Creative Limits

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book by engineer/writer/management consultant Phil Lapsley called Exploding the Phone: The True Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell. Telecommunications has changed so much in recent decades, it’s easy to forget the nature of the public telecommunications system during most of the 20th century. Bell Telephone (AT&T) was essentially a government-subsidized monopoly that controlled all telephone communications in the United States. Customers could not even own their own telephones, the phones had to be rented from the phone company for a monthly fee. Exploding the Phone is partially a history of the development of that system, but it also describes what is essentially the origin of modern-day hacker culture. For example, a group of people, some together, some independently, explored the early phone network and figured out that certain tones could be used to hack the phone system and make free phone calls anywhere in the country. “Blue boxes,” electronic devices that produced the necessary sequence of tones to trick phone exchanges into allowing unpaid phone calls, became popular with people known as “phone phreaks.” Among this crowd were two young men, one a U.C. Berkeley student and the other a college dropout, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

Pay telephone
Phone Phreaking and Prince Albert in a Can – antics that went the way of the pay telephone

Like many creative undertakings, phone phreaking was something that developed over time by people with technical curiosity, adventurous spirits, and a lot of patience. As Lapsley writes, “They noticed things that others ignored, and they saw joy and opportunity in the otherwise mundane.”

Most of the early pioneers of phone system hacking didn’t have sinister intentions. They simply wanted to explore a technological playground that most of the public saw in an entirely routine way. It’s hard to find much fault with them for making a few unpaid long distance calls. Some of them even tried to alert the phone company to the design flaws that made the system vulnerable.

Over time, phone phreaking became more widespread and was adopted by people with different objectives. Bookies with ties to organized crime used it to cover their tracks. Abbie Hoffman and the Youth International Party used it as a political statement – AT&T had a “reputation for discriminatory hiring and promotion practices,” and an excise tax levied by the phone company was helping to finance the Vietnam War. Businesses, even large corporations, found it to be an easy way to reduce expenses. The phone company, in cooperation with the FBI, took more and more aggressive legal actions against phone phreaks. Technological changes, over time, rendered a lot of the phone phreaking techniques obsolete. Meanwhile, many of the phone phreaks went on to apply their creativity in successful careers in business and technology.

This all got me thinking about public space, or at least what many of us see as public space. As urban ethnographer Susan A. Phillips pointed out in the graffiti documentary Bomb It, “People believe that they live in a kind of neutral public space. What they don’t realize is that what’s neutral to them, what’s a neutral, comfortable public space to them, may actually be excluding a lot of people.” A public park seems like a friendly enough place until it is turned into a political statement that discriminates against the poor. Graffiti in public spaces seems like an indicator of urban blight, until it is selectively embraced as art.  The phone system was developed as a public resource, but was controlled by a private company.  No trespassers allowed.

2 examples of graffiti in Tampa, Florida
When art and crime converge – Graffiti in Tampa, Florida, circa 2010 and 2011

Even ignoring the question of public space, there are still discussions to be had about creative expression versus ethical violations. In his novel Debt of Honor, the late Tom Clancy described a commercial jet being deliberately crashed into the U.S. Capital building. It would seem outlandish to blame Clancy for putting ideas into the heads of evil-doers, any more than we would blame H.G. Wells for the atomic bomb, or Elvis Presley for corrupting the youth of America.

Clearly, limits on creative expression, whether in public spaces or through private mediums, are necessary. When does creative expression cross the line from an intriguing pushing of boundaries into crime? We don’t want to expose children to violent or pornographic imagery. We don’t want to make life easier for criminals or terrorists. Tinkering with some phone equipment to make a free call seems harmless, until it helps gangsters avoid prosecution.  But how do we define those lines? And what is an appropriate punishment for the creative types who will, inevitably, cross those lines? We want to encourage creative expression in ways that do not cause harm.

Wozniak and Jobs were nearly arrested once for possession of a blue box – and while the world would have struggled on without the iPhone, it’s difficult to imagine how different our current technological world would be if they had suffered the stigma of a criminal record. We can only speculate how many future artists the world was denied because of persecution over graffiti. Those are just extreme examples. How we create or obstruct access to the public realm can encourage creative expression in business and the arts; it can also be a subtle means of discrimination.

As creative types, we have a responsibility, as in all walks of life, to consider the ethics and impacts of our actions. That doesn’t mean we should be frozen into inaction. We won’t always recognize the line before we cross it, but we should still look for it. It’s not only part of our responsibility as individuals, it contributes to the overall credibility of the arts, or business, or whatever field we’re in.  And that is a virtuous circle that benefits everyone.

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