From The Hacker Crackdown
, by Bruce Sterling
See: The Hacker Crackdown: Preface to the electronic release
for copying info
Technologies have life cycles, like cities do, like institutions do, like laws and governments do.
The first stage of any technology is the Question Mark, often known as the "Golden Vaporware" stage. At this early point, the technology is only a phantom, a mere gleam in the inventor's eye. One such inventor was a speech teacher and electrical tinkerer named Alexander Graham Bell.
Bell's early inventions, while ingenious, failed to move the world. In 1863, the teenage Bell and his brother Melville made an artificial talking mechanism out of wood, rubber, gutta-percha, and tin. This weird device had a rubber-covered "tongue" made of movable wooden segments, with vibrating rubber "vocal cords," and rubber "lips" and "cheeks." While Melville puffed a bellows into a tin tube, imitating the lungs, young Alec Bell would manipulate the "lips," "teeth," and "tongue," causing the thing to emit high-pitched falsetto gibberish.
Another would-be technical breakthrough was the Bell "phonautograph" of 1874, actually made out of a human cadaver's ear. Clamped into place on a tripod, this grisly gadget drew sound-wave images on smoked glass through a thin straw glued to its vibrating earbones.
By 1875, Bell had learned to produce audible sounds -- ugly shrieks and squawks -- by using magnets, diaphragms, and electrical current.
Most "Golden Vaporware" technologies go nowhere.
But the second stage of technology is the Rising Star, or, the "Goofy Prototype," stage. The telephone, Bell's most ambitious gadget yet, reached this stage on March 10, 1876. On that great day, Alexander Graham Bell became the first person to transmit intelligible human speech electrically. As it happened, young Professor Bell, industriously tinkering in his Boston lab, had spattered his trousers with acid. His assistant, Mr. Watson, heard his cry for help -- over Bell's experimental audio-telegraph. This was an event without precedent.
Technologies in their "Goofy Prototype" stage rarely work very well. They're experimental, and therefore half-baked and rather frazzled. The prototype may be attractive and novel, and it does look as if it ought to be good for something-or-other. But nobody, including the inventor, is quite sure what. Inventors, and speculators, and pundits may have very firm ideas about its potential use, but those ideas are often very wrong.
The natural habitat of the Goofy Prototype is in trade shows and in the popular press. Infant technologies need publicity and investment money like a tottering calf need milk. This was very true of Bell's machine. To raise research and development money, Bell toured with his device as a stage attraction.
Contemporary press reports of the stage debut of the telephone showed pleased astonishment mixed with considerable dread. Bell's stage telephone was a large wooden box with a crude speaker-nozzle, the whole contraption about the size and shape of an overgrown Brownie camera. Its buzzing steel soundplate, pumped up by powerful electromagnets, was loud enough to fill an auditorium. Bell's assistant Mr. Watson, who could manage on the keyboards fairly well, kicked in by playing the organ from distant rooms, and, later, distant cities. This feat was considered marvellous, but very eerie indeed.
Bell's original notion for the telephone, an idea promoted for a couple of years, was that it would become a mass medium. We might recognize Bell's idea today as something close to modern "cable radio." Telephones at a central source would transmit music, Sunday sermons, and important public speeches to a paying network of wired-up subscribers.
At the time, most people thought this notion made good sense. In fact, Bell's idea was workable. In Hungary, this philosophy of the telephone was successfully put into everyday practice. In Budapest, for decades, from 1893 until after World War I, there was a government-run information service called "Telefon Hirmondo«." Hirmondo« was a centralized source of news and entertainment and culture, including stock reports, plays, concerts, and novels read aloud. At certain hours of the day, the phone would ring, you would plug in a loudspeaker for the use of the family, and Telefon Hirmondo« would be on the air -- or rather, on the phone.
Hirmondo« is dead tech today, but Hirmondo« might be considered a spiritual ancestor of the modern telephone-accessed computer data services, such as CompuServe, GEnie or Prodigy. The principle behind Hirmondo« is also not too far from computer "bulletin-board systems" or BBS's, which arrived in the late 1970s, spread rapidly across America, and will figure largely in this book.
