Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

The Way of the Phreak

"Sometimes the conference would come to you, unannounced, just you picking up your ringing phone and a dozen people would call out your name and drag you into the never-ending conversation."

That's how Jason Scott captured phone phreaking in the 80s: an amorphous mass of chatter waiting to be explored - but also something big and active. Something that hunted you down once you were known to the network. It included you.

Last month, in The Atlantic, I wrote about phone phreaking and how it experienced a glorious intersection with computer hacking during the 90s. The primary stimulus for this piece was a fantastic new book by Phil Lapsley, Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell.

Exploding the Phone was released in the UK on Thursday and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in hacking, network communications or how technology helps to activate communities.

"Either you were a nominal user of the telephone or you were part of a special minority who knew how to phreak or 'blue box' the system"

Let's not forget how telephones as metaphors for points of access are essential to the visual economy of films like The Matrix (1999). The piercing ringing of a phone has long been understood as a cinematic trope which denotes sudden change and the phone itself can easily be seen as a sort of gateway to an aural Internet of voices, noise and unknown destinations. 

Of course, phone phreaks really could identify as being part of a distinct group. Either you were a nominal user of the telephone, someone who saw it as quotidian and mundane, or you were part of a special minority who knew how to phreak or "blue box" the system.

The discussion which formed around a link to my article on Hacker News demonstrates how recognising that you were on the latter side of this divide was, for many hackers, a big part of how they got started.

One user commented:

"My obsession with phone phreaking in the 90s was because it was the medium by which we accessed the world. There was a wire that ran into my house whereby I could speak to anyone or dial into anywhere. [...] Couple these facts with what was then the only resource for people wanting to know more for free: text files. The community surrounding 2600, Phrack, and countless other zines lost to the ages. It created a sense of ability to access all points along this route of communication."

My piece was intended to point out that the innate curiosity which phreaks seemed to possess, that thing which made them phreaks in the first place, is a valuable asset to those of us who try to interpret and explain the impact of technology on mankind.

We have human reactions to this stuff. We learn, develop and mobilise through being able to map our own intentions onto the hardware and software that comes our way.

Not everyone can be a hacker, and I'm not sure I'd claim to be one myself. But do I believe that there is value in the ideology which rests behind hacking? Behind tinkering, re-routing, playing around with the materials in our immediate reality?

You bet I do. So when some individuals say it's ridiculous to suggest that we all need to learn code in order to properly navigate the digital age, I feel an extraordinary sense of tension. Tension between: knowing that the whole point of an algorithm is that you shouldn't need to understand it to benefit from it; and knowing that, often, understanding that algorithm can free you from blindly accepting its functionality and the results it spits out.

"We need more people who question the technology that lands on our doorstep. It's about cultivating agency and independence"

Ultimately, I think we need more people who question the technology that lands on our doorstep. That doesn't have to be about rejecting it or fearing it. Quite the opposite. It can be about pointing out the flaws, re-imagining it, making it better. It's about cultivating agency and independence.

Is it so unreasonable to advocate inquisitiveness? Sure, it would be nice if we didn't have to. If the structures and systems we set in motion actually considered all the possibilities and edge cases. But they don't. That responsibility, one must admit, is not up to technology. It can't be.

It's up to us, guys.


Photo: "I need an exit" by Luis Argerich. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

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