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Hacking code/space: Confounding the code of global capitalism

Hacking code/space: Confounding the code of global capitalism

Published on
3 Mar 2018
Written by
Mark Graham

I have a new paper out. The paper focuses on attempts by ‘airline hackers’ to subvert the code/spaces of international travel. Download a full version of the paper at the link below, or read the conclusions here.

Zook, M. and Graham, M. 2018. Hacking Code/Space: Confounding the Code of Global CapitalismTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 10.1111/tran.12228.


The global airline network is a key code/space of contemporary global capitalism and, like other core networks, relies on a heavy degree of algorithmic (albeit non-hegemonic) governance. Crucially, this analysis shows that the encoded rules and algorithms of airlines are potentially malleable via the practices of hackers that “offer an abstract negation that doesn’t already fit into a binary computation” (Shaw & Graham, 2017, p. 917); they refuse to act in the ways that algorithms and systems define as normal. These efforts demonstrate that the very complexity of code/spaces can render systems designed for hegemonic control porous and susceptible to subversion by those it was meant to restrict. The diverse and colourful examples from airline hacking highlight both the myriad ways a system has been turned towards unintended purposes and the creative (and time-consuming) methods some will use to manipulate code/space for their own goals. In short, these transgressions demonstrate that we need not do everything that the machines tell us to do.

To be clear, the case of airline hackers is not necessarily a subversive or even democratic activity as the motivations and effects are focused on personal gain. Encoded rules often exist for good reason and thus hacking is not inherently emancipatory (Mott & Roberts, 2014), and has the potential to undermine well-intentioned and socially beneficial systems. However, our analysis demonstrates how playful, transgressive and mischievous approaches can repurpose and recreate the code/spaces of airlines and beyond.

In addition to computer hacking documented by Coleman (2013, 2014), individuals regularly remake elements of their hybrid spaces.8 Examples include Google bombing or search engine optimisation (SEO) that manipulate search results, as well as virtual private networks to gain access to online material blocked because of one’s location. Other practices target tracking and profiling systems by flooding them with false data using readily available tools like the browser plug-in that clicks on all advertisements to mask users’ habits. While these cases began as exclusively digital practices, the hybridisation of space – e.g. search engine optimisation of maps (Zook & Graham, 2007a, 2007b) and profiling users by tracking physical mobility (Conger, 2016) – ensures their relevance to material and code/spaces.

There are also micro-hacks in public transportation systems in most cities worldwide: solutions that save time or money using strategies not envisioned by transport planners. Londoners, for instance, pay fares based not on distance travelled, but on how they traverse concentric fare zones radiating outwards from the centre. However, there is one particular Overground rail line that travels from the west to the east of the city without leaving one of the concentric zones: allowing canny travellers to traverse huge distances for the cost of a local journey. Opportunities for code/space hacking are growing as the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart cities initiatives increasingly surround us with devices that exert control over our spaces but often do so rather insecurely.9

As code increasingly governs financial transactions, human mobility, dating, job search and much of the rest of everyday life, a key finding of this paper is recognising the potential vulnerability of even the most encompassing algorithms. Code often works on people, en masse, expecting them to act in normal and foreseeable ways. But in a world of unpredictable people, able to engage with, transgress against and switch between networks, the hegemony of code/space can be contested and manipulated. Algorithmic rules for human behaviour often do produce socially valuable outcomes, and they might find us the perfect job, partner and mortgage; but they also restrict choices, force disadvantage and disempower the individuals that they govern. It is hard to argue with an algorithm, or even ask it why it made the choices that it did. Airline hackers, through craft and self-interest, exemplify the ways we might manipulate code to challenge the power of code/space to shape human behaviour. In an age of smart cities, big data and encompassing surveillance systems, there seems little doubt that hacking efforts will expand to other areas of digitally mediated daily life.

The trickery of hackers, however, is not devoid of its own power and ability to negatively impact (often unknowingly) those to which it is relationally connected. Hackers can certainly transgress against corporate systems, but the reaction to these challenges reverberate through the global networks of capitalism. This ultimately points to the need for an ethics of care that recognises the relational economic positionalities that we share with one another. The code of everyday life is malleable, but efforts to sidestep and subvert it enrol us into uncomfortable power-geometries beyond our immediate space-time horizons. Thus, we all have a responsibility to reflect on not just the power of code, but also the power we exert through it, with it and because of it.