Hacking the Platform

KIRSTEN SLEMINT: When I have had a tough day, or I just generally feel like shit – I watch documentaries.

They are my elixir.

When the entire back catalogue of David Attenborough productions were released online to the BBC iPlayer, it was a matter a survivability that I watch them.

However, access to the BBC iPlayer is restricted to British citizens only.

There was no method for me to access them by any other means and because my bad
mood was counting on it – I hacked my way in.

I downloaded an add-on called “Hola!” that confuses my browser to make it think I’m in the U.K. and hey presto – I can binge on documentaries to my hearts content.

Public service broadcasting originated with the BBC in 1922. Although they are stateowned and funded, they are not directly government run. A large portion of their funding comes from the TV licensing scheme where each household pays an annual TV licence fee giving them access to any of their broadcasts, on any platform.

Jose van Dijck explains that platforms are:

“…a mediator rather than an intermediary: it shapes the performance of
social acts instead of merely facilitating them.

Technologically speaking platforms are the providers of software,
(sometimes) hardware, and services that help code social activities into a
computational architecture; they process (meta)data through algorithms and
formatted protocols before presenting their interpreted logic in the form of
user-friendly interfaces with default settings that reflect the platform owner’s
strategic choices.”
(van Dijck, J 2013)

In this definition Jose outlines five seperate technical components but I only want to focus on one of them: Protocols.

Protocols are the platform rules that a user must obey and which, with my add-on
essentially hacking the BBC system, I have breached.

The platform rules are considered to be the platform owners strategy to meeting their
objectives. An attempt to control and monitor the way we use their platform to suit them
and their agenda.

At the centre of “The Practice of Every Day Life” by Michel de Certeau is the distinction
between tactics and strategies. He defines strategies as:

“a calculus of force relationships when a subject of will and power (a
proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from
an environment.”.… a place where it can “capitalize on its advantages,
prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to
circumstances.”
(de Certeau, M 1984)

Tactics are described as the weak turning the tables on the strong. He says:

“Tactics must depend on “clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things,
the hunter’s cunning, maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful
discoveries poetic as well as warlike they go back to the immemorial”.
(de Certeau, M 1984)

Strategies are effectively the objectives of dominant institutions (eg. gaining profit) and
tactics are opposed to that. Tactics are employed by the individual to navigate the
institutions narrative in a way that better suits their everyday lives.

Like forging your own path through a well mapped area.

In this example, the strategy of the BBC as a public broadcaster is to manage its funding
through the TV licensing scheme therefore restricting their audience to anyone holding a
license and residing in Britain.

As an individual I employed a tactic to get around these geographic restrictions by using
the add-on to gain access to their content and suppress my foul mood.

I have effectively disrupted their expectation of me as an audience member by suiting my needs above theirs.

What this example attempts to illustrate is that the internet is a means of both control and resistance at the same time.

The dichotomy between strategic and tactical positions are as intact now as they were
when de Certeau wrote of them back in 1984, accompanied still by an uneven balance of
power. But now we live in a world where the incredible distribution of the internet has
fundamentally changed how we engage and communicate with each other.

On the one hand, there is an unparalleled level of command and control but on the other, the internet creates a whole range of spaces for increased user agency.

What is also vital to consider is how (for the most part) our experience of the world in
which we live is altered as a consequence of the strategies employed by the dominant
institutions.

It is not only brick and mortar that mould our perception of society in this era but also our online experiences that form a third critical element.

Media institutions are central to the production of meaning in any society. These meanings help us make sense of the world, shapes how we act within it and how we form relationships with one another.

The restriction of content availability will have a lot to do with business and economics, as I believe is the case here.

But…

It is none-the-less interesting to consider the effect it may have on our perception of the
world around us.

Natalie Collie (2011) suggests that storytelling has a powerful ability to connect people to
both the history and the future of the places in which they live.

She writes:

“Legends, stories, memories and dreams accumulate in and haunt places,
rendering them habitable by opening up places to appropriation. These
narratives about place generate a second, metaphorical geography of the
city over the literal, forbidden or permitted geography, insinuating ‘other
routes’ through which people’s movements are symbolised and
orientated.”
(Collie, N 2011)

If you consider my tactic of hacking as a way of moving through the metaphorical
geography of the media landscape, this argument is relevant and compelling.

While media institutions demonstrate a great deal of power by producing meaning that in many ways shapes our human experience, it still relies on our participation.

In choosing to participate as I have done, I’ve found a metaphorical gap or detour around the control of the institution and so limited it.