We are used to using telephones for individual person-to-person speech, because we are used to the Bell system. But this was just one possibility among many. Communication networks are very flexible and protean, especially when their hardware becomes sufficiently advanced. They can be put to all kinds of uses. And they have been -- and they will be.
Bell's telephone was bound for glory, but this was a combination of political decisions, canny infighting in court, inspired industrial leadership, receptive local conditions and outright good luck. Much the same is true of communications systems today.
As Bell and his backers struggled to install their newfangled system in the real world of nineteenth-century New England, they had to fight against skepticism and industrial rivalry. There was already a strong electrical communications network present in America: the telegraph. The head of the Western Union telegraph system dismissed Bell's prototype as "an electrical toy" and refused to buy the rights to Bell's patent. The telephone, it seemed, might be all right as a parlor entertainment -- but not for serious business.
Telegrams, unlike mere telephones, left a permanent physical record of their messages. Telegrams, unlike telephones, could be answered whenever the recipient had time and convenience. And the telegram had a much longer distance-range than Bell's early telephone. These factors made telegraphy seem a much more sound and businesslike technology -- at least to some.
The telegraph system was huge, and well-entrenched. In 1876, the United States had 214,000 miles of telegraph wire, and 8500 telegraph offices. There were specialized telegraphs for businesses and stock traders, government, police and fire departments. And Bell's "toy" was best known as a stage-magic musical device.
The third stage of technology is known as the "Cash Cow" stage. In the "cash cow" stage, a technology finds its place in the world, and matures, and becomes settled and productive. After a year or so, Alexander Graham Bell and his capitalist backers concluded that eerie music piped from nineteenth-century cyberspace was not the real selling-point of his invention. Instead, the telephone was about speech -- individual, personal speech, the human voice, human conversation and human interaction. The telephone was not to be managed from any centralized broadcast center. It was to be a personal, intimate technology.
When you picked up a telephone, you were not absorbing the cold output of a machine -- you were speaking to another human being. Once people realized this, their instinctive dread of the telephone as an eerie, unnatural device, swiftly vanished. A "telephone call" was not a "call" from a "telephone" itself, but a call from another human being, someone you would generally know and recognize. The real point was not what the machine could do for you (or to you), but what you yourself, a person and citizen, could do *through* the machine. This decision on the part of the young Bell Company was absolutely vital.
The first telephone networks went up around Boston -- mostly among the technically curious and the well-to-do (much the same segment of the American populace that, a hundred years later, would be buying personal computers). Entrenched backers of the telegraph continued to scoff.
But in January 1878, a disaster made the telephone famous. A train crashed in Tarriffville, Connecticut. Forward-looking doctors in the nearby city of Hartford had had Bell's "speaking telephone" installed. An alert local druggist was able to telephone an entire community of local doctors, who rushed to the site to give aid. The disaster, as disasters do, aroused intense press coverage. The phone had proven its usefulness in the real world.
After Tarriffville, the telephone network spread like crabgrass. By 1890 it was all over New England. By '93, out to Chicago. By '97, into Minnesota, Nebraska and Texas. By 1904 it was all over the continent.
The telephone had become a mature technology. Professor Bell (now generally known as "Dr. Bell" despite his lack of a formal degree) became quite wealthy. He lost interest in the tedious day-to-day business muddle of the booming telephone network, and gratefully returned his attention to creatively hacking-around in his various laboratories, which were now much larger, better-ventilated, and gratifyingly better-equipped. Bell was never to have another great inventive success, though his speculations and prototypes anticipated fiber-optic transmission, manned flight, sonar, hydrofoil ships, tetrahedral construction, and Montessori education. The "decibel," the standard scientific measure of sound intensity, was named after Bell.
Not all Bell's vaporware notions were inspired. He was fascinated by human eugenics. He also spent many years developing a weird personal system of astrophysics in which gravity did not exist.
Bell was a definite eccentric. He was something of a hypochondriac, and throughout his life he habitually stayed up until four A.M., refusing to rise before noon. But Bell had accomplished a great feat; he was an idol of millions and his influence, wealth, and great personal charm, combined with his eccentricity, made him something of a loose cannon on deck. Bell maintained a thriving scientific salon in his winter mansion in Washington, D.C., which gave him considerable backstage influence in governmental and scientific circles. He was a major financial backer of the the magazines *Science* and *National Geographic,* both still flourishing today as important organs of the American scientific establishment.
