Hacking the Cis-tem

Hicks, Marie
IEEE Annals of the History of Computing

This paper looks at the case of transgender Britons who tried to correct the gender listed on their government-issued ID cards, but ran up against the British government's increasingly computerized methods for tracking, identifying, and defining citizens. These newly computerizing systems show some of the earliest examples of transphobic algorithmic bias: explicit attempts to program trans people out of the system can be seen in the programming of the early Ministry of Pensions computer system designed to apportion benefits to all tax paying British citizens. Transgender citizens pushed back against these developments, attempting to hack the bureaucratic avenues and categories available to them, laying the groundwork for a coalescing political movement. This paper argues that uncovering the deep prehistory of algorithmic bias and investigating instances of resistance within this history is essential to understanding current debates about algorithmic bias, and how computerized systems have long functioned to create and enforce norms and hierarchies.