Of Hackers and Hacks
Opening my email this morning, the message at the top of the list promised me the secret of “How I Used A/B Testing To Hack My Kids”. It seems that a young father wanted his twin babies to sleep more, because they took too much of his attention when they were conscious. So, he hacked them, until he figured out a way to make them fall asleep.
What does that mean that he hacked his babies? Well, he said he did A/B tests.
What does that mean that he did A/B tests on his babies? It means that he tried doing a bunch of different stuff to the babies, sometimes to one and not the other, but sometimes to both, to see if anything could get the tiny tots to sleep for longer. So, he didn’t really do A/B testing all the time. He did what parents have always done with their babies: Fumble around and see if things work.
In the end, he said, “Many of these tests were inconclusive.” Actually, all of the tests were inconclusive, because the babies’ lives were not remaining constant during the testing periods. The babies were maturing, and as every experienced parent knows, kids’ sleep patterns change dramatically over time. The experiments were poorly controlled, with an astonishingly small sample size, and besides, the writer admits, he didn’t come up with a clear solution.
So, in what way were those kids hacked? The father messed around with them, ineffectually, but he kept records in a spreadsheet as he did so. So, the numbers made it feel kind of hacky, even if he was just bumbling around with a poor methodology. The numbers in the cells of his spreadsheet made his tests feel clinical and precise.
What kind of father, though, would want to be clinical and precise with his own children? What kind of dad would hack his own baby?
To hack is to take over someone else’s system, without permission. It’s an aggressive move, and one that also objectifies the target.
The term “hack” comes from the realm of computer programming, a verb that refers to the act of breaking in to someone else’s program without permission, overcoming security measures to change the program in order to serve one’s own alternative agenda. In many cases, a hack is a criminal act.
In the last few years, the meaning of the term “hack” has been expanded to include attempts to exert control over things other than computer programs. What remains at the core of the attitude of hackers, though, is the belief that the target of a hack can be reduced to a code, and that all that’s necessary to take control of it is to develop a few tricks through which to alter that code.
So, for a father hacker, babies are no longer vulnerable young people to be attended to and cared for. They’re bundles of algorithms to be managed and optimized.
It isn’t just babies that are getting hacked these days, of course.
People are also trying to hack their own brains.
One writer, for example, promises to tell readers how to hack their brains to end procrastination. Why would people want to stop procrastinating, though? There’s a great deal of research that indicates that people’s brains do a great deal of valuable work on solving problems during procrastination, though people aren’t usually consciously aware of this activity. If you end procrastination, you’re cutting yourself off from a significant cognitive tool. In this case, hacking seems like a tool meant to serve the arrogance of the conscious aspects of the mind, which believe that they do all the important work. Brain hacking also dangerously reduces human brains to the simplistic model of computers, when in fact, they’re much more complex. If you hack a brain like you would a smartphone application, the results can be disastrous.
Hacking is usually much more trouble than it’s worth. The mess of productivity hacks illustrates this principle nicely, as in the case of the writer who promises “11 amazing productivity hacks that will improve your life”. The trouble is that no one who is already suffering from insufficient productivity could ever simultaneously implement eleven new programs of self-improvement. Even more out of touch with reality is the writer who offers a program of 101 “genius life hacks that make life easier”. I know how a simpler way to make life easier: Don’t try to take on 101 new projects all at once.
What all these hackers seem unable to grasp is that life isn’t a neat and tidy little set of routines. It’s a mixture of astonishingly complex natural phenomena with the emergent property of consciousness. To be alive is to be confused, and that makes us vulnerable, and that vulnerability is the human condition. To be human is to be always out of control. With some luck, we can find partners in life who are able to help us along the way – not because they’re wiser than us, but because their subjective imperfections can compensate somewhat for our own.
This subjectivity seems too warm and fuzzy for many of the people who propose that we hack our way through life. Then again, warm and fuzzy stuff is some of the best of what life has to offer. There’s no better way to kill a tender moment than to hack it.
Enough with the silicon life tips. Life is not a code to crack. It’s a mystery to puzzle your way through.