Communities beyond geography: Phone phreakers

More for the book… In 1957, a blind, five year old boy named Joe Engressia first realized that he could control the phone system and make long distance phone calls at no cost by whistling a specific pitch down the phone line. The AT&T phone network used twelve combinations of six audio tones as control signals. Engressia’s whistles through the mouthpiece were interpreted as the phone company’s own control tones. Engressia was one of a scattered group of technologically curious young teenagers across the United States who spent their free time experimenting with controlling the phone system. These kids called them selves ‘phone phreaks’. Many were blind and were, to some extent, socially isolated among kids of their own age. It was the phreaks, however, who first liberated themselves from reliance on their proximate peers. Theirs would be a community drawn together by the attraction of common interest rather than the strictures of geography.

In 1968, Joe Engressia was caught by the phone company and disciplined by the University of South Florida where he was then enrolled. The ensuing media coverage made him a figurehead for isolated communities of phone phreaks sprinkled around the country. He started to receive phone calls from phreaks across the US. Many of the kids who phoned Engressia sought a wider community of kids like themselves, lonely and isolated. Through the phone network they could meet other similarly gifted and similarly disadvantaged kids. An expose in Esquire in 1971 cited one example: Ralph was a pale, overweight, pimply sixteen-year-old boy who lived in a California suburb. His parents, according to an observer, were ‘not sure exactly what Ralph and his friends do with the phone or if it’s strictly legal, but he is blind and they are pleased he has a hobby which keeps him busy’. In fact what Ralph was doing was entirely illegal. At his home, he and three other phreaks were attempting to establish a permanently open line into which phreaks across the nation could tap. Previously the ‘2111 Conference’ had allowed isolated and lonely kids across the US to join into a conference line of similarly talented phone phreaks, a community of common interest.

The phreaking phenomenon had spread quickest among blind children. First, they were sensitive to sound, and perhaps better suited to the auditory aspect to learning the tones that operate the phone system. Second, some blind kids went to winter and summer camps specifically for blind children. There they could spread the secret among their peers who then returned to various scattered towns. Phreaking spread beyond the blind community by way of John T Draper, known by his nickname ‘Captain Crunch’. Crunch had learned from one of the blind young phone phreaks that the toy plastic whistle given free with ‘Cap’n Crunch’ breakfast cereal made the precise 2600-cycle tone required to seize control of the telephone network. He, along with members of the MIT hacker community and the Homebrew Club, spread phone phreaking beyond the blind community.

By the 1980s, the community was so defined and self aware that it had established norms and conventions to which its members loosely adhered. One such convention, according to two phreaks called ‘Taran King’ and ‘Knight Lightning’, was that ‘real phreaks can think up a creative name’. As another guide said in a mock Ten Commandments style:

Use not thine own name when speaking to other phreaks, for that every third phreak is an FBI agent is well known. …
Let not overly many people know that thy be a phreak, as to do so is to use thine own self as a sacrificial lamb.

The use of colorful nicknames remains a feature of contemporary online forums. Joe Engressia, for example, had become so engrossed in phreaking that he legally changed his name to his online nickname, ‘Joybubbles’, in 1991. Phreak culture strongly influenced the ‘warez’ culture of software pirates on the Internet from the 1980s and 90s and homebrew scene that began the PC industry in the mid 1970s. Phreakers, like the homebrew hobbyists, were motivated by the urge to understand and thereby master the phone system, and then computers and network, which had been the preserve a powerful few within the phone companies, administrators of mainframe computers, or participants in elite projects such as ARPA. The phreakers were at the vanguard of the user-driven movement.

The criterion for admission to this community was the capacity to phreak the phone system. Thus all members shared the common interest of learning more about the phone system. It was both the enabler and focus of their community. Those who with the most refined mastery of the phone system enjoyed elevated enjoyed prestige. In this sense the community was a meritocracy, bound together by shared interest, not proximity. A medium that allowed this, even in so primitive a way as the phone system did, was powerful. Yet something much more powerful than a jerry rigged phone system was coming.

More anon…

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