Hello and welcome to the first installment of our weekly Geek Reads column! This week we dive into the first quarter of The Hacker Crackdown; join us as we trace the genesis of the hacker golden age by learning the long strange trip of telephony, from the Chappe visual telegraph system of France through Bell’s vision of the telephone as a public broadcast system to the gentle hegemony of Ma Bell in the 20th century.
Alex: One of the most intriguing aspects of Sterling's book (or at least the first quarter) is the implication that our public telephone system exists in part because of the American romanticization of free speech and open communication. As a child of the ‘80s I’ve grown up taking the notion of a publicly-available phone (either as a pay terminal or a handset on the counter of a corner store) for granted; Sterling’s account of how foreign countries initially approached public telephones with disdain or outright disbelief was a big surprise.
David: Yeah one of the things I really like about Bruce Sterling’s non-fiction writing is that he has a way of approaching actual technology from a sci-fi perspective that makes you reconsider it. Strangely I like this way better in his non-fiction than in his actual science fiction a lot of the time; I think the telephone system stuff is probably the most obvious example in Hacker Crackdown since he not only manages to show how weird it is that the early Internet was so intimately connected with the telephone system, but how weird the phone system is all by itself.
Alex: The phone system is totally weird and fantastic! Who knew?
Nate: That “weirdness” is fascinating; Sterling’s book is just shy of 20 years old, and “the Internet” as it exists in the text is about as quaint to us as his description of the switchboard system likely was to him. But the parallels are there, and they’re huge.
With the Internet (then, and now), we’re back at square one. We’ve got a service that’s arguably a right, but its pretty much completely in the hands of faceless, profit-minded corporations. Ma Bell enjoyed a “gentle hegemony,” but they kowtowed to the federal government to avoid having their monopoly torn apart (immediately). The “official” monopoly might be gone, but good luck telling that to someone (like myself) who’s stuck with Comcast.
Where social behavior is concerned, trolling is alive and well -- the miscreants aren’t manning the switchboards anymore, but they’re still lapping up that anonymity, and hurling invectives. As for everyone else... the Internet presents the same mystifying question the telephone did. We’ve got this awesome tool (at least, it seems awesome) -- what do we do with it? Your parents see it as a conduit for chain letters. Other folks use it as a font of information, news, sports scores. I make a living off of it. Some countries (and, increasingly, our own) see the unmitigated free speech it offers as a threat to security.
David: Yeah I think the thing that makes the book such a fascinating read even to this day is that the dancers may have changed, but it’s still essentially the same song; it’s like looking at an alternate-universe version of our current problems and concerns with the Internet. I wanted this to be the first book on our list because it seems like the easiest transition; while it’s obviously book length, it’s basically just a really solid piece of tech journalism.
Alex: I agree, Sterling documents his history with simple and straightforward prose that is easy to comprehend. I wasn't aware of his career as a science fiction author until you brought it up, but it makes sense; his association with the Dead Media Project seems doubly apropos in light of his enthusiasm for the American telephone system. Although given that the Dead Media Project includes defunct devices developed in the 80's, it's amazing to think the public telephone network has survived as long as it has.
Okay, our next assignment is to burn through Part II: The Digital Underground and meet back here in a week to
bicker endlessly have a civilized discussion about the Secret Service and their assault on the hacker underground. I'm posting this today, so any further opinionating will have to be conducted amongst the comments field.