You Hack Or You Die

OK, the title is a bit heavy, but it’s inspired by an intriguing quote from Big Think. Also anything Game of Thrones related gets attention, so my next post will be “Tyrion Lannister Brings Love Diet Secrets.”

From “To Those Who Can’t Hack It In Today’s Economy.”

“In a world created by hackers those who can’t hack are the underclass. No matter what you do today, success amounts to a form of hacking, whether you’re running a hedge fund or if you’re just clipping coupons to get by at the bottom of the economic spectrum. “

The author, Jaron Lanier (who I should note I do not always agree with) then goes and discusses general computer literacy, while missing what I think is a deadly important point.

We need to hack to survive. It’s not just about computers.

If you can’t create, modify, and adapt your tools, your surroundings, your data, yourself, you’re in trouble. If you can’t hack, you can’t hack it. In a troubled economy and uncertain world, the ability to make, change, and adapt things is even more vital to survival. Guess what – we live in a troubled economy and an uncertain world.

Now I am indeed using hacking in its broadest sense. I’m encompassing computers, life hacks, Maker culture, and everything else. So yes, I’m being general. Yes, I don’t care.

We know how much more complex the world is. We know how interconnected it is. We have our many devices, our many options. We have a lot going on, a lot to do – and if we’re not careful, life “does unto us” very easy. We can and will be steamrolled by this complex world unless we’re able to modify it and modify ourselves to work within it.

You hack or you die. Maybe not right away, but a hell of a lot faster.

In fact, it seems obvious as I process it. Part of being human is adaptability and change; we’re the species that came up with space flight, can live under water despite that whole lack of gills, climbs inhospitable mountains, and made Justin Beiber famous. Throughout history people have modified themselves, their tools, their environments, and each other to survive and prosper. Just take a look at Venice, an impossible city that’s all too real (and will be all too gone if we don’t handle climate issues) that came to being because people hacked a lagoon.

Humans are natural hackers. It’s what got us where we are.

But I think there’s a danger that our “natural hacking” isn’t cutting it for many people, and isn’t being encouraged at the very time we really, really need it to be. So since I dislike uninformed random speculation, here’s my informed random speculation on why.

Speed. The world has changed way, way too fast for a lot of us. The Information Age and all it’s attendant changes, on top of other economic/political shifts left a lot of us flat-footed. It’s hard to hack your environment when you’re not sure what the hell just happened in the first place.

I think we have to learn when to catch up and when to slow down, and ask what’s important to pay attention to.

Consumerism. We’ve become used to being sold innovations. We buy the future as product. Even if a lot of these products are empowering (in fact, I think it’s a trend), it doesn’t encourage innovation and modification.

We need to cultivate choose our lives, actions, and purchases – and ask what gives us control over our lives. Sometimes, its not buying something – sometimes it is.

Abstraction. Farmers, hunters, craftsmen, parents, many of our ancestors were natural hackers – they had to be. As our lives are sometimes separated from more visceral, hands-on elements we loose track of that emotional, deep connection to what we do. Even if we do hack, it may not be something we can connect to our life concerns.

We need to learn to hack on a visceral level, to make it part of our lives. I actually use some PM and planning techniques in my cooking, which syncs up my career, my hobby, and my health.

Only In The System. A lot of people can hack the political, social, and economic systems we live in. This both creates problems as they intentionally or not mess up our important human infrastructure, but also because for a lot of them it’s all they know. You have people, sometimes very powerful people, who are buried so deep or so high in the system they don’t know how the world really works.

We need to understand how the world works, and people need to be actively informed – and to actively inform others. We also should be careful when someone tells us how things really are – they may be so cocooned in The System that they really don’t know, the just sound right.

Anti-Intellectualism and Rote Education. Hacking is an intellectual activity, or at least a mental one, even if it may not be seen or recognized as such. But I think we have a distinct problem with anti-intellectualism in the country, as well as a devaluing of education (both in going for “teaching to the test” and in general disregarding learning). The ability to know, understand, dream, and do is important – and we’re not encouraging it and we’re discouraging it.

We need to value people learning and applying it. It’s a combination of making someone both well-rounded and able to act to specific goals, the fertile ground and the cultivation, and it takes work to make happen.

There’s a lot to think about here – there’s a lot I have to think about. But I’m realizing that we’re often disempowered, we’re not hacking, we’re just taking it. You won’t make it in life without some hacks, and you certainly won’t make it today unless someone has already laid your life out for you.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at, nerd and geek culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at