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The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier

The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier

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The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier

4/5 (5 ratings)
429 pages
8 hours
Aug 11, 2020


The bestselling cyberpunk author “has produced by far the most stylish report from the computer outlaw culture since Steven Levy’s Hackers” (Publishers Weekly).
Bruce Sterling delves into the world of high-tech crime and punishment in one of the first books to explore the cyberspace breaches that threaten national security. From the crash of AT&T’s long-distance switching system to corporate cyberattacks, he investigates government and law enforcement efforts to break the back of America’s electronic underground in the 1990s. In this modern classic, “Sterling makes the hackers—who live in the ether between terminals under noms de net such as VaxCat—as vivid as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. His book goes a long way towards explaining the emerging digital world and its ethos” (Publishers Weekly).
This edition features a new preface by the author that analyzes the sobering increase in computer crime over the twenty-five years since The Hacker Crackdown was first published.
“Offbeat and brilliant.” —Booklist
“Thoroughly researched, this account of the government’s crackdown on the nebulous but growing computer-underground provides a thoughtful report on the laws and rights being defined on the virtual frontier of cyberspace. . . . An enjoyable, informative, and (as the first mainstream treatment of the subject) potentially important book . . . Sterling is a fine and knowledgeable guide to this strange new world.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A well-balanced look at this new group of civil libertarians. Written with humor and intelligence, this book is highly recommended.” —Library Journal
Aug 11, 2020

About the author

Bruce Sterling is an American author and one of the founders of the cyberpunk science fiction movement. He began writing in the 1970s; his first novel, Involution Ocean, about a whaling ship in an ocean of dust, is a science fictional pastiche of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. His other works, including his series of stories and a novel, Schismatrix, set in the Shaper/Mechanist universe, often deal with computer-based technologies and genetic engineering. His five short story collections and ten novels have earned several honors: a John W. Campbell Award, two Hugo Awards, a Hayakawa’s SF Magazine Reader’s Award, and an Arthur C. Clarke Award. Sterling has also worked as a critic and journalist, writing for Metropolis, Artforum, Icon, MIT Technology Review, Time, and Newsweek, as well as Interzone, Science Fiction Eye, Cheap Truth, and Cool Tools. He edits Beyond the Beyond, a blog hosted by Wired.  Sterling is also involved in the technology and design community. In 2003 his web-only art piece, Embrace the Decay, was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and became the most-visited piece in the museum’s digital gallery. He has taught classes in design at the Gerrit Reitveld Academie in Amsterdam, Centro in Mexico City, Fabrica in Treviso, Italy, and the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. Sterling lives in Austin, Texas; Belgrade, Serbia; and Turin, Italy. 

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The Hacker Crackdown - Bruce Sterling



After 25 Years

It’s a pleasure to write this heartfelt little preface about The Hacker Crackdown, which is now a historical document a quarter-century old.

This book was once a nonfiction cyberpunk romp about some red-hot futuristic topics. However, The Hacker Crackdown always had a lot of historical pondering in its pages. Not many books about computer-crime begin with Alexander Graham Bell.

While planning this book, I imagined I’d write a good strong concluding chapter for it. A stern judgement-of-history before history had judged much.

That plan of mine couldn’t work. The book was describing brief, obscure struggles on electronic frontiers, but they were just the temporary examples of large-scale, deeper conflicts. The fights that I saw were mere skirmishes, while the underlying culture-wars had deep roots in conflicting values from long-established institutions.

I could describe my various passing agitations, confiscations, show-trials and police raids, but the human condition lacks any neat summaries.

So I offered no conclusions; I just left the book open-ended. I closed my narrative with all the combative interest-groups somehow gathered in the same uneasy boat, face to face, with their cocktail glasses. They had met one another, and they were starting to grasp the vast scope of their troubles, but they hadn’t solved much of anything.

When law met disorder on the electronic frontier, justice did not prevail. The Hacker Crackdown closed by suggesting that a lot more disorder was coming. That’s indeed what happened. A generation later, the consequences are obvious.

When the electronic culture of the 1990s tsunami-surfed around the globe, its disorders scaled up globally. Billions of new people arrived in cyberspace. Much wealth, fame and power ensued, and disruption abounded. Frauds became industries. Flaws became business models. Market tremors became world convulsions. Most every little bad frontier element in this book became some much bigger form of badness.

I rarely write about computer crime any more. However, I’ve maintained many contacts and sources in that milieu, so I’m aware of its passing shadows. Electronic crime is flourishing as never before. The scope, scale and brazen ambition of it are amazing. A week can scarcely go by without some dismal development that dismays and disgusts.

