Participants attend the annual Chaos Communication Congress on December 28, 2013 in Hamburg, Germany.

Editor’s Note: Brett Scott is a journalist, former broker and author of The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money. Read his blog and follow him on Twitter @suitpossum The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brett Scott.

Story highlights

Author Brett Scott is a fellow at the Finance Innovation Lab, exploring economic systems

True hackers take mischievous pleasure exploring complex systems, writes Scott

Democracies rely on society to keep watch on institutions and challenge them

Finance doesn't have to be a complex world of elites, he argues

CNN  — 

Hackers are often portrayed in the press as nefarious cyber-criminals. In reality, such computer “crackers” are just a marginal subsection of a much broader hacker subculture that shuns criminality.

A true hacker is someone who takes mischievous pleasure in exploring complex systems, seeking to understand the interconnected parts. ‘Hacking’, in turn, is the rebellious but creative attempt to experiment with, and rewire, those parts.

 Brett Scott. Courtesy Craig Scott.

While hacking is associated with tech culture, it can equally be applied to other areas, such as urban exploration, and, I believe, the financial system.

Financial underworld

To many people, the financial industry appears like an opaque black box. We queue at the bank, passively waiting to be served by a faceless corporate structure peddling products that few understand. It bears much resemblance to the way we use the Windows interface of our computer without really knowing what lies beyond the screen. ATMs and bank branches, just like Microsoft Windows, are intermediary facades between us and a deeper economic hardware we seldom see.

This entrenched obscurity of the financial sector is partly what gives it immense political power. People rely on it for everything from basic payments services to insurance, and yet despite its systemic importance to our daily lives, few feel confident in making political demands on the sector. Financial firms employ armies of lobbyists to alter legislation, all the while insisting that people should ‘leave finance to the experts’.

Indeed, we are always encouraged to think of finance as technical and inaccessible. If you are asked to imagine the financial system, what are the first images that jump into your head? Many people think of skyscrapers, complex mathematics, and aggressive brokers shouting into phones. The implicit message is this is a place for aggressive, elite whizz-kids, so stay away.

Hacking for good

Having worked as a financial broker myself, I have experienced this first hand. The system operates as a technocracy, and when combined with the immense wealth of financial institutions, and the phenomenon of Too-Big-Too-Fail, you have a recipe for the capture of democratic systems.

This brings us back to hackers. As journalist Steven Levy writes, “Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems – about the world – from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and more interesting things”. The democratic implications of this outlook are vital. Democracies rely on people actively keeping watch on powerful institutions, challenging them, and advancing new versions of them.

So, if you want to become a financial hacker, one has to move past the distracting surface images of finance, and actively pry under the surface.

What’s in your pension?

It takes practice though. To take a simple example, let us imagine that you buy a share in the oil giant BP via a brokerage firm on the London Stock Exchange. What exactly have you bought? Search for ‘BP share’ in Google images and you mostly get pictures of abstract graphs of BPs share price, as if the financial instrument was merely a phantom existing in the world of numbers, spreadsheets and suits.

In reality though, a BP share is not something that can be captured in a spreadsheet. It is a conduit for financial investors to extract oily value from a network of gritty real world assets, owned by 1160 BP-controled companies across the world, from the Pharaonic Petroleum Company in Egypt to Cayman Islands companies holding rights to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline in Azerbaijan. A BP share is a claim on real people exerting exhausting physical labor to extract fossilized zooplankton. This is not maths.

And what about the money in your pension fund? Is it helping to fund investments in companies benefiting from Sudanese atrocities? Is the mortgage you obtained going to be sold to an investment bank and packaged into a securitized mortgage product to be sold to a hedge fund speculator?

Systemic change

It is only once we explore these dynamics that we can begin to take responsibility for our money, and to design campaigns – such as MoveYourMoneyUK – that demand more of the financial sector.

Exploring under the hood of the system is just the first step of financial hacking. Once you understand financial instruments, you can begin to use them for unorthodox ends. Take, for example, shareholder activism, where you use instruments like BP shares to advance causes that are close to your heart. And how about designing a subversive fund like Robin Hood Minor Asset Management?

Key to the hacker ethic though, is a creative do-it-yourself impulse, and this involves building your own alternatives to the financial mainstream. There is an emergent open source finance movement focused on building peer-driven finance, innovative social investments, and even experimenting with money itself, from transnational cryptocurrencies to local community timebanks.

Finance does not have to be a complex world of elites, so start hacking.