Bell's companion Thomas Watson, similarly wealthy and similarly odd, became the ardent political disciple of a 19th-century science-fiction writer and would-be social reformer, Edward Bellamy. Watson also trod the boards briefly as a Shakespearian actor.
There would never be another Alexander Graham Bell, but in years to come there would be surprising numbers of people like him. Bell was a prototype of the high-tech entrepreneur. High-tech entrepreneurs will play a very prominent role in this book: not merely as technicians and businessmen, but as pioneers of the technical frontier, who can carry the power and prestige they derive from high-technology into the political and social arena.
Like later entrepreneurs, Bell was fierce in defense of his own technological territory. As the telephone began to flourish, Bell was soon involved in violent lawsuits in the defense of his patents. Bell's Boston lawyers were excellent, however, and Bell himself, as an elecution teacher and gifted public speaker, was a devastatingly effective legal witness. In the eighteen years of Bell's patents, the Bell company was involved in six hundred separate lawsuits. The legal records printed filled 149 volumes. The Bell Company won every single suit.
After Bell's exclusive patents expired, rival telephone companies sprang up all over America. Bell's company, American Bell Telephone, was soon in deep trouble. In 1907, American Bell Telephone fell into the hands of the rather sinister J.P. Morgan financial cartel, robber-baron speculators who dominated Wall Street.
At this point, history might have taken a different turn. American might well have been served forever by a patchwork of locally owned telephone companies. Many state politicians and local businessmen considered this an excellent solution.
But the new Bell holding company, American Telephone and Telegraph or AT&T, put in a new man at the helm, a visionary industrialist named Theodore Vail. Vail, a former Post Office manager, understood large organizations and had an innate feeling for the nature of large-scale communications. Vail quickly saw to it that AT&T seized the technological edge once again. The Pupin and Campbell "loading coil," and the deForest "audion," are both extinct technology today, but in 1913 they gave Vail's company the best *long-distance* lines ever built. By controlling long-distance -- the links between, and over, and above the smaller local phone companies -- AT&T swiftly gained the whip-hand over them, and was soon devouring them right and left.
Vail plowed the profits back into research and development, starting the Bell tradition of huge-scale and brilliant industrial research.
Technically and financially, AT&T gradually steamrollered the opposition. Independent telephone companies never became entirely extinct, and hundreds of them flourish today. But Vail's AT&T became the supreme communications company. At one point, Vail's AT&T bought Western Union itself, the very company that had derided Bell's telephone as a "toy." Vail thoroughly reformed Western Union's hidebound business along his modern principles; but when the federal government grew anxious at this centralization of power, Vail politely gave Western Union back.
This centralizing process was not unique. Very similar events had happened in American steel, oil, and railroads. But AT&T, unlike the other companies, was to remain supreme. The monopoly robber-barons of those other industries were humbled and shattered by government trust-busting. Vail, the former Post Office official, was quite willing to accommodate the US government; in fact he would forge an active alliance with it. AT&T would become almost a wing of the American government, almost another Post Office -- though not quite. AT&T would willingly submit to federal regulation, but in return, it would use the government's regulators as its own police, who would keep out competitors and assure the Bell system's profits and preeminence.
This was the second birth -- the political birth -- of the American telephone system. Vail's arrangement was to persist, with vast success, for many decades, until 1982. His system was an odd kind of American industrial socialism. It was born at about the same time as Leninist Communism, and it lasted almost as long -- and, it must be admitted, to considerably better effect.
Vail's system worked. Except perhaps for aerospace, there has been no technology more thoroughly dominated by Americans than the telephone. The telephone was seen from the beginning as a quintessentially American technology. Bell's policy, and the policy of Theodore Vail, was a profoundly democratic policy of *universal access.* Vail's famous corporate slogan, "One Policy, One System, Universal Service," was a political slogan, with a very American ring to it. The American telephone was not to become the specialized tool of government or business, but a general public utility. At first, it was true, only the wealthy could afford private telephones, and Bell's company pursued the business markets primarily. The American phone system was a capitalist effort, meant to make money; it was not a charity. But from the first, almost all communities with telephone service had public telephones. And many stores -- especially drugstores -- offered public use of their phones. You might not own a telephone -- but you could always get into the system, if you really needed to.