Cybercrime prevention has always been known for its wild-eyed alarmist hype and its vaporous claims of huge damages (and it still is). However—like many people who pay attention to police—I’ve found that the unhappiness of the noir side of life has darkened my world-view. Worse yet, in many ways, it’s truly become a darker world.

The Hacker Crackdown was a popular true-crime book. As efforts like that go, it was a success. It found a large readership. Reviewers were kind about it. Publications sought out my opinions as a social commentator on the issues on the book. Many people with a stake in the results were happy that the book existed.

When The Hacker Crackdown was freely released on the Internet, it went viral worldwide. That moral gesture I made, of simply giving away the text of a commercially published book on computer networks, brought me a lot of friends.

But an intimate understanding of crime also brings sadness. My sadness comes from my pained awareness of many sordid details about how people can misbehave to one another. My sadness came from understanding the institutional cruelty of trials and prisons, of social ostracism and deliberate acts of punishment.

I’m not such a delicate fellow that I was traumatized by knowing this. I came to understand that acts of crime and punishment are the way of the world. However, over the long term, over twenty-five years, I have to confess that the burden of that understanding weighed me down. That was the legacy of this book that has lasted for me personally.

If you choose to read books like this one because you think that transgression is romantic, that broken laws are fun and exciting, I think you should let me warn you about that a little. Actually, yes: youthful hijinks are delightful, and the past’s rules must be broken so that the future can breathe. I know that.

As the Japanese say, Even a demon is pretty at sixteen. But as a criminal scene gets older, and richer, and seamier, and more sophisticated in its depredations, it doesn’t stay cute.

That fact—that many cool cyber-gadgets were involved in crimes—that fact meant little. You’re probably reading this book on some piece of digital hardware that you will throw away pretty soon. The hardware comes and goes with the seasons of the technology business. But malice and cruelty, and the melancholy of punishment, they have staying-power.

Mind you, I’m lamenting about all this, although I personally did very well because of The Hacker Crackdown. By studying crime I was wading in tar, but I got all kinds of benefits. Cops were kind and respectful to me; as a creative who is a bohemian cyberpunk, I was never once scolded or repressed by the authorities. As a novelist, I’ve always gotten along fine with civil libertarians and free-expression advocates. Criminals worldwide wrote me fan email. Everyone was nice to me. When the book’s issues were topical and relevant and cyberculture was booming, I felt proud to have written The Hacker Crackdown.

But after twenty-five years, that hoopla has faded as such things must, and I’m much more aware of crime as a lasting and tragic aspect of the human condition. Computer crime today has achieved all the grimly persistent, socially corrosive aspects of much older forms of organized crime.

Back in the 1990s, we had loose gangs of high-IQ American teenagers lurking on bulletin board systems. In the 2010s, we have truly sinister enterprises such as the Chinese Advanced Persistent Threat, the Syrian Electronic Army, multi-million-dollar street-gangs of ATM bank robbers, encryption kidnappers who can hold hospitals for ransom, plus a multinational rainbow panoply of disinformation propagandists, fraudsters, money launderers, state-supported cyberwarriors, darknet drug dealers, and security mercenaries. The chance that these malefactors will get repressed by a justice-minded digital New World Order is next to zero.

Even in those older days, when digital crime activities were much smaller, more obscure and more eccentric, because they were human actions arising from bad intent, they had a moral taint.

To put it simply: twenty-five years have taught me that high-tech badness shares the lasting badness of other forms of human badness.

Certain forms of computer-crime are so abstract and apparently victimless that they seem almost theological. They just don’t feel bad—but I suspect that’s a problem with our cultural sensibility. I surmise that they truly ARE bad, but we don’t yet know how to feel that. When the novelty wears off, when our cultural understanding matures, when we get more familiar with our various digital misdeeds, we’ll come to know many things we do gleefully now as our period’s native vices.

For instance: there’s something unnerving about the unhealthy hacker habit of obsessively scraping away for any tiny flaw, any unheard-of vulnerability in code. Gloating over vulnerabilities—which are the human weaknesses of others—and searching avidly for zero-days to sell to a crime market: that highly modern activity gratifies some dark urge that is far indeed from quality assurance. This uniquely modern form of obsessive-compulsion is not illegal, and I’m not saying it should be. But I’m not a judge or legislator: I’m a novelist. So, I get a genuine Sartrean nausea from that form of native-digital wickedness.

Frontier people, by definition, lack civilization: frontier people are hicks. That’s who we are (or were until recently, anyhow). That fact implies that we must be rude and crude people, and, probably, our electronic vices are worse than we understand. Someday, I think, we digital folk will become embarrassed by our greed, our bad frontier manners, our lynch-mob justice, and, especially, by our relentless, thoughtless exploitation of those helpless, backward, analog indigenes.

