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'Phone phreaks' of '60s, '70s set stage for today's hackers

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/2/2013 (1661 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Much of our society's technological innovation springs from the play of geeks. That's geeks, not Greeks.

Just throw a gaggle (or better yet a Google) of geeks in a room, toss in a bag of electronic doodads, and before you can say Apple all sorts of new and possibly useful gizmos are zinging about.

Early hackers went after Ma Bell decades ago.


Early hackers went after Ma Bell decades ago.

Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell is American managerial consultant Phil Lapsley's fascinating contribution to this seductively simple yarn.

Lapsley, who holds degrees in electrical engineering and computer science along with an MBA from MIT, and has co-founded two high-tech companies, uses long-form investigative journalism in his look at the history of the telephone in the U.S. to retell and reinforce this geek myth.

Specifically, he builds his well-sourced, interview-rich and detailed argument around, upon, and through "phone phreaks" of the 1960s and 1970s.

These were, generally, teenage boys with an obsessive interest in the workings and weaknesses of the telephone network. They not only found weaknesses, but exploited them: sometimes for economic gain, but more frequently for the thrill that came with pulling off the intellectual equivalent of smiting Goliath with a slingshot.

Lapsley depicts his protagonists -- who went by such pseudonyms as Captain Crunch and Joybubbles -- as antecedents of today's community of computer hackers.

As an apologist for these "phreaks," Lapsley attempts to separate their playful, exploratory and creative behaviour from the outlaw acts of bookies, the petty thievery of long-distance phone call fraudsters, and the political agenda of new left radicals such as Abbie Hoffman.

For instance, Lapsley characterizes the establishment of a Youth International Party Line newsletter by Hoffman and his pal Alan Fierstein, an engineering major at Cornell University, as "the beginning of the cultural hijacking of phone phreaking."

This supposed co-opting of phreaking deflected it toward more anti-war activity, a counter-cultural lifestyle and greater anti-establishment animus.

While Lapsley acknowledges such attitudes were attractive to many authentic phreaks, who often felt socially marginalized, he insists their tendency to push the established legal and social boundaries of the telephonic world originated from a tinkering spirit and a playful curiosity, not a political agenda.

Joybubbles, a blind teen who learned to whistle his way to long-distance calls, and Washington State College student Ralph Barclay, who built a "blue box," a contraption that electronically generated tone frequencies to control the Bell network, are more representative of true phreaks, contends Lapsley.

And Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, was perhaps the paradigm of phreakdom. Inspired by the feats of these technical magicians, Wozniak designed a digital blue box and, with the help of pal Steve Jobs, went into the business of selling them.

"Steve (Jobs) and I were a team from that day on," Wozniak writes in the foreword of Exploding the Phone. "(Jobs) once said that Apple wouldn't have existed without the blue box, and I agree."

It's within this context that Lapsley makes his plea for greater social tolerance towards those who behave like phreaks and hackers. He admits that the line between criminality and curiosity can be blurry, and there shouldn't be any "free passes."

But Lapsley forcefully argues: "At some level, we as a society understand that there is a benefit to having curious people, people who continually push the limits, who try new things. But we'd prefer they not go too far; that makes us uncomfortable."

Written in meat-and-potato prose, packed with neat and clear technical insights, informed by a geek myth, Exploding the Phone (by the way, no phones were harmed in the making of the book, as far as we know) manages to pull off the seemingly impossible -- make one nostalgic for the days of busy signals, operators and rotary dials.

Greg Di Cresce is a Winnipeg journalist and a student of communication history.


Updated on Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 3:41 PM CST: adds fact box

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