Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2015

Access Restrictions


Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

American Studies

First Advisor

Rigal, Laura

First Committee Member

Rabinovitz, Lauren

Second Committee Member

Peters, John D.

Third Committee Member

McLeod, Kembrew

Fourth Committee Member

Brock, André


This dissertation intervenes in the larger academic and popular discussion of hacking by looking at life hacking. In essence, life hacking presumes that your life is amenable to hacks the same way a computer system might be. As both a metaphor and a practice, life hacking occupies a popular but under-analyzed position in contemporary American culture. The recent broadening of the computer term “hacking” to encompass all of life’s activities suggests the degree to which people are increasingly thinking about everything in computational terms. Life hacking is important to attend to precisely because it reveals how the rhetoric of hacking and the subjectivity of the hacker have become normalized. This rhetoric and subject position carry particular valences, valences that are deeply rooted in Western culture, including especially a way of thinking about the world that David Golumbia calls “computationalism.” In a computerized world, hacking becomes the preferred “way of seeing.” But, significantly, it is a way of seeing that is in line with long traditions in U.S. culture of self-making and technofetishism. In order to show this, I trace life hacking’s metamorphoses through three critically important and interlinked realms—life hacking, digital minimalism, and prof hacking—before concluding by looking briefly at a fourth—pickup artists. This dissertation seeks to identify how these different instances of life hacking relate to each other, to trace how life hacking has changed over time, and to explain how life hacking broadly speaking is best viewed as an episode not only in the larger history of hacking but in the larger history of American culture.

Public Abstract

Technology website CNET called 2014 “the year of the hack” and in early 2015 hacking was still everywhere. Barack Obama became the first president to use the word “hacker” in a State of the Union address, and CitizenFour, a documentary about computer analyst-cum-hacker Edward Snowden, who leaked classified documents from the National Security Agency detailing the extent of government surveillance of U.S. citizens, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. When most people hear the word “hacking,” they probably think of someone like Snowden, someone who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to information. But one of the more interesting developments in recent years is how the term “hacking” has been applied to more and more stuff having outwardly nothing to do with computers. But how did this happen? How did hacking go from something related to computers to something now associated with everything from cooking to education to health to politics to sex? I argue that the life hacking movement bears the brunt of the responsibility. In order to tell the story of how, my dissertation brings together the emergent commentary on life hacking and seeks to deepen and extend it by being the first academic treatment of the cultural discourse of life hacking, its emergence, politics, and key sites of unfolding.


hacking, life hacking, self-help, self-improvement, technology, work


vi, 227 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 211-227).


Copyright © 2015 Matthew A. Thomas