Making Mischief in the Modern World

by Kembrew McLeod

4 April 2014


The Feast of the Fools and the Feast of the Ass

A famous rumor about the Beatles’ Paul McCartney, known as the “Paul Is Dead Hoax,” followed a similar pattern. In 1969, news spread that he died in a car accident and was secretly replaced by a lookand sound-alike. The story originally appeared in an Iowa college newspaper and fanned out through underground papers, freeform FM radio, and other counterculture media outlets. Time and Life magazines also ran with it, and soon legions of stoned hippies were poring over the Fab Four’s albums in search of clues about McCartney’s demise. It was all in good fun, but not everyone appreciated this kind of tomfoolery.

In the case of the Banana Hoax, some radicals even called it counterrevolutionary. Students for a Democratic Society president Todd Gitlin insisted that it was a politically misguided stunt that ignored the United Fruit Company’s unfair labor practices. “These circumstances come to mind,” he grumbled, “whenever bananas are flaunted with humor or symbolic meaning, as a means of liberation.” Although Gitlin did have a legitimate point, he was fighting an uphill battle. The ruptures produced by the gay and women’s liberation struggles, combined with the black power and antiwar movements, created multiple openings for irreverent tricksters. Many of them simply could not resist stirring it up—including a pair of computer nerds who embraced the counterculture’s worldview.

Before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built their first computer, they engineered pranks. Jobs started in elementary school, where he countered his boredom by making “Bring Your Pet to School Day” posters. “It was crazy,” he recalled, “with dogs chasing cats all over, and the teachers were beside themselves.” By the late 1960s, Jobs’s pranks were mostly technological in design, such as wiring his childhood home with hidden speakers and microphones to mess with his parents (they were not pleased). Jobs “likes to do pranks like you do,” a mutual friend told Wozniak, by way of introduction, “and he’s also into building electronics.” After becoming fast friends, Jobs and Wozniak targeted a graduation ceremony at Jobs’s Silicon Valley high school. Using ropes and pulleys, they planned to drop a bed sheet tie-dyed in the school’s colors—complete with a painting of a middle-finger salute and the words “Best Wishes.” (Alas, another student told on them.) Jobs said that it was “the banner prank that sealed our friendship.” Their pranking adventures continued after Woz created a device that could remotely screw up television reception. While in public spaces, like a dorm lobby, they would fill the screen with static—only to restore the picture once a frustrated viewer touched the television or made an awkward move. In doing so, the two Steves got their unwitting lab rats to contort themselves into human pretzels. Jobs said, laughing, “Just as they had the foot off the ground he would turn it back on, and as they put their foot back on the ground he’d screw it up again.” Wozniak recalls that a bunch of students watched “the second half hour of Mission: Impossible with the guy’s hand over the middle of the TV!”

Jobs and Wozniak transitioned into the world of hacking, a practice that is not unlike pranking. Hacking is often depicted as electronic breaking and entering, or cyber-terrorism, but this technique has very a different meaning in computing circles. It involves modifying software or hardware in a way that shows style, simplicity, creativity, and technical virtuosity. More generally, hacking can be defined as making a technology do things it wasn’t originally designed to do. The term originated in the early 1960s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where students messed around with computers and telephones (the latter pursuit is known as phone phreaking). Hacking has another important connotation. The Journal of the Institute for Hacks, TomFoolery & Pranks at MIT defines a hack as “a clever, benign, and ‘ethical’ prank or practical joke, which is both challenging for the perpetrators and amusing to the MIT community.” This might include covering the school’s giant dome with reflecting foil to make it look like R2D2 or placing a police car on top of it. “Hacks provide an opportunity to demonstrate creativity and know-how in mastering the physical world,” explains MIT alum André DeHon, now a University of Pennsylvania engineering professor. “An important component of many hacks is to help people see something in a different way, to give it a humorous, satirical, or poignant twist.” Another alum adds, “In their ideal form, hacks are a melding of art, inspiration, and engineering.”

Like pranking, hacking requires ingenuity and creative thinking— as well as a playful and rebellious attitude, which was certainly the case for Jobs and Wozniak. In the fall of 1971, Woz read an Esquire article about blue boxes, illicit devices that could hack the AT&T telephone network by using specific sounds. This mainstream magazine, with a readership of half a million readers, was the first to shine a light on the clandestine world of phone phreaking. Four decades later, Wozniak remains awestruck. “Who would ever believe you could put tones into a phone and make calls free anywhere in the world? I mean, who would believe it?” The duo’s very first business venture involved making and selling blue boxes (which Woz once used to make a prank call to the Vatican, almost getting the pope on the line). The pair marveled at how their homemade device could manipulate AT&T’s multibillion-dollar phone network. “I wanted to find out what the limits of the telephone system were,” Woz says. “What were the limits of any system? I’ve found that for almost anybody who thinks well in digital electronics or computer programming, if you go back and look at their lives they’ll have these areas of misbehavior.” His comment highlights how mischief can remake media and, occasionally, transform an entire industry. “If it hadn’t been for the Blue Boxes, there wouldn’t have been an Apple,” Jobs said. “I’m 100% sure of that. Woz and I learned how to work together, and we gained the confidence that we could solve technical problems and actually put something into production.”

Though AT&T and the phone phreaks seemed worlds apart, they developed a mutually constitutive bond. This massive corporation provided a laboratory for hackers, whose illicit experiments pushed it to transition to a digital switching system that couldn’t be triggered by tones. AT&T rolled out this new technology in 1970, when phone phreaking was reaching a critical mass. Although the company claimed it would increase efficiency, hamstringing phone phreaks was a major motivation. This digital infrastructure eventually made it possible for computer modems to talk to each other over the telephone network, paving the way for a thing called the Internet. (Again, people don’t just make mischief with media; their mischief can also remake media in the process.) The spread of phone phreaking hinged on another dynamic: the convoluted interconnections that bind mainstream and alternative media and culture. That Esquire article drew many curious people into the phone-phreaking fold, and it also subtly influenced members of that subculture. They initially referred to themselves as freaks—with an f—but from then on these hackers proudly adopted Esquire’s spelling of phreaks. It was a feedback loop, sort of like how underground papers and establishment news media propelled the Banana Hoax into the pop-culture stratosphere. Cultural studies scholar Sarah Thornton argues that dichotomies such as subculture/mainstream do not do a good job of accurately describing the world, because social life is more complicated than simple binaries. Similarly, the distinctions between amateur and professional media makers tend to be overly exaggerated. Like mythological trickster figures, mischief makers in the material world constantly blur the borders between insider and outsider, center and margin.

The Trickster Tradition

Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin believed laughter has played an underrecognized role in steering history. When hilarity erupts, it can also interrupt the status quo. He claimed that the old feudal order wasn’t just brought down with cannonballs and Enlightenment thought but also by waves of uninhibited laughter. Medieval carnivals gave peasants the license to turn existing power relations upside down, if only for a day, by ridiculing kings and princes. Bakhtin noted that these festivities were marked by “a continual shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings.” They stood in stark contrast to the serious tone set by the ruling powers of Europe. “Besides carnivals proper, with their long, and complex pageants and processions,” Bakhtin writes, “there was the ‘feast of fools’ (festa stultorum) and the ‘feast of the ass.’” These raucous rituals occurred in all countries throughout Europe, creating an alternative space that thrived outside the official political and religious spheres.

Even Christmas had an early unruly incarnation. Although some Christians did piously observe this holiday and shunned the wild celebrations associated with it, those folks were few and far between. LateDecember festivities took place for centuries, and they coincided with a moment of leisure and abundance that came with the end of the harvest. During this time of year, the social hierarchy was symbolically turned upside down. The lowly became “Masters of Misrule,” men dressed as women and vice versa, and children gained the status of their elders— who were ruthlessly mocked. At Christmastime, bands of boys and young men demanded food, drink, and goods from the rich, a tradition called Wassailing that continued into the modern era. In seventeenthcentury New England, the holiday troubled religious leaders so much that they banned it entirely. Attention Fox News: the Puritans waged the first War on Christmas! Historian Stephen Nissenbaum notes, “when the Church, more than a millennium earlier, had placed Christmas Day in late December, the decision was part of what amounted to a compromise, and a compromise for which the Church paid a high price.” Folding a rowdy secular festival into this holy Christian holiday created serious headaches for religious authorities.

Despite the liberatory promise of medieval carnivals, they sometimes unleashed violent frustrations against Jews and other minority groups. These officially sanctioned subversions also functioned as instruments of social control (by letting people blow off a little steam before tensions exploded). Nevertheless, they did plant seeds that occasionally overturned the ruling order. As Lewis Hyde puts it, “Every so often Fat Tuesday does leak over into Lean Wednesday, and into the rest of the year as well.” In Germany, the ceremonial debasement of the pope helped lay the groundwork for the Reformation: “The ritual container broke, the pollution leaked out, and the Church itself was fundamentally altered.” It was the guffaw heard around the world, a reminder of media theorist Dick Hebdige’s claim that the “modern age was laughed into being.” Invoking Bakhtin, he writes, “The dust and the cobwebs, the angels and the devils, the necromancers and the priests, the barbaric inquisitions, the inflexible hierarchies, the sober, deadly serious ignorance of the medieval powers were blown away not by guns or great debates but by great gusts of belly laughter.”

Carnivalesque trickster figures—who appear in myths throughout the world, from Native American to Australian Aboriginal cultures— attack the things that society reveres most. The more sacred the belief, the more likely it will be profaned. Most trickster tales position a weak animal, such as a rabbit or monkey, against a physically powerful opponent. The prey becomes the hunter, and with mental jujitsu the king of the jungle can be knocked from his throne. Given the slave’s lowly position in American society, it’s no surprise that trickster tales such as those about Br’er Rabbit thrived in African American culture. These escapist fantasies made daily life slightly more bearable, and they offered practical models for resistance and survival (stealing food and other necessities were common themes). The escaped slave Henry “Box” Brown surely learned some valuable lessons from those stories. Brown secretly mailed himself from a Virginia plantation to Philadelphia’s freedom, then became a theatrical star in the North. He reenacted his escape in an elaborate one-man stage show, Mirror of Slavery, which functioned as both thrilling entertainment and artful propaganda for the abolitionist cause. Fleeing slavery in a shipping crate was an act of desperation, and not a prank, to be sure. Nevertheless, Brown’s unique form of edutainment aligned him with a long lineage of political pranksters and trickster figures discussed throughout this book.

During the 1960s, the counterculture perfected pranking as a form of progressive political action. In one infamous incident, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin tossed hundreds of dollar bills from the gallery overlooking the New York Stock Exchange. The white-collar workers became unwitting actors in this staged drama when they started diving for dollars (it stopped the stock ticker for a few minutes, costing millions in lost trading). During this Wall Street–Theater performance, the buttoned-down mob revealed the avarice that bubbled just beneath the Stock Exchange’s veneer of respectability. “Some stockies booed,” compatriot Ed Sanders recalled, “but others groveled on the floor like eels of greed to gather the cash.” Taking cues from the PR industry, the Yippies merrily used mass media to advertise alternative lifestyles, the peace movement, and other causes they held dear. The same was true of the radical feminist pranksters who founded WITCH. These women unnerved Mr. Jones and other squares by casting satirical hexes, wearing wicked costumes, and crashing bridal fairs.

Two decades later, these tactics were adopted by ACT UP. This activist organization was founded in 1987 as a reaction to the pharmaceutical industry’s, government’s, and corporate media’s nonresponse to the AIDS crisis. Its members dispensed with conventional protest models by using novel, attention-getting tactics. ACT UP got a ton of press coverage after placing a gigantic yellow condom over the home of Senator Jesse Helms, who opposed public funding for safe-sex initiatives. At a different protest, police officers enacted their homophobia and hysteria over “catching AIDS” by wearing bright yellow rubber gloves during arrests. The activists spontaneously chanted, “Your gloves don’t match your shoes! You’ll see it on the news!”—a catchy hook that ensured it would be seen on the news. This sassy humor was also on display in ACT UP’s tradition of naming its subgroups. Echoing the feminists who founded WITCH, one splinter cell called itself CHER: Commie Homos Engaged in Revolution. Because the organization focused on issues of media representation, the New York Times was an early target. During one guerrilla sticker campaign, ACT UP members plastered the newspaper’s vending machines with the following message: “The New York Times aids reporting is out of order.” The last three words were prominent enough to discourage potential customers.

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