/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Mon, Apr 13 2015
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  • Exploding the Phone: the untold, epic story of the phone phreaks

    Exploding the Phone: the untold, epic story of the phone phreaks

    Phil Lapsley's Exploding the Phone does for the phone phreaks what Steven Levy's Hackers did for computer pioneers, capturing the anarchic move-fast-break-stuff pioneers who went to war against Ma Bell. The original AT&T was a curiously perfect symbol of America: a titanic corporation deeply enmeshed in the US government and military; an R&D organization with parallel that paved the roads that would someday become the nation's information superhighway. More than GM, what was good for AT&T was good for America -- the transistor, the computer, the long lines and the DEW line.

    AT&T was also a curiously perfect target for another American symbol: the hacker. Mapping the network and rooting out its secrets was as wholesome and problematic as the push through the American frontier. The early phreaks -- many of them blind -- were motivated by a combination of hijinx and Yankee ingenuity, escaping the isolation of disability in a technical mystery of incredible complexity.

    And finally, AT&T was a curiously perfect symbol of American corruption: the military-industrial complex, a ripoff's ripoff that outraged free marketers, mafiosi, and anarchist Yippees alike, each for their own reasons.

    Lapsley is a master storyteller -- the comparison to Levy's classic Hackers is an apt one -- and was blessed with a lot of primary source material, including interviews, secret memos prised loose from corporate and state archives with the Freedom of Information Act, and archival documents rarely seen or referenced in other stories about the period.

    The phreaks -- and the trustbusters, cops, phone cops (cue WKRP!), and regulators both tame and toothsome -- are a perfect microcosm of all the battles that followed since. Without the phreaks -- and the rip-off, toll-busting blue boxes that Woz and Jobs marketed in dorms and to the great and good of Hollywood -- there would be no Apple Computers. There would likely be no Internet. The computer crime statutes that caused so much misery for the likes of Aaron Swartz and Barrett Brown have their origins in the phreak wars.

    We're moving into an era where every policy fight starts and ends as a fight over how technology should work and who should control it, an era where the corporations that package and delivery claim the right to control its users. Exploding the Phone is an essential guide to where that fight started, how it's changed, and where it has stayed the same, over more than half a century.

    Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell [Phil Lapsley/Grove Press]

    -Cory Doctorow

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