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New paper – Hacking Code/Space: Confounding the Code of Global Capitalism

Published on
28 Sep 2017
Written by
Mark Graham

I have a new paper out:

Zook, M. and Graham, M. 2018. Hacking Code/Space: Confounding the Code of Global CapitalismTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers. (in press).

This paper, co-authored with Matt Zook is something that we’ve been discussing writing together for about a decade. It is based on over ten years experience that both of us have in ‘hacking’ frequent flyer systems. In the paper, we draw on examples as varied as the time that I bought about 50 kilos of cheese (picture below to prove it), or Matt bought 2000 $1 coins: all just to accumulate frequent flyer miles.


In the paper, we argue that while these sorts of practices are fun (and allowed us both something approaching unlimited mobility over the last few years), they have important (and more sinister) implications for what Doreen Massey refers to as ‘power geometries’. You can see our conclusions pasted below, and can download the full paper at the following link.

“The global airline network is a key code/space of contemporary global capitalism and, like other core networks, relies upon 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 and Graham 2017); 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 colorful 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 and Roberts, 2014) and has the potential to undermine well-intentioned and socially beneficial systems. However, our analysis demonstrates how playful, trangressive, 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. Examples include Google bombing or search engine optimization (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 which clicks on all advertisements to mask users’ habits. While these cases began as exclusively digital practices, the hybridization of space – e.g., search engine optimization of maps (Zook and 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 center. 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.

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 recognizing the potential vulnerability of even the most encompassing algorithms. Code often works on people, en mass, 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 behavior 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 behavior. 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 recognizes the relational economic positionalities that we share with one another. The code of everyday life is malleable, but efforts to sidestep and subvert it enrolls 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.”

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