There was nothing inevitable about this decision to make telephones "public" and "universal." Vail's system involved a profound act of trust in the public. This decision was a political one, informed by the basic values of the American republic. The situation might have been very different; and in other countries, under other systems, it certainly was.
Joseph Stalin, for instance, vetoed plans for a Soviet phone system soon after the Bolshevik revolution. Stalin was certain that publicly accessible telephones would become instruments of anti-Soviet counterrevolution and conspiracy. (He was probably right.) When telephones did arrive in the Soviet Union, they would be instruments of Party authority, and always heavily tapped. (Alexander Solzhenitsyn's prison-camp novel *The First Circle* describes efforts to develop a phone system more suited to Stalinist purposes.)
France, with its tradition of rational centralized government, had fought bitterly even against the electric telegraph, which seemed to the French entirely too anarchical and frivolous. For decades, nineteenth-century France communicated via the "visual telegraph," a nation-spanning, government-owned semaphore system of huge stone towers that signalled from hilltops, across vast distances, with big windmill-like arms. In 1846, one Dr. Barbay, a semaphore enthusiast, memorably uttered an early version of what might be called "the security expert's argument" against the open media. "No, the electric telegraph is not a sound invention. It will always be at the mercy of the slightest disruption, wild youths, drunkards, bums, etc.... The electric telegraph meets those destructive elements with only a few meters of wire over which supervision is impossible. A single man could, without being seen, cut the telegraph wires leading to Paris, and in twenty-four hours cut in ten different places the wires of the same line, without being arrested. The visual telegraph, on the contrary, has its towers, its high walls, its gates well-guarded from inside by strong armed men. Yes, I declare, substitution of the electric telegraph for the visual one is a dreadful measure, a truly idiotic act."
Dr. Barbay and his high-security stone machines were eventually unsuccessful, but his argument -- that communication exists for the safety and convenience of the state, and must be carefully protected from the wild boys and the gutter rabble who might want to crash the system -- would be heard again and again.
When the French telephone system finally did arrive, its snarled inadequacy was to be notorious. Devotees of the American Bell System often recommended a trip to France, for skeptics.
In Edwardian Britain, issues of class and privacy were a ball-and-chain for telephonic progress. It was considered outrageous that anyone -- any wild fool off the street -- could simply barge bellowing into one's office or home, preceded only by the ringing of a telephone bell. In Britain, phones were tolerated for the use of business, but private phones tended be stuffed away into closets, smoking rooms, or servants' quarters. Telephone operators were resented in Britain because they did not seem to "know their place." And no one of breeding would print a telephone number on a business card; this seemed a crass attempt to make the acquaintance of strangers.
But phone access in America was to become a popular right; something like universal suffrage, only more so. American women could not yet vote when the phone system came through; yet from the beginning American women doted on the telephone. This "feminization" of the American telephone was often commented on by foreigners. Phones in America were not censored or stiff or formalized; they were social, private, intimate, and domestic. In America, Mother's Day is by far the busiest day of the year for the phone network.
The early telephone companies, and especially AT&T, were among the foremost employers of American women. They employed the daughters of the American middle-class in great armies: in 1891, eight thousand women; by 1946, almost a quarter of a million. Women seemed to enjoy telephone work; it was respectable, it was steady, it paid fairly well as women's work went, and -- not least -- it seemed a genuine contribution to the social good of the community. Women found Vail's ideal of public service attractive. This was especially true in rural areas, where women operators, running extensive rural party-lines, enjoyed considerable social power. The operator knew everyone on the party-line, and everyone knew her.
Although Bell himself was an ardent suffragist, the telephone company did not employ women for the sake of advancing female liberation. AT&T did this for sound commercial reasons. The first telephone operators of the Bell system were not women, but teenage American boys. They were telegraphic messenger boys (a group about to be rendered technically obsolescent), who swept up around the phone office, dunned customers for bills, and made phone connections on the switchboard, all on the cheap.
