Intellectual Laziness vs. the Hacker Ethic

I’m a hacker, but it’s not what you probably think. I’ve never done anything seriously illegal with a computer, nor do I plan to.

To quote Wikipedia:

[Hackers] enjoy the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming limitations of software systems to achieve novel and clever outcomes.

I’d take away software systems and say that anyone who experiments is a hacker. Hacking is improving your health by changing your diet, maximizing workout gains with minimal effort or creating a meta system to learn new skills.

I can’t imagine not living like this. I routinely challenge my core beliefs and look for something more useful. This is an important metric, more so than some sort of clinical, absolute truth. Burning a candle in the evening helps me sleep better. The reason could run from placebo, lighting, relaxing to who knows what, but the practice is ultimately useful. That’s hacking.

Keeping up this ethos is critical for both personal and societal growth. We’ve hit such a level of comfort, that it’s possible to stop hacking. There’s a fine balancing act between enough stability to hack and so much ease that there’s no motivation to do anything. As we become more affluent, voluntary asceticism is going to be more important: find a challenging hobby, take a cold shower, stop eating a few days or run a marathon.

A couple of things over the past week have made me think of our larger intellectual culture.

Hold Easily Falsifiable Beliefs

Make your beliefs falsifiable and test them. The most trivial example of this is the weather.

City X is colder than city Y.

This is trivial to either verify or disprove. When this actual question came up, multiple people simply chose to disregard the data because it conflicted with a personal belief.

This is more sinister than it would first appear. Accepting facts that have been proven false because of some narrative, starts the whole cycle of fake news. It cuts both ways on the political spectrum: Despite the constant narrative that the majority of Trump and Brexit supporters are closed minded bigots, the statistics state otherwise.

Besides asinine debates about weather, I had debates about whether most Americans own substantial amounts of stock and if hate crimes have risen under the current President. These shouldn’t actually be debates, as both are easily verifiable. For the record: no and yes.

Being wrong or uncertain and changing your opinion needs to be seen as strengths, not weaknesses.

Let Me DuckDuckGo That For You

For all its flaws and cat pictures, the internet is a marvelous collection of information. There’s simply no reason to either ask an easily searchable question or worse yet willfully remain in ignorance.

I’m surprised at how poorly digital natives actually search for information online. I’m surrounded by two languages that aren’t native to me and cultural references I didn’t grow up with. I have no problem following jokes and memes in the office chat. Sure, it may take me an extra minute to figure out slang and cultural references, but it’s not that hard.

Hack Away at Cognitive Biases

Humans don’t like to be wrong or change their beliefs. That’s unfortunate, but it’s a cultural relic that can be confronted. Saying that I’m only 75% sure that a paleo-ish diet is better than my previous vegetarianism should be seen as a strength of conviction rather than wavering. Failing at an experiment needs to be seen as an overall success.

Nonetheless, there are three disappointing things I’ve realized in all of this.

  1. Despite all the reason and logic in the world, most people aren’t likely to challenge, let alone change, most of their core beliefs and assumptions about the world.
  2. A lot of people talk about changing themselves, very few actually do so.
  3. Knowledge is stubbornly domain specific. I know great computer hackers in the sense of writing great code or getting old computers to do neat things that deny global warming or worry about chemtrails. Simply put, there are plenty of doctors who smoke.

The way around this is developing an ethos, a way of thinking. Don’t get hung up on specific tech skills or fields. We need schools that teach kids how to think like hackers.

Life needs to be a bit uncomfortable, otherwise complacency sets it. That’s where the hacker ethos comes in. Life just isn’t fun unless I’m always tinkering with something, trying to improve some process or learning something I didn’t know yesterday.