We might have to get older and grayer to feel grown-up regrets like that, and maybe our moral judgements will have to become more rigid and fixed, like mine are nowadays. But the clock will never stop ticking, so it’s likely bound to happen somehow.

Another thing: The Hacker Crackdown is an American book. In the years that followed this book’s publication, I became a travel writer. In Russia, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, I saw a lot of digital activity by people who were entirely unrestrained by any American police force. Hackers-without-crackdowns, you might call these acquaintances.

The Hacker Crackdown belonged to a 1990s era when everyone in cyberspace was eager to spread worldwide access to the tools—when the digital divide was a major social issue. Those days are gone. Cyberspace now seethes with frenetic activity in huge, ancient societies far outside American borders, in cultures where custom, habit, etiquette, obligation, honor and raw fear count for a whole lot more than American dollars and a Constitution.

So, as cyberspace globalizes, and also balkanizes, it takes on everybody’s troubling aspects, not just a few distinctly American cultural quirks. Human wickedness has been global for quite a while now—since our beginning, really. It won’t get tamed by baked-in code structures minted in Silicon Valley.

That larger sensibility, with its bigger scopes of time and space, is absent from my dated little book. However, I can’t blame the book for today’s current situation, and I’m still glad that I wrote it. I feel happy for the chance to add this ambivalent addendum to it now.

Almost every person described in this book is burningly avid for better, faster, stronger computer hardware. That’s what that historic period wanted most, that was the desire closest to their hearts, and indeed, they got what they wished for. We have plenty of cybernetic gizmos now, literally billions of them. Pointing out that we still lack justice is likely the proper attitude for this historical juncture.

A final word. The events in this book are becoming steadily more obscure. Their core concern of this book is odd or corrupt activities using obscure and extinct machines. Also, as a writer, I’m a fantasist; I write science fiction by choice. So I have an intuition that people fifty years from now, or a hundred years, or more, might gaze into this book and conclude that it must be nonsense. Some invented fantasy world, a mere scramble and scrimmage of oddities, made up for amusement.

However, I can promise future readers—really, I give my word of honor—that everything in this book really happened.

This book is old and can only get older, but it was accurate, and that virtue does not fade with the years. I must boldly assert that posterity can rely on my reportage. I was educated as a journalist in college; I graduated, that was my degree. Although I write fiction, I have always felt that the ethical framework of a journalist was a good moral structure for me. By my nature, I’m a curious wanderer, recklessly keen to pry into many odd things that are basically none of my business. The ethics of journalism, which were diligently taught to me by the professionals of an earlier generation, have helped me to do less harm.

The profession of journalism has been shattered since the days in which this book was written. Journalism, the news of the day as chosen as fit for print, was hammered into digital bits. The twentieth-century journalism of newspaper stands, wire-service feeds, cabled phones and tape recorders, I was neck-deep in all that when I wrote this book. That living milieu has become a mere scattering of extinct artifacts.

That’s what happened in the world I inhabited. That process was entirely fascinating. For better or worse, I’m truly glad that this colossal transformation existed within my own lifetime. It was a privilege to see it occurring. I have lived through an epic revolution, a huge change in the habits of mankind.

So I’m glad that I knew about journalism, which gave me a method to inquire, to gather evidence, to seek understanding from other people, and to bear witness to events, and to tell, at least, some of the truth. What a joy to be able to write about such strange things.

—Bruce Sterling, 2017



Crashing the System

On January 15, 1990, AT&T’s long-distance telephone switching system crashed.

This was a strange, dire, huge event. Sixty thousand people lost their telephone service completely. During the nine long hours of frantic effort that it took to restore service, some 70 million telephone calls went uncompleted.

Losses of service, known as outages in the telco trade, are a known and accepted hazard of the telephone business. Hurricanes hit, and phone cables get snapped by the thousands. Earthquakes wrench through buried fiber-optic lines. Switching stations catch fire and burn to the ground. These things do happen. There are contingency plans for them, and decades of experience in dealing with them. But the Crash of January 15 was unprecedented. It was unbelievably huge, and it occurred for no apparent physical reason.

The crash started on a Monday afternoon in a single switching station in Manhattan. But, unlike any mere physical damage, it spread and spread. Station after station across America collapsed in a chain reaction, until fully half of AT&T’s network had gone haywire and the remaining half was hard put to handle the overflow.

Within nine hours, AT&T software engineers more or less understood what had caused the crash. Replicating the problem exactly, poring over software line by line, took them a couple of weeks. But because it was hard to understand technically, the full truth of the matter and its implications were not widely and thoroughly aired and explained. The root cause of the crash remained obscure, surrounded by rumor and fear.

The crash was a grave corporate embarrassment. The culprit was a bug in AT&T’s own software—not the sort of admission the telecommunications giant wanted to make, especially in the face of increasing competition. Still, the truth was told, in the baffling technical terms necessary to explain it.

Somehow the explanation failed to persuade American law enforcement officials and even telephone corporate security personnel. These people were not technical experts or software wizards, and they had their own suspicions about the cause of this disaster.

The police and telco security had important sources of information denied to mere software engineers. They had informants in the computer underground and years of experience in dealing with high-tech rascality that seemed to grow ever more sophisticated. For years they had been expecting a direct and savage attack against the American national telephone system. And with the Crash of January 15—in the first month of a new, high-tech decade—their predictions, fears, and suspicions seemed at last to have entered the real world. A world where the telephone system had not merely crashed but, quite likely, been crashed—by hackers.

The crash created a large, dark cloud of suspicion that would color certain people’s assumptions and actions for months. The fact that it took place in the realm of software was suspicious on its face. The fact that it occurred on Martin Luther King Day, still the most politically touchy of American holidays, made it more suspicious yet.

The Crash of January 15 gave the Hacker Crackdown its sense of edge and its sweaty urgency. It made people, powerful people in positions of public authority, willing to believe the worst. And, most fatally, it helped to give investigators a willingness to take extreme measures and the determination to preserve almost total secrecy.

An obscure software fault in an aging switching system in New York was to lead to a chain reaction of legal and constitutional trouble all across the country.

Like the crash in the telephone system, this chain reaction was ready and waiting to happen. During the 1980s, the American legal system was extensively patched to deal with the novel issues of computer crime. There was, for instance, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (eloquently described as a stinking mess by a prominent law enforcement official). And there was the draconian Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate, which later would reveal a large number of flaws. Extensive, well-meant efforts had been made to keep the legal system up-to-date. But in the day-to-day grind of the real world, even the most elegant software tends to crumble and suddenly reveal its hidden bugs.

Like the advancing telephone system, the American legal system was certainly not ruined by its temporary crash; but for those caught under the weight of its collapse, life became a series of blackouts and anomalies.

In order to understand why these weird events occurred, both in the world of technology and in the world of law, it’s not enough to understand the merely technical problems. We will get to those; but first and foremost, we must try to understand the telephone, and the business of telephones, and the community of human beings that telephones have created.

Technologies have life cycles, as cities do, as institutions do, as 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, guttapercha, 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 needs 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 marvelous, 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 Hirmondó. Hirmondó 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 Hirmondó would be on the air—or rather, on the phone.

Hirmondó is dead tech today, but it might be considered a spiritual ancestor of the modern telephone-accessed computer data services, such as CompuServe, GEnie, or Prodigy. The principle behind Hirmondó 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 due to 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 8,500 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 this stage, a technology finds its place in the world, 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 1893, out to Chicago. By 1897, 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 fiberoptic 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


, 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 magazines Science and National Geographic, both still flourishing today as important organs of the American scientific establishment.

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. His 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 600 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, it 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. America 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, 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 monopolistic 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 U.S. 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 one 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

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  • (5/5)
    I bought this the second it became available, standing in line to do so. This may be one of the most significant books from the era, and describes how it was back in the wild days of the internet, and also shows some of the abuses (and there were plenty) when law enforcement decided to take notice, and shut things down. It's an incredible and still timely book, even though the events it documents are now long ago. It was published in 1992, more than 25 years ago. The technology is drastically different, but the approaches by law enforcement haven't really changed.It's been years since I picked the book up, but it immediately sucked me in. I don't know of another book about technology that is still as relevant as this one. It's worth your time to read.
  • (5/5)
    A true accounting of hacking in the 1990's. It may read a bit like an action SF, but this is history. A must read for all Cyberpunk fans of Sterling.
  • (3/5)
    Glad I read it. A real nostalgia trip. A bit rambly in places and probably not best read on an e-reader due to several large excerpts from reports. However, a good record of some interesting times in the early days of the Internet (early for the lay public, that is).
  • (4/5)
    It's not as playful or brilliant as the blurbs on the cover claim, but it does a good job of setting the scene and discussing the world of hacking, at least up to 1991. It's funny now to read about a time when BBS's were hot and the Internet was still in its infancy, but there were a lot of important precedents set for how we operate online today. If nothing else, this book made me really appreciate the EFF and others for making a stand for personal rights.
  • (4/5)
    Cyberpunk SF author Bruce Sterling does a neat job with this journalistic work, covering the angles from the busted ("hackers" and otherwise), the cops, and the electronic-age civil libertarian movement spawned by the Great Hacker Crackdown of 1990.