The Re-Code.Com Story

Conceptual Overview

The products we purchase are the inventory of our lives. To chain stores, this inventory is cataloged through the Universal Product Locator symbol (UPC). The UPC symbol is known as a barcode. Barcodes are now found everywhere in our world, extending outside of product inventory into our comic books, our science fiction, our films, and even our tattoos. These codes represent the fears of literally becoming numbers or becoming digital that are in many of us. These are not fears we wish to dismiss. The RE-CODE.COM project brings together the tactical media actions of the Carbon Defense League and the video and performance hijacks of Conglomco in a way that takes online action outside of the box for real world instigation. Looking at the heavy reliance on digital systems in chain stores utilizing the UPC barcode system, we see a problem or a virus in the system. The virus is the human. We are the nightmare of the digital to some extent. We are the squeaky wheel.

In typical transaction scenarios, both consumer and cashier behave accordingly to accommodate the dominance of the barcode. Both depend on the accuracy of the code. Both function in machine-like behaviors in accordance to the patterns of traditional consumption rituals. Both cashier and customer listen only for a beep as their purchased item's codes are swiped across the glowing light of the register. In some situations, even the cashier has been removed, so a machine can now be controlled by only the barcode maneuvered by human hands. Those same human hands can now be used in an act of brand subversion. Those same hands are the flaw that must resist the digital embrace of the UPC symbol. We must not simply shutter in science fiction horror, but take tactical action to manipulate the existing system for consumer benefit. With RE-CODE.COM, we look for a way to highlight the absurdity of a system undermined by humans that relies primarily on our very own physical presence and continual acceptance. We must showcase the human through the subversion of the code.

Project Overview

RE-CODE.COM was a free web service that allowed its customers to share product information and create barcodes that can be printed and used to re-code items in stores by placing new labels over existing UPC symbols to set a new price - participating in an act of tactical shopping. RE-CODE.COM at its core was a shared database, update able by our customers. Participation was free and required no special membership agreements or software download. After entering the web site, customers could choose to search and view information in the database currently or add their own collected data to the system. Using the custom Barcode Generator application, barcodes were drawn in real time and made available to the user. We utilize only UPC-A Type barcodes, the most common variety of barcode. It is used in most retail applications in North America and Europe. On the web site, we showed users a process whereby they could obtain cheaper prices for items in stores by simply re-coding items they planned to purchase, or switch the labels on items to reveal messages for customers and cashiers that might reveal the true prices of goods. The RE-CODE.COM web site itself was a mockery of PRICELINE.COM, made to look nearly identical to its counterpart which uses a "consumer as revolutionary" advertising approach to entice people to name their own price for goods and services. RE-CODE.COM simply wanted to take that concept to its logical completion, allowing any price to be named and re-coded in the store by the customer through barcode replacement. RE-CODE.COM highly encouraged re-coding name brand items with their generic equivalents as both a safety tactic and a way to comment on the overpricing of branded items. The two unique process we developed that are critical to the building of the database are known as preshopping and postshopping. Both required visiting RE-CODE.COM both before and after the process of shopping.

Under Attack

After going live on March 12th, 2003, the web site went unnoticed for close to 10 days when suddenly it began receiving attention on numerous blog sites that understood the satire and appreciated the concept of the site. The project was presented on March 23 at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Chicago, IL. published the first story on the web site on April 10th. That same day, the domain name WHOIS masking service employed by received a cease and desist letter from attorneys representing the world's largest retail employer, Wal-Mart. At that time was averaging over 50,000 hits/day with a highpoint of 96,000 hits in one hour alone. The servers running the site were bogged down and access became sporadic at best. The site had struck a nerve and the attention that was now being given to the site's creators was now much more a result of Wal-Mart's threats than of the site's actual content. Countless interviews were granted with multiple media outlets including morning call in shows, college radio programs, investigative reporters, National Public Radio station, the British Broadcasting Company, and others around the world. The site's attention was almost too much to believe. Not only was Wal-Mart upset by the site, but also PriceChopper (a chain grocery store), the Kellogs corporation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Federal Trade Commission. After contacting several lawyers who had offered the site's creators pro-bono legal council, the database and barcode generator portions of the website were pulled down and replaced by a response video by the site's creators.