'Phone Phreaks' of '60S, '70S Set Stage for Today's Hackers

Article excerpt

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.

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. …