The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, founded in 1949, is the award-winning SF magazine which is the original publisher of SF classics like Stephen King’s Dark Tower, Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, and Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.
By the year 2016, we’ll all be living in giant, domed cities under the ocean, and taking vacations to Mars in laser-powered space frisbees; plus, also, computers will be so small that they’ll fit inside the basement of every home.
Trading Data with Dead and Digital
Let Me Take You on a Journey into Cyberspace
by Charles Platt
Not the glitzed-up version, with brain implants and intrusion countermeasures that can fry a hackers frontal lobes. What I’m talking about is cyberspace in thereal world.
Early in the 1970s, a bunch of leftover sixties radicals put out a little amateur typewritten magazine that called itself Tap. It was an anarchist instruction manual, with detailed plans for defrauding parking meters and stealing electricity from your local utility company. But most of all it focused on the telephone system: how to penetrate it, and what fun you could have when you were in there.
The staff of Tap held meetings once a month in Manhattan, on Broadway near Twenty-Eighth Street, in a sleazy little office full of broken-down furniture. I convinced them that I was a fellow traveler, and they let me hang around. At a typical meeting, a shifty-eyed individual brought in crumpled schematic diagrams for an electronic burglar alarm used in mid-town jewelry stores, and the editor of Tap showed him how to defeat it.
People talked a lot about “blue boxes, ” which accessed the phone system by emitting tone sequences, and I browsed through correspondence from the jail cell of John Draper , a pioneering “phone phreak” who had used his blue box a couple thousand times too often and had gotten caught.
No doubt about it, Tap was a hotbed of criminal activity. But there was more, here, than ordinary crime: a dawning understanding of how to co-opt technology in order to transcend the limits of everyday life. (This, incidentally, is a major theme in science fiction.) Tap was the cyber-womb in which hacking was conceived, before it even had a name.
Time passed. Tap’s members drifted away, but out in California, a whole new wave was breaking. A man named Steve Wozniak designed a computer called an Apple. John Draper (now out of jail) designed for it a programmable modem called the Apple Cat. And cyberspace was born.
A modem is a translation device. It takes the output from a computer, converts it into tones, and sends it down a telephone line. At the other end of the line, another modem turns the tones back into text or numbers that a computer can understand. Imagine you’re ten or twelve years old, a science nerd with a lot of free time and a bad attitude. Using your modem, you can browse through data in huge computers thousands of miles away, or eavesdrop on signal traffic in satellites in space. If you do the job right, the phone calls won’t even cost you anything. You’re untouchable, invisible, and omnipotent.
Now add another ingredient: the Bulletin Board System, or BBS. The first BBS was a computer programmed to answer phone calls automatically, so outsiders could dial in and leave messages for each other on the hard drive. Soon people were using BBSs for trading bootleg software, playing games online, and making contact with hackers on the other side of the planet.
More time passed. By the 1990s there were about 50,000 BBSs across the United States and most were legitimate businesses, including giants such as CompuServe, GEnie, and Prodigy that served more than a million users altogether. I started to wonder if this informal network of BBSs could be used as an alternate way of distributing science fiction in the form of electronic text.
To get a better idea of the possibilities, I needed to talk to people who were actively involved. So I went to Citicorp Center in midtown Manhattan where I’d heard that a crowd of hackers got together around six p.m. on the first Friday of each month. It was an odd place for a meeting. There were pizza restaurants and cafes around the edges of a big atrium like a shopping mall, with trees in tubs and mercury vapor lights beaming down from a ceiling high above.
But in one comer was a cluster of pay-phones and around the phones was a cluster of young male computer nerds. Soon I was talking to Bruce Fancher the co-owner of a fast-growing local BBS named MindVox. Aged twenty-two Bruce was an elder statesman compared with the teenagers who composed most of the group.
He was calm, quiet and good-looking — handsome even, in a conventional way — which was another attribute that set him apart. I learned that his father had been the first publisher of New York’s radical-left newspaper, The Village Voice. Bruce had come from a literary family, and it showed. He told me he’ d gotten into computers after his parents gave him an Apple II when he was thirteen. “I used to get up at five A.M., before school, ” he said, ” so I could monopolize the phone line. I logged onto boards all over the country, and it was like tribes meeting at oases in the desert. A lot of legend and storytelling went on. We all hid ourselves behind fantastic names, and I wasn’t just Bruce Fancher, limited to the things teenagers could do. I was a notorious hacker dude with ‘associates’ in California.”
When the Feds started raiding people, Bruce happened to be out of town. By the time he got back, many of his friends had been busted. That was when he decided it was time to do something completely legal for a change. He started MindVox in collaboration with another ex-hacker named Patrick Kroupa, and it took all the money that Bruce had been saving for college.
They were shrewd and ambitious, and they quickly built it up to the point where it had thirty-two phone lines, more than 3,000 users, and an 800 information number. Soon, Bruce told me, they would have local access numbers all over the country. “You should come by the office some time, and take a look,” he said.
So I did.
