Friday, December 30, 2011

Social Text: Blog-Dev: Hacker and Troller as Trickster

Hacker and Troller as Trickster

by Biella Coleman,
February 7th 2010

If you read the literature on tricksters, you will confront a string of words that capture the moral quality and sensibilities of these figures, figures scattered across time and place and largely enshrined in myths and stories:

Cunning, deceit, lying, provocateur, mischief, audacious, thief, play, shrewdness, audacity, grotesque, over the top, appetite, shocking, fun, delight, wit, trap, subversive, ability, wanderer.

These figures, which include Coyote, Loki, Hermes, and Eshu, among many more, push the envelope of what is morally acceptable and in so doing, argues Lewis Hyde (in his tome on the subject), renew and revitalize culture, especially the moral stuff of culture. They are not only boundary crossers, they are boundary makers. As the title of his book so succinctly and masterfully broadcasts "Trickster Makes this World." Or as he suggests with a bit more elaboration:

I want to argue a paradox that the myth asserts: that the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be a space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on. (p. 9)

At the opening of the book, Hyde asks whether there are tricksters in modern industrial societies. His answer is a plain 'no.' The con man who might share some similarities does not qualify. For in fact what is needed is either a polytheistic system "or lacking that, he needs at least a relationship to other powers, to people, to instructions, and traditions that can manage the odd double attitude of both insisting that boundaries be respected and recognizing that in the long run their liveliness depends on having those boundaries regularly distributed" p.13 He does locate the spirit of the trickster in spirited individuals: in Picasso, in Frederick Douglass, in laudable figures who push certain boundaries and renew our world for the better but nonetheless fall short of the archetypal trickster.

I bet it is pretty obvious where I am going with all of this given my object of study: phreakers, hackers, and trollers. The trickster does exist across America, across Europe, really across the world and it is not in myth but in embodied in group and living practice: in that of the prankster, hacker, the phreaker, the troller (all of whom, have their own unique elements of course, but so does each trickster). Their relationship to other powers are many and can be located in terms of information, intellectual property, the government, language itself, institutions of power like the FBI and AT&T. The list is not short.

For a few years now I have been thinking about the linkages between the trickster and hackers as well as the troller but it was only in the fall when I found myself trapped in a hospital for a week that I finally cracked open the book by Hyde and devoured it. Within a the first few pages, it was undeniable: there are many links to be made between the trickster and hacking. Many of these figures, push boundaries of all sorts: they upset ideas of propriety and property; they use their sharpened wits sometimes for play, sometimes for political ends; they get trapped by their cunning (which happens ALL the time with tricksters! That is how they learn); and they remake the world, technically, socially, and legally and includes software, licensing and even forms of literature (think textfile, the Jargon File or most dramatically,ED).

But if the trickster generally resides in myth, and the trickster of the information age resides in practice, myth matters everywhere because there is a mythos created around these figures. Sometimes the mythos is propagated these groups (take a look of ED for example or Phrack in the past) and of course the media has played an undeniable role. And yet, unlike what is represented in the pages of Hyde, there are living, actual bodies in motion, in conversation, in transformation, a group that goes far beyond the other more controlled and bounded tricksters we might be able to locate in society, such as artistic/political groups like the Yes Men.

But the most shocking (or hard to think through) element lies less in the many associations one can make, but in the following curious fact. For the most part the trickster is enshrined in myth and stories but the tricksters I am referring to are in fact full-bodied, full-blooded groups of people who are actually engaging in all sorts of acts of trickery. This is culture not in the sense of art and myth but people and practice and this of course makes an (ethical) difference. What happens when you are the recipient not of a story offered an elder, but the recipient of trickery, an act of pranking or trolling, for example? What happens when you can trace all sorts of instances of boundary re-shifting and remaking, as with the GPL? I think this, even more than the linkages, is what makes this connection so remarkable and I trying to think through what it means to have a figure that we can find and talk to, as opposed to one embodied in myth and story.

For now I am going to leave this post short and in the next installment, will start raising some of the connections between trickery and variants of hacking and trolling.

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