Hacker and Troller as Trickster

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,

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.

Biella Coleman