Within the very first year of operation, 1878, Bell's company learned a sharp lesson about combining teenage boys and telephone switchboards. Putting teenage boys in charge of the phone system brought swift and consistent disaster. Bell's chief engineer described them as "Wild Indians." The boys were openly rude to customers. They talked back to subscribers, saucing off, uttering facetious remarks, and generally giving lip. The rascals took Saint Patrick's Day off without permission. And worst of all they played clever tricks with the switchboard plugs: disconnecting calls, crossing lines so that customers found themselves talking to strangers, and so forth.
This combination of power, technical mastery, and effective anonymity seemed to act like catnip on teenage boys. This wild-kid-on-the-wires phenomenon was not confined to the USA; from the beginning, the same was true of the British phone system. An early British commentator kindly remarked: "No doubt boys in their teens found the work not a little irksome, and it is also highly probable that under the early conditions of employment the adventurous and inquisitive spirits of which the average healthy boy of that age is possessed, were not always conducive to the best attention being given to the wants of the telephone subscribers."
So the boys were flung off the system -- or at least, deprived of control of the switchboard. But the "adventurous and inquisitive spirits" of the teenage boys would be heard from in the world of telephony, again and again.
The fourth stage in the technological life-cycle is death: "the Dog," dead tech. The telephone has so far avoided this fate. On the contrary, it is thriving, still spreading, still evolving, and at increasing speed.
The telephone has achieved a rare and exalted state for a technological artifact: it has become a *household object.* The telephone, like the clock, like pen and paper, like kitchen utensils and running water, has become a technology that is visible only by its absence. The telephone is technologically transparent. The global telephone system is the largest and most complex machine in the world, yet it is easy to use. More remarkable yet, the telephone is almost entirely physically safe for the user.
For the average citizen in the 1870s, the telephone was weirder, more shocking, more "high-tech" and harder to comprehend, than the most outrageous stunts of advanced computing for us Americans in the 1990s. In trying to understand what is happening to us today, with our bulletin-board systems, direct overseas dialling, fiber-optic transmissions, computer viruses, hacking stunts, and a vivid tangle of new laws and new crimes, it is important to realize that our society has been through a similar challenge before -- and that, all in all, we did rather well by it. Bell's stage telephone seemed bizarre at first. But the sensations of weirdness vanished quickly, once people began to hear the familiar voices of relatives and friends, in their own homes on their own telephones. The telephone changed from a fearsome high-tech totem to an everyday pillar of human community.
This has also happened, and is still happening, to computer networks. Computer networks such as NSFnet, BITnet, USENET, JANET, are technically advanced, intimidating, and much harder to use than telephones. Even the popular, commercial computer networks, such as GEnie, Prodigy, and CompuServe, cause much head-scratching and have been described as "user-hateful." Nevertheless they too are changing from fancy high-tech items into everyday sources of human community.
The words "community" and "communication" have the same root. Wherever you put a communications network, you put a community as well. And whenever you *take away* that network -- confiscate it, outlaw it, crash it, raise its price beyond affordability -- then you hurt that community.
Communities will fight to defend themselves. People will fight harder and more bitterly to defend their communities, than they will fight to defend their own individual selves. And this is very true of the "electronic community" that arose around computer networks in the 1980s -- or rather, the *various* electronic communities, in telephony, law enforcement, computing, and the digital underground that, by the year 1990, were raiding, rallying, arresting, suing, jailing, fining and issuing angry manifestos.
None of the events of 1990 were entirely new. Nothing happened in 1990 that did not have some kind of earlier and more understandable precedent. What gave the Hacker Crackdown its new sense of gravity and importance was the feeling -- the *community* feeling -- that the political stakes had been raised; that trouble in cyberspace was no longer mere mischief or inconclusive skirmishing, but a genuine fight over genuine issues, a fight for community survival and the shape of the future.
These electronic communities, having flourished throughout the 1980s, were becoming aware of themselves, and increasingly, becoming aware of other, rival communities. Worries were sprouting up right and left, with complaints, rumors, uneasy speculations. But it would take a catalyst, a shock, to make the new world evident. Like Bell's great publicity break, the Tarriffville Rail Disaster of January 1878, it would take a cause celebre.
That cause was the AT&T Crash of January 15, 1990. After the Crash, the wounded and anxious telephone community would come out fighting hard.