To understand something, it often helps to see it in a new context. The term “hacker,” for instance, has been used since 1959 to describe someone who “avoids the standard solution” when tinkering with technology. When “life hacking” became a thing in 2004, it highlighted that hacking wasn’t about technology as much as it was about systems. Work, wealth, health, relationships, and even life could thus be taken as systems to be hacked.
Eric Matzner, featured in this video, exemplifies the life hacker seeking to “optimize” mind and body. Not every hacker is reaching for “optimal”; some hack to achieve a “nominal” state, such as lessening the occurrence of migraines. But Matzner, wearing his “end aging or die trying” t-shirt, wants to be at the “frontier.” And taking life as a system to be optimized reveals facets of the hacker ethos that span most types of hacking.
One core facet of the hacker ethos is systematization. A system is composed of parts that can be decomposed and recomposed; it is governed by rules that can be understood, optimized, and subverted. Hackers relish this activity, taking it as experimentation and play.
Matzner is experimenting with his life to optimize his health and productivity. He proudly shows off his shelves of supplements, taking “more than 50, less than 100” and believes this is maintaining a biological age younger than his chronological one. Matzner is not alone in this effort. He is joined by other bio-hackers following the lead of technologist and futurist Ray Kurzweil, known for taking hundreds of supplements—even employing an assistant to manage the task—and for predicting a transhuman future. In 2045, or thereabouts, Kurzweil believes technology will become a transcendent “singularity” as it learns to iteratively design and improve itself. Optimists, such as Kurzweil and Matzner, believe they can hack immortality, extending their biological lives forever, or, at least, until they reach the singularity and can live as cyborgs or uploaded intelligences.
Dr. Sarah McKay, a neuroscientist and host of this documentary on aging, asks Matzner about the time required for such an intensive experimental regime. Some life hackers do admit they are easily distracted by setting up useless systems, self-experimentation, and productivity porn. For his part, Matzner concedes that “it takes a little bit of time,” but the nootropic supplements he takes give “increased productivity and focus,” which “pays back a dividend” of extra time. Additionally, he brags, “I think the average typing speed is around 50 to 60 words a minute.” On his keyboard—a $300 Kinesis—he types “about 150.” Similarly, he claims to read about three times faster than average.
Even if hacking your health and productivity is not for you, these claims are remarkable. Do they show a hacked life is a good one? Not necessarily. Some claims are simply quackery dressed up as science. And life on the “frontier” can be dangerous. Even bright and well-intended hackers might in fact “die trying” to optimize their life, for example, by eating half a stick of butter a day to be smarter. Though overlooked by hacking enthusiasts, it is a fact that optimizing systems can sometimes be suboptimal.