By coincidence, the office turned out to be on Broadway, less than five blocks from where Tap had been. I went there around eleven o’clock on a drizzly night, and the street was desolate and spooky at that hour, with 100-year-old stone-faced office buildings looming like dark tombstones against a cloudy sky that glowed dim orange, lit by the city below.
I took an elevator up to the eleventh floor, walked down a mosaic-tiled hallway, and here it was, the corporate headquarters of MindVox, about twelve feet by twenty, with plain white walls and utilitarian fluorescent lights. The place was cleaner than Tap, but the furniture looked the same — battered wooden desks that seemed to have been dragged in off the street.
The computer equipment, however, was something else. Bruce showed me two Sun workstations worth about $10,000 apiece, not much bigger than pizza boxes, hosting MindVox. They were linked via a slim, black Ethernet cable with another box called a terminal server, and there were book-sized modems stacked in piles, red LEDs flickering as message traffic flowed through in and out of the phone system.
Altogether I counted more than $50,000 worth of hardware, including the Sun computers and a NeXT workstation, a Macintosh and even an Amiga, which Bruce said they mainly used to play games. The sleek metal and plastic cabinets were laid out haphazardly, some on the rickety furniture, some on the floor. Tangled wires were everywhere. Evidently, no one cared too much about physical appearances; what mattered was the electronic world inside the system. When a user logged into MindVox, the text on the screen wasn’t laid out haphazardly, it looked highly professional. So who cared about the furniture?
Bruce’s partner Patrick arrived. He was twenty-five, tall, well-muscled, with long hair and a hippie-style bandana. His smile was broad, and he seemed very laid-back, though there was a restlessness in him that told me he might not really be as easygoing as he seemed.
It turned out Patrick had been imprinted by computer when he was just seven years old. “My father was a physicist working at the National Center for Atmospheric Research,” he said. “He showed me their Cray supercomputer, which was one of the first two Crays ever built. There it was, the most powerful type of computer in the world, in a room that had been designed around it. And they let me feed punched cards into the card reader.”
Patrick acquired an Apple a couple years later. “In those days I was a phone-phreak, using a blue-box, setting up massive conference calls, calling people I’d only read about in books — such as Steve Wozniak, the guy who designed the Apple. He was real nice, very easy to talk to. But then I got a modem, and everything changed. It was an Apple Cat, a wholly superior product. You could make it do tones of your choice, I mean any tones. I started writing programs which I called Phantom Access. They were… tools to access things.”
When he wasn’t getting into systems where he didn’t belong, Bruce was logging on to BBSs, trading data and playing games with other hackers. The BBSs had exotic names, like The Safe House, The Legion of Doom, The Magic Chalice, and The Adventurers’ Tavern. The kids had exotic names, too. Patrick called himself “Lord Digital.” And one of the people he traded data with was a guy who called himself “Dead,” because he was into H.P. Lovecraft and horror movies. They became friends online, but four years went by before they learned each others’ real names. Finally, “Dead” revealed himself as Bruce Fancher. Still another year passed before they finally met in person.
Patrick showed me some of the things that MindVox could do via a leased line connecting it with the Internet, which is the biggest network of all, with more than six million users, including major universities, laboratories, libraries, and corporations around the world. The Internet offers news reports on every conceivable topic, public-domain software, libraries online — and this is all available to MindVox subscribers for a flat fee of $10 a month.
I asked Bruce and Patrick if they were interested in science fiction.
Patrick named A.E. Van Vogt and James Blish as authors he enjoyed. But, “Michael Moorcock I followed obsessively. I was just starting to experiment with drugs, and discovering I had personal problems, so it was easy to identify with Moorcock’s anti-hero, Elric, who was always twisted up and had some sort of problem. Then I discovered The Cornelius Chronicles, and from there I got into the British New Wave movement, all those old British books, most of them out of print in the U.S. The New Wave fascinated me, because it seemed to break through the boundaries. An entire group of people realized that something magical was going on, tied in with music and art, and it was intelligent yet romantic at the same time. It blew my mind. ”
But what about William Gibson? Wasn’t he an influence on the hacker world?
“Actually, True Names by Vernor Vinge came first, ” said Patrick, “and that book was more technically accurate. But Gibson came along when networks still didn’t quite exist, and he inspired people to want them to exist, by creating a mythology, a vision of how it could be. In 1984 when Neuromancer came out, I looked at it and thought — Okay, I could live in this.”
Bruce told me that most hackers shared a similar interest in science fiction. “Just look at the names they used,” he pointed out. “Thomas Covenant was a big hacker. Every character in Dune had a modem equivalent. And a lot of BBSs styled themselves after various books. You’d log on, and there’d be text on the screen telling you you were entering a space station, or something like that. There were a lot of fantasy and science-fiction motifs.”
I myself had been part of the so-called New Wave, back in the 1960s, so it felt a little strange to be talking to these guys of twenty-two and twenty-five, who found out about it by reading old books and were now hoping for a similar burst of innovation in the nineties, maybe with them located someplace near the center.
Their electronic realm had grown out of the pages of science fiction; in which case, maybe science fiction could now find a place in the electronic realm.