From The Hacker Crackdown
, by Bruce Sterling
See: The Hacker Crackdown: Preface to the electronic release
for copying info
The community of telephone technicians, engineers, operators and researchers is the oldest community in cyberspace. These are the veterans, the most developed group, the richest, the most respectable, in most ways the most powerful. Whole generations have come and gone since Alexander Graham Bell's day, but the community he founded survives; people work for the phone system today whose great-grandparents worked for the phone system. Its specialty magazines, such as *Telephony,* *AT&T Technical Journal,* *Telephone Engineer and Management,* are decades old; they make computer publications like *Macworld* and *PC Week* look like amateur johnny-come-latelies. And the phone companies take no back seat in high-technology, either. Other companies' industrial researchers may have won new markets; but the researchers of Bell Labs have won *seven Nobel Prizes.* One potent device that Bell Labs originated, the transistor, has created entire *groups* of industries. Bell Labs are world-famous for generating "a patent a day," and have even made vital discoveries in astronomy, physics and cosmology.
Throughout its seventy-year history, "Ma Bell" was not so much a company as a way of life. Until the cataclysmic divestiture of the 1980s, Ma Bell was perhaps the ultimate maternalist mega-employer. The AT&T corporate image was the "gentle giant," "the voice with a smile," a vaguely socialist-realist world of cleanshaven linemen in shiny helmets and blandly pretty phone-girls in headsets and nylons. Bell System employees were famous as rock-ribbed Kiwanis and Rotary members, Little-League enthusiasts, school-board people.
During the long heyday of Ma Bell, the Bell employee corps were nurtured top-to-botton on a corporate ethos of public service. There was good money in Bell, but Bell was not *about* money; Bell used public relations, but never mere marketeering. People went into the Bell System for a good life, and they had a good life. But it was not mere money that led Bell people out in the midst of storms and earthquakes to fight with toppled phone-poles, to wade in flooded manholes, to pull the red-eyed graveyard-shift over collapsing switching-systems. The Bell ethic was the electrical equivalent of the postman's: neither rain, nor snow, nor gloom of night would stop these couriers.
It is easy to be cynical about this, as it is easy to be cynical about any political or social system; but cynicism does not change the fact that thousands of people took these ideals very seriously. And some still do.
The Bell ethos was about public service; and that was gratifying; but it was also about private *power,* and that was gratifying too. As a corporation, Bell was very special. Bell was privileged. Bell had snuggled up close to the state. In fact, Bell was as close to government as you could get in America and still make a whole lot of legitimate money.
But unlike other companies, Bell was above and beyond the vulgar commercial fray. Through its regional operating companies, Bell was omnipresent, local, and intimate, all over America; but the central ivory towers at its corporate heart were the tallest and the ivoriest around.
There were other phone companies in America, to be sure; the so-called independents. Rural cooperatives, mostly; small fry, mostly tolerated, sometimes warred upon. For many decades, "independent" American phone companies lived in fear and loathing of the official Bell monopoly (or the "Bell Octopus," as Ma Bell's nineteenth-century enemies described her in many angry newspaper manifestos). Some few of these independent entrepreneurs, while legally in the wrong, fought so bitterly against the Octopus that their illegal phone networks were cast into the street by Bell agents and publicly burned. The pure technical sweetness of the Bell System gave its operators, inventors and engineers a deeply satisfying sense of power and mastery. They had devoted their lives to improving this vast nation-spanning machine; over years, whole human lives, they had watched it improve and grow. It was like a great technological temple. They were an elite, and they knew it -- even if others did not; in fact, they felt even more powerful *because* others did not understand.
The deep attraction of this sensation of elite technical power should never be underestimated. "Technical power" is not for everybody; for many people it simply has no charm at all. But for some people, it becomes the core of their lives. For a few, it is overwhelming, obsessive; it becomes something close to an addiction. People -- especially clever teenage boys whose lives are otherwise mostly powerless and put-upon -- love this sensation of secret power, and are willing to do all sorts of amazing things to achieve it. The technical *power* of electronics has motivated many strange acts detailed in this book, which would otherwise be inexplicable.
So Bell had power beyond mere capitalism. The Bell service ethos worked, and was often propagandized, in a rather saccharine fashion. Over the decades, people slowly grew tired of this. And then, openly impatient with it. By the early 1980s, Ma Bell was to find herself with scarcely a real friend in the world. Vail's industrial socialism had become hopelessly out-of-fashion politically. Bell would be punished for that. And that punishment would fall harshly upon the people of the telephone community.