At the University of South Florida in 1968, there was one person every kid on campus wanted to meet: a transfer student they called the whistler. This student, Joe Engressia (Or Joybubbles, as he would be known in his later years), was known for a party trick that was even more practical than it was entertaining. The blind student with a slender build had perfect pitch and a fascination with the telephone system; a combination that lead him to the discovery of phreaking.
Phreaking, a brand new crime in the 1960’s, was the act of making phone calls for free by taking advantage of the automatic switching systems that used to connect calls. Engressia was able to whistle single tones very quickly and repetitively to connect calls without informing the phone company who would be billing them, a skill he sold to his fellow classmates to help them keep in touch with family members and girlfriends for only a dollar.
Everyone thought Engressia’s trick was incredible… except for the telephone companies, of course. The Bell Telephone Company, who was the only company with long distance calling capabilities at the time, reported Engressia’s activities to his school and had him suspended. He appealed the case and was approved to stay in school, with the condition that he would go on probation and pay a fine of $20. Engressia did finish school and become known as one of the original pioneers of this hacking culture. Later in life, he would work with Telephone companies to help fix the security holes he had once exploited.
This is the story.
A story that has excited me since the moment I read it in Phil Lapsley excellent book, Exploding the Phone. Joybubbles was the golden boy of this counterculture movement. He was an outsider who was physically different than his peers, who had no qualms with authority but would not allow it to walk over him either. He was one of the original hackers, a man who fell in love with the technology.
As I have been developing <ph><f>reaking with the rest of our ensemble members, Joybubbles’ story and many others like his have become a large part of my life. I read a lot of books on the subject of hacking, the intersection of technology and culture, big data, and the big players in these fields.
I also spend my lunch break pouring over similar Reddit posts only to go home to my apartment and swap my findings for similar ones other members of CPT have had. Basically, I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the impact technology has had on relationships. Relate to this love affair with technology and think about how I use it myself, and how it has shaped the important relationships in my life.
This July, I will be lucky enough to celebrate four incredible years with my wonderful girlfriend and now writing partner, Kait Stinchcomb. Kait and I met a summer theater festival as interns when we were both still in college. We began dating at the end of our second summer together. In the four years that we have been together, Kait and I have lived in a total of five states, but never at the same time for more than three months (and that was a one-time occurrence).
Before the advent of cell phones, this relationship would have been near impossible. To spend so much of your time not seeing someone you care about, even with technology, is an incredibly difficult thing. It is an experience that is more common, but it is a frustrating thing to feel as though you are dating your phone. It is surreal to walk down a public street, having a vulnerable conversation, making revelations about yourself and your relationship all in the presence of strangers. The nervousness that comes with pouring your heart out into a slew of texts. The feeling of being overcome with joy when your phone vibrates, and the painful anxiety of waiting when it doesn’t. In short, it is a confidence-shaking experience to live these moments of togetherness in a relationship, independently of each other.
Kait now lives in Massachusetts. She is the General Manager of The Berkshire Theatre Group (they are pretty cool, you guys should check them out), so with the over three-hour commute and my lack of a car, we talk a lot on the phone. Primarily, we communicate via phone calls and text, but occasionally revelling in FaceTime on those longer stretches of mutual absence. Our goal is to try and see each other in person about twice a month; more is always welcome, and sometimes because of work it has to be less. So when I go to visit her, I take a Metro-North train to an area of eastern New York, Kait picks me up, and we drive about an hour home.
No matter how long we have been together, every time I see Kait, again for the first time at that train station, there is still a millisecond of hesitation. It is not that I don’t still love her more than I ever have ever loved anyone. She is the girl of my dreams. But at that moment, I am on edge because I am looking at a person now, not a screen. It catches me off guard; how do I say all of those same things to a person? To someone who can talk back to me and judge me? To someone whose attention can drift away, who has the capacity to lose interest? Honestly, someone who isn’t at the whim of my fingertips.
After that first second, I am present and happy to be reunited with my best friend. But on the ride to her apartment, I think the intimate relationship we all have with our phones. We tell them so many of our most personal secrets- through which my conversations have both blossomed and imploded. I have been naked by my phone on multiple occasions, and I would be willing to bet you have to.
When was the last time you were intimate with someone and your phone was not within five feet? What else have we so openly given access to our lives?
In a way, we are all dating our phone. Who else do we miss as much when we are separated, the feeling that it is something you cannot function without. We look to our phones and social media for the emotional support and appreciation that we long for, for encouragement. And no matter the function of the device, there is the push for it to be as humanistic as possible, and frequently, as acceptably feminine as possible. Why do we need our phone to sound like a woman? Is this the love we are supposed to be chasing? Is the instant gratification that comes with a click and or the beep of a machine ever going to risk fully satisfy our desire for interaction? And if they ever could complete the illusion of removing the space between us in our digital interactions, do you think you would be wise enough to realize the illusion?
What does this shift mean for the future of our interactions? Will it cheapen our communication? Or is this the kind of progress we should be pushing further? What will this digital culture do to the very physical space between us as people? It’s a question I wish Siri could answer for me, but for now, I am still searching…