Breaking in and sneaking over: why placehacking is risk intelligent

Would you illegally climb the Shard, Europe’s tallest building, currently unfinished, just for fun? Maybe that’s not your idea of amusement. But what if you were itching to leap over a walkway, sneak past the security guard, sprint up the Shard’s seventy internal flights of stairs and then scale an external crane ladder to possibly the best night views of London… and just couldn’t let yourself?

Would you walk past the Shard each day on your way to work and regret it forever? Blame society for making you too fearful and law-abiding? Or would you conclude that your abstaining from such behaviour was for the best? After all, scaling a ladder-like structure at the top of a crane blowing in the wind at great height with no ropes, crampons or climbing aids is not risk intelligent, right?

Or is it? Dr Bradley Garrett, urban explorer, anthropologist and geographer, scratched that itch some weeks ago and survived. While he agrees there were obvious elements of physical and legal danger, he understood the risks involved perhaps better than anyone else, for he is a professional ‘placehacker’: someone who physically trains and mentally prepares to sneak into forbidden public spaces. He is more than a tourist, however – he is an academic (his PhD thesis is titled ‘Place Hacking: Tales of Urban Exploration’) and a social campaigner. His aim, by scaling the Shard, is to demonstrate that we live in a risk-averse society under a nanny state obsessed with safety – as demonstrated by our shocked reactions. Dr Garrett argues that our natural desire to explore and wander our own neighbourhood, if not the entire world, is suppressed. The other message he can’t help but send is that the ‘most secure site outside of the Olympic Park’ is, or was, incredibly easy to break into. It makes you wonder what we are in store for with the Olympics.

Of course not everyone should take on the Shard or even something smaller. Knowing your personal limits is part of having good risk intelligence. It’s worth observing that while Dr Garrett displays formidable risk intelligence, the risks he takes are directly physical, unlike, for example, the risk of choosing which stock to buy or whether to trust a new nanny with your child. A directly physical risk carries the challenge that no matter how much analysis you’ve put in, when it comes to the actual moment of placing your body onto the single ladder at the top of the Shard, you might face instant death due to a whim in the weather or a momentary glitch in your own bodily instincts. This is a very different risk outcome from the instant ruin of your business or the death of someone close. You might go through hell and back rebuilding your business or suffer great stress through grief but we still live in an era where medicine is unlikely to save you if you fall from the Shard. If you fall, that is most probably the end of your risk-taking.

So what place do directly physical risks have in the realm of risk intelligence? Is placehacking worth potentially dying or suffering major injuries for? Our preconceptions of placehackers, Dr Garrett argues, are usually prejudiced, like the way homeless people are often taken for scavenging drunks or the way the Beat writers were considered mad for going ‘on the road’. The urban explorer is usually perceived as an angry, off-grid anarchist rebel who sees the world as a playground and life as expendable. But an intelligent and dedicated placehacker such as Dr Garrett (and he is far from being the only one) will consider whether it’s worth dying for their profession the same way a firefighter, a soldier posted to a warzone or certain types of athlete would consider it. Young US recruits who can’t afford a college education often see being drafted into the army as a career-saver. They are thinking ‘it is unlikely to happen to me’. Not only is that statistically true, it allows them to get on with the job and worry instead about making the rent, supporting their families and all the other day to day things most people worry about.

Like people who work in warzones or burning buildings, Dr Garrett’s preparation for his place-hacking is tantamount to being ‘trained’. His whole life, whether he planned it or not, has lead up to his ‘Shard moment’. Before climbing it he had broken in to the Barcelona subway system, spent five years on archaeological digs in thirteen different countries and spent three years working for the US Bureau of Land Management. Add to that his teenage skateboarding (which he pursued so fully it became a business before he sold up and switched to academia) and you have a man who is highly attuned to buildings and the societies that govern them from a viscerally anthropological perspective. He is physically embodying his intellectual ideas. We need more Garretts in the world, not less. We might not climb the Shard at night ourselves, but it’s good for our risk intelligence to know that a skater-turned-PhD can do it, survive, and have a blast. We all have our Shards.

Friday 13th and the “Hound of the Baskervilles effect”.

Oh dear, it’s Friday 13th today! Whether you are superstitious or not, you can’t help but notice this combination of day and date because it is so marked in cultural consciousness as being unlucky. You might not care about the number 13, black cats or any other superstition but as a risk intelligent person are you wondering whether drivers will be just a little more anxious than normal today? Or if important meetings will sour halfway through if the collective mood of the nation is punctuated with unease?

Perhaps, however, you are in China as you read this, where no one cares it’s Friday 13th. But did you notice any malaise in the ether on the fourth day of this month if you were there? Or in Japan? In Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese the words “four” and “death” are pronounced almost identically. So despised is the number 4 in these countries that mainland Chinese omit the number 4 in designing military aircraft and some Chinese and Japanese hospitals do not list a fourth floor or number any rooms with 4. Multiply that dislike by nearly 1.5 billion people and it becomes worth asking what noteworthy effects the fear of number 4 might have. Can believing in superstition even be dangerous enough to hasten a stress-related death, such as the heart attack that kills Charles Baskerville in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novel The Hound of the Baskervilles?

A group of Western and Chinese academics undertook research to ask precisely this question. Their objective was to determine ‘whether cardiac mortality is abnormally high on days considered unlucky’ and they did this by examining the numbers of cardiac and non-cardiac mortalities on or around the fourth of each month in groups of Chinese and Japanese people based in the US. Interestingly they found that cardiac deaths for Chinese and Japanese people peaked on the fourth of each month – the peak being particularly large for those with chronic heart disease. The study was done in the US with a non-Asian control group but the peak on the fourth of each month was particularly noticeable in California which has a high Asian and American-Asian population. Of course the number 4 itself isn’t dangerous the way a heart attack is but believing it to be gives it an indirect but quantifiable power, which is what these academics are suggesting.

The risk intelligent course of action would be to rationally acknowledge that numbers, even ones that sound like words, are just numbers and must be used as such. But to do away with superstition is to do away with deep-rooted parts of our cultural psyche, wherever we are from. Plus we may not be able to shrug them off at all. You can emigrate to a new life in the US but you can’t leave your fear of the number 4 neatly behind in China – as the cardiac statistics indicate. Also there are good traditions that would have to be thrown out if we treated all numbers the same, such as the Chinese belief that 8 is a lucky number and that cheques given as wedding gifts should contain as many eights as possible, ie £88.88. My guess is that our feelings about certain numbers are here to stay in some form or another, at least for the time being. Just don’t put a 4 on the cheque you give your Chinese friend on their wedding day.