PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

Get a Glimpse of an Early Social Network -- and Its Hackers -- in 'Exploding the Phone'

One of the earliest, and most illegal, social networks led to one of the greatest technological revolutions of our time.


Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell

Publisher: Grove
Length: 416 pages
Author: Phil Lapsley
Price: $18.97
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-02
Amazon

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.

6

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.