Book Review: ‘Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell’ by Phil Laspley

Read from May 24 to 26, 2013

 Alongside the age of space exploration in the 60s, 70s and 80s exploration of another type of space was underway. However it was not physical space, but a communication network, possibly the largest communication network at that time. The adventurers were random geeks, way before being a geek was considered cool, who had discovered properties of the phones around them and proceeded to experiment, poke, prod and hack.

At the time the US only had one telecommunications company, AT&T, who monopolised the market, dictating pricing and the level of service. The problem with AT&T is that the communication infrastructure was thrown together with little planning, and the system ran on a simple series of multiple frequency pulses. Added to that fact, the company was ignorant of any possibility of security issues and even published journals with technical details and frequency values for all their system. When a generation of intelligent yet bored teens come along, fun was to be had.

The history of this subculture is wonderfully bought to life by Lapsley. He has taken years of research, including interviews and original documents from both parties, the phreaks and AT&T. The emphasis is upon the characters that played a role in this history, each bought to the page with individuality and verve. The book abounds in  wonderful anecdotes that brings a little romanticism to the culture and time.
‘Exploding the Phone’ left me feeling a little jealous that I was born twenty years too late and in the wrong country. In the 21st century, are the systems that surround us in everyday life too far beyond the understanding and ability for an amateur to explore? 

This wonderful homage to a unique subset of geek is essential reading for anyone who professes to be a geek or who is interested in hacker or maker stories. ‘Exploding the Phone’ is a wonderful and romantic non-fiction read that deserves to be widely read.

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