Pynchon and Crunch: Heroes of the Underworld Wide Web

There’s a lot of loneliness and frustration in the writing

life, and sometimes it can seem to outweigh the pleasures and rewards. So I

hope you’ll forgive me if I spend a little time dwelling on one of the real

sustaining satisfactions I’ve had from it all: being present at the creation,

being part of the creation of a true American hero, a genuine-and, I think,

genuinely significant-mythic American icon. I’m speaking, of course, of Captain

Crunch.

Well, not just Crunch, but the whole crew of phone phreaks,

proto-hackers and blind boy-electronic-geniuses who created outlaw cyber

culture. The whole crew whose existence first became known to the world in one

of the first magazine stories I ever wrote, a story called “Secrets of the

Little Blue Box” in the October 1971 Esquire .

The whole crew, yes, but especially Captain Crunch,

pseudonym of the first hacker superhero. I’m not writing this to claim credit

for their achievements, for their creation of a genuinely subversive rebellion

against (and critique of) techno-totalizing culture-an Underworld Wide Web, you

might say. In fact, one reason I’m writing this is to share credit with someone else-with another writer,  whose prophetic novel about an underground

web of subversive communicants shaped the way I wrote about the phone phreaks

and the proto-hackers. I’m speaking of Thomas Pynchon and his 1965 ­novel, The Crying of Lot 49 .

I was reminded of the Pynchon connection when a British

documentary producer came to New York to tape an interview with me for Channel

Four in London, which (in conjunction with the Learning Channel here) is doing

a documentary about the origins of hacker culture. His name was Ralph Lee, and

he seemed like an extraordinarily energetic and intelligent reporter, someone

who really got the sensibility of the

phone phreaks and hackers; it gave one hope that the documentary might be the

first to ­really do justice to the subject the way feature films have so far

failed to.

Mr. Lee had been retracing the steps I’d taken on my initial

odyssey into the phone-phreak underworld, relocating certain key characters in

my story, including Crunch; “Mark Bernay” (a.k.a. the Midnight Skulker); and

Joe Engressia, the original blind boy-genius. And certain other individuals

whose lives had been changed by the story, such as Steve Wozniak, co-founder of

Apple with Steve Jobs.

I’d read elsewhere that the Wozniak-Jobs partnership had

been forged when, as teenagers, they’d read my “Blue Box” ­story and decided to

try to manufacture the illicit cell-phone-sized free-call ” blue box” devices

in their parents’ garage. While they apparently weren’t too successful at

making a profit, they did make a connection :

to the pioneers of cyber-hacker culture such as Captain Crunch, and to the

rebel ­sensibility that (for a while) inspired Apple. My story inspired many

other kindred spirits to become phreaks and hackers, forging alliances of

isolated local networks into an Underworld Wide Web of techno rebels.

Forgive me if I take a paternal pride in characters like

Crunch, Bernay and Engressia. As I said, I want to share paternity with someone else. If my story helped father hacker

culture, Thomas Pynchon is, at the very least, its ghostly godfather.

What reminded me of the debt I owe (we all owe) to

Pynchon-as a prophet who tells us more about the deep structure of contemporary

culture than any other artist or political theorist I know of-was a single

three-word phrase: “the lawyer Metzger.”

The lawyer Metzger: It came up when Ralph Lee asked me how

I’d come upon the phone-phreak underground in the first place. It was something

I couldn’t reveal in my original story because of security constraints. It’s

something that time-and the statute of limitations-permit me to disclose here.

It involved a daring plan by an outlaw “blue-box” entrepreneur to bring the

phone company-then the undivided, all-smothering Ma Bell-to its knees with a

devastating coup … of which I was to be the chosen instrument.

See, this lawyer named Metzger had reached out to Harold

Hayes, the legendary Esquire editor,

through his ­protégé, Craig Karpel, and said he had a client who was very, very

angry with the phone company-primarily for getting him busted for selling

illicit “blue boxes” to Las Vegas organized-crime figures. “Blue boxes”

permitted the user to make unlimited, untraceable free phone calls all over the

world-often an asset to gamblers, dealers and others who preferred anonymity

and free long distance. Blue boxes were, ironically enough, invented and

popularized by a network of mostly blind whiz kids who used them not for

profit, but to create their own Web-like community in the worm holes they found

in Ma Bell’s etheric net.

Anyway, the lawyer Metzger said his client was so incensed

at the Darth Vaders of the phone company’s security division that he wanted to

strike back at the Evil Empire in a devastating way. What this fellow-whom I’ve

never named, and whose name I’ve since forgotten (although I’d love to hear

from him)-wanted Esquire to do was to

include, bound in the issue that

carried my story, a vinyl disc, a 45 r.p.m. record that contained the secret

codes that comprised internal phone-company signaling tones. So that everybody

in America could make a blue box and bankrupt Ma Bell.

You could, if you were charitable, see this as an

anticipation of the “open source” movement in contemporary cyber culture. But

you could also look at it-as I believe Esquire’s

lawyers did when they nixed the idea-as opening oneself up to a charge of

criminal conspiracy. But by introducing me, and thus the world, to the existence

of an illicit underground communications network, he accomplished something

more far- reachingly subversive.

He was the first to tell me about the then-embryonic field

of computer hacking-demonstrating to me how to modem into a mainframe (this was

1971) and search out the passwords.

It was this guy (the lawyer Metzger’s client), who

introduced me to Joe Engressia, the blind phone-phreak adept who was, I

believe, the first to discover the secret utility to the Cap’n Crunch whistle.

The Cap’n Crunch whistle, a little cheap plastic job, was a key icon (or maybe

an iconic key) to the phone-phreak underground: It was the key that unlocked Ma

Bell’s treasures. The makers of Cap’n Crunch cereal had no idea (I think) of

what they were doing when they decided to include the little “bosun whistle”

(in keeping with the nautical theme) in the cereal box, much like the prize

found in Cracker Jacks. But Engressia, who was gifted with perfect pitch,

discovered that the whistle produced a perfect 2,600-­cycle-per-second tone, a

high-pitched note that was the entry

signal to the phone company’s electronic switching system. The tone that, in

the hands of a skilled hacker-phreak, allowed unlimited, untraceable access to

the long-distance lines-and through a modem, to the innards of computers.

I’d never actually seen one of the Cap’n Crunch whistles

(which were quickly taken off the market), but the enterprising Ralph Lee had

unearthed one, which he showed me when I arrived for the taping. I felt the

kind of thrill archaeologists must have gotten when they first came upon the

Rosetta Stone. Anyway, it was this device that gave the name to phone-phreak

superhero Captain Crunch. What a guy: a kind of Bizarro-world Thomas Edison, or

Alexander Graham Bell, the myth of the American inventor merged with the myth

of the American outlaw and the attitude of a comic-book superhero; Gyro

Gearloose crossed with the Phantom. Faster than a speeding bullet, he’d travel

the freeways of America, ducking into a phone booth (just like Superman) and

transform himself by hooking up his famous computerized unit, thus making the

phone booth a kind of transporter that beamed him up into the world wide web of

the telephone system. He’d zap his voice around the globe before disappearing,

Phantom-like, into the ether.

I only met Captain Crunch in person once, although he

shadowed me throughout my phone-phreak odyssey, peppering me with phone calls,

building his own self-mythology. Our meeting was in a McDonald’s in San Jose,

Calif., a few months after my story came out, at which time he seemed grateful

for the (well-­deserved) iconic stature I’d endowed him with and the vast new

network of admirers he’d acquired, although I know he’s had mixed feelings

since about some of the consequences.

Crunch was the real star of the story (which is reprinted in

my new nonfiction collection, The Secret

Parts of Fortune ); he was the one who became