking’ is a giveaway, as is the reliance on large amounts of personal data that can only be understood by computers: instead of philosophy’s ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ as a guide, we have computing’s ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’.
The life-hackers have produced an array of best-selling advice books that promise practical results, as revealed by their titles, ‘The Four-Hour Workweek’, ‘Better Than Well’ and ‘Getting Things Done’. The idea is to apply the lessons of computer programming to off-screen life, using what my friend calls ‘an individualistic and rational approach of systematization and experimentation’ to conquer daily challenges. Life-hacking has two key features. One is to be exceedingly rational about what you do – to use scientific methods to test a hypothesis, even one as strange as eating butter to improve your mental acuity. The other is to be exceedingly individualistic and not get hung up by how your ‘hacks’ affect other people. Your body and mind are machines waiting to be optimized if only you are willing to be the clever programmer of your own fate and your fate alone.
Reading this draft, I recognized that a few of the most prominent advocates of life-hacking had lately shifted to promoting Bitcoin, the digital currency invented by a pseudonymous cryptographer, Satoshi Nakamoto. There was Tim Ferriss, famous and fabulously wealthy for his ‘4-hour’ books for finding easy ways of earning a living, getting in shape, making a meal. On his popular podcast, he interviews Bitcoin investors all the while taking pains to explain that he isn’t encouraging his millions of subscribers to invest in Bitcoins. Wink, wink. ‘This is not investment advice, it’s for informational purposes only’, he announced before interviewing a pair of Bitcoin speculators. ‘So talk to your financial professional before allocating resources or money anywhere. Okay, cover my ass. Good.’
Another life-hacker turned crypto-currency enthusiast is James Altucher. A Silicon Valley millionaire from the 1990s, he made his name with a 2013 best-selling advice book, Choose Yourself, which promotes four pillars of happiness – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. In practice, there are suggestions – ‘hacks’, if you will – that he shares for, say, dieting or overcoming anxiety, such as not eating after 5 p.m. and what he calls ‘the alien trick,’ which means treating each day as if you were a newly arrived alien who has ‘No envies. No worries. Only new things to explore.’ Altucher describes the essential takeaway from his book this way: ‘If you don’t choose the life you want to live, chances are, someone else is going to choose it for you. And the results are probably not going to be pretty.’
Recently, you most likely encountered Altucher through ubiquitous online ads, where he is shown with pursed lips, a slight grin on his face beneath tousled hair and askew glasses, next to the words ‘crypto genius’ and the promise of learning about the ‘next Bitcoin’ he is developing. When the price of a Bitcoin on dollar-market exchanges was on an extended rise late last year toward $20,000, he gushed, ‘This is the greatest tectonic shift in money and wealth that we will see in our lifetimes.’ His enthusiasm is still as high, even as the price of a Bitcoin has dropped. His image has become a bit less ubiquitous, however, since Facebook recently decided to ban crypto-currency ads like his.
The most famous individual with a foot in life-hacking and Bitcoin is the billionaire investor and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel. The 50-year-old Thiel’s commitment to life-hacking has become infamous, particularly his endorsement of parabiosis, which seeks rejuvenation in middle-aged and older people by infusing them with the blood of young people. Not an exaggeration to say that he considers death a design bug that could be removed if we put the best brains on the job. Thiel’s advocacy for Bitcoin, too, has been high profile. At the beginning of 2018, when the price of Bitcoin was still surging, his investment firm, Founders Fund, proudly announced that it held hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Bitcoin.
What is the connection, exactly? What does a virtual currency have to do with living the good life? If the pursuit of money for its own sake is a vain, pointless exercise, surely the pursuit of virtual money is even more vain and even emptier. Yet there is commonality. If the fantasy of life-hacking is to find a personal, technical solution to life’s troubles, then Bitcoin is the ultimate financial-hack, an individualistic short-cut through the intrusions of government we call regulation and taxation. Add in the fact that Bitcoins have increased in value from pennies to thousands of dollars in less than a decade and cybercurrencies do seem miraculous and personally liberating.
In a talk in February at Stanford, Thiel made his case succinctly. ‘Crypto is decentralizing’, he said, ‘Or, if you want to frame it more ideologically, crypto is libertarian.’ Thiel is spot on in his description, though, of course, he means it as a compliment for Bitcoin and I see it as an alarm.
Bitcoin began as a thought experiment in 2009 – a cryptographic experiment, to be precise: Could you make a currency that was just a series of 1s and 0s? Among other things, how would you prevent this digital currency from being copied, as just about everything else is online? How could its value be transparent to everyone who came across it? The insight of Nakamoto was to make the ‘coin’ consist of the calculations that protected it from being copied as well as a record of everyone who owned it.
Sending this idea out into the world in an academic paper and watching it catch on must have been thrilling. That it should become anything more formidable certainly wasn’t expected. Back in 2011, when Bitcoins were $17, I remember interviewing an early developer, Gavin Andresen, who was open to the idea that Bitoin might never become a reliable currency. ‘Why does any tool have value?’ he asked. ‘It is valuable because it is useful.’ That is, he didn’t see Bitcoins as having an inherent value but only a value that people gave it.
In those early years, the main use for this currency was to conduct illegal business – selling drugs and weapons, gambling. A legendary dark web commerce site, Silk Road, thrived for a few years as illicit market with Bitcoins as the coin of the realm. The United States government closed Silk Road in late 2013 and arrested its founder, Ross William Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts. At the time, Bitcoins traded for a little less a $1,000. Ultimately, this was the only true utility for Bitcoins, what the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz described as ‘its potential for circumvention, lack of oversight’. With this as Bitcoin’s only purpose, he continued, ‘it ought to be outlawed’ since it ‘doesn’t serve any socially useful function’.
For the next two years, the price of a Bitcoin dropped, losing three-quarters of its value, until new interest arrived in the last remaining use for the cryptocurrency: investment. That is, Bitcoins could be made useful if you managed to persuade others to buy your Bitcoins at a premium in the hopes that they could find still other people to buy the Bitcoins at a still higher price. Paul Krugman, the economist and New York Times columnist, explained the rationale in a short piece about Bitcoin in 2011:
So how’s it going? The dollar value of that cybercurrency has fluctuated sharply, but overall it has soared. So buying into Bitcoin has, at least so far, been a good investment. But does that make the experiment a success? Um, no. What we want from a monetary system isn’t to make people holding money rich; we want it to facilitate transactions and make the economy as a whole rich. And that’s not at all what is happening in Bitcoin.
Applying Krugman’s analysis, the Bitcoin experiment becomes a useful representation of the failings of the libertarian political ideology. Libertarianism, too, is a thought experiment gone awry, a fantasy that privileges the individual over the group. For example, extreme free speech empowers those in the majority to speak boldly, while ignoring the weakest among us who are intimidated into silence. Likewise, defunding social welfare programs gives money to those who already have money, by reducing taxes, but ignores those who are most vulnerable.
Truth is, Bitcoin and libertarianism exploit systems, institutions and communities that have been built up over time. You might even say that they are parabiotic, in that they gain their vitality from what already animates society. Bitcoin sells a fantasy of a decentralized economy, even though it wouldn’t exist without functioning economies and markets. Similarly, libertarianism argues that everything you earn is yours alone, a product of your hard work, ignoring parents, community, neighbours, schools, government, institutions. You magically arrive in the world as fully formed adult, ready to reap your honours.
What is dangerous about both Bitcoin and libertarianism is that their success comes at the expense of that vitally necessary social structure. Life-hackers can switch gears easily when they realize the hacks haven’t worked as well as they imagined, which is frequently the case. As one critic noted, the best predictor of whether someone will buy a new life-hacking book is if they have bought others before. People are resilient in good ways and bad.
Societies, however, might be more brittle. We’ll soon find out, anyway. In the United States, we are learning what happens when libertarian ideas take hold over our political system, when civility and ‘inefficient’ institutions like labour unions, universities, news organizations wither away from disruptive tech businesses in Silicon Valley. So far, it hasn’t been pretty.
Noam Cohen is the author of The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball (https://thenewpress.com/books/know-it-alls).