Get a Glimpse of an Early Social Network—and Its Hackers—in ‘Exploding the Phone’

[24 February 2014]

By Jedd Beaudoin

Author Phil Lapsley takes up one of the more unusual chapters of the American underground, phone phreaking, in this new volume. The prolific author and commentator patiently creeps through the early days of the phone’s existence and, near the end, demonstrates how that very technology has evolved and continues to revolutionize our lives. Lapsley’s knack for detail and his impressive research will have tech phreaks and non-phreaks, well, freaking.

The story begins with a kind of cloak and dagger tale that involves a Harvard undergrad, a strange classified ad, and a mysterious reference to a fine arts notebook that lead us into the circuitous layers of the telephone underground. The story is illustrative of how most of the young men involved in phreaking came to find this unusual passion.

There was some sort of chance encounter, a corner turned out of curiosity and then a long journey that involved trying to figure out how to push the right buttons again and again, leading the caller deeper and deeper into the mysterious realm of the telephone. If the premise at first seems somehow laughable and, maybe (we can say this) “dorky”, keep in mind that the whole thing begins at a time when long distance calls were a complex and expensive operation and the promise of the technology was itself still not entirely fulfilled.

Lapsley patiently details this primitive technology for us, explaining how early phones work, the materials that were involved in their making, the moment that they became necessities, and how, in fact, phone numbers (now something that might seem obsolete, at least in the sense that we no longer need to remember them) came to be.

This is a tale of government sponsored monopoly, a communications corporation that bullied its customers and was essentially encouraged to do so through the early decades of the telephone. This is the tale of the outlaws who wanted, more than anything, to have a good time and the ingenuity they used not only in cracking a series of codes but also in protecting themselves and each other.

We can see the analogs of things such as screen names as we learn about the aliases these lads crafted, discover how their ability to operate outside the law actually made them in many ways desirable to those who were operating very much within its confines. There are stories galore of how the phreakers were questioned, harassed, threatened, and how, time and again, they pushed back.

Geek testosterone and hubris prevail as the collective arc of the phreakers enters the ‘70s and the characters (including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak) become larger than life, increasingly progressive in pushing the limits of technology and increasingly eager to go where none had gone before. It’s impossible to set this book aside as the story unfolds and we wind up, seemingly, in the future and yet, in many ways, still very much connected to the past.

The smart phone, the omnipresent symbol of now, is related to the dial and push button contraption of the past; today we talk about networks and interconnectedness while in the past phone users had to share party lines. Today’s phone is portable and encourages us to push beyond our limitations and yet, to some, it must seem so absolutely antiquated. More than a century after its invention, it’s still used for primarily the same thing. That’s all in here and how we got from there to the advent of the personal computer and computer hacking may not be hard to imagine, but it sure is fun to read about.

Lapsley is at his best when he’s unraveling the history of the phone and the phreaks and doing so with a remove that is commensurate with a historian—patient but never boring. There are moments when he lapses into the colloquial, the crude, as though he’s trying to meld Jim Thompson with Isaac Asimov, that he stretches and nearly breaks his authorial credibility. While some of the moments are funny they seem unnecessary (one about “being screwed”, as he writes “without lube” seems astonishingly sophomoric) and probably likely to date the book faster than if Lapsley had just told the story with the kind of wise and authoritative voice that dominates the book, but especially its earliest chapters.

One way or another Exploding The Phone will probably be one of the most talked about books this year. Its characters are interesting and colorful enough that, yes, this book could someday be the basis of a movie.

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