Exploding the Phone is Phil Lapsley's exhaustive history of the phone-phreak phenomenon of the '60s and '70s. Phone phreaks were proto-hackers: obsessive young men who figured out through endless, repetitive effort that it was possible to explore the national phone network for free by imitating whistling tones, knowing when to hang up, and bluffing their way past telephone operators. The problem is that Lapsley's broad research into every twist and turn of the phone-hacking story, involving various AT&T employees, government agents, as well as the phreaks themselves, makes his book diffuse. A sharper focus could have made for greater emotional resonance.
Maybe Lapsley is too infatuated with his subject to make it inviting to the uninitiated. The origins of the term "phreak" ("phone" plus "freak") is not explained for the first half of the book, and he never explains the nickname "Ma Bell" and its variations (Mother Bell, a reference to the Bell Telephone Company, which later became AT&T). He also doesn't talk to any of the female operators who were the first line of defense against the phone hackers. More compelling is his attention to the phreaks themselves — a group comprising Ivy Leaguers, assorted hippies, and half a dozen blind teenagers. Much of what they describe brings to mind modern-day hacking. Lapsley makes note of the parallel, but doesn't dwell on it. He's more explicit about the influence of the phenomenon on the two Steves of Apple fame, Wozniak and Jobs, both of whom were dedicated phone phreaks. (Wozniak wrote the foreword.)
The book is at its best when describing just how freeing and fascinating it was to navigate vast stretches of the phone network, perhaps just to see if you could route a phone call through five different interchanges across the country only to connect with someone in your own town. With the sweet, gee-whiz tone Lapsley adopts for these sections, it's easy to see why so many disparate people became entranced by the possibilities of phreaking.
EXPLODING THE PHONE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE TEENAGERS AND OUTLAWS WHO HACKED MA BELL :: By Phil Lapsley:: Grove Press :: 416 pages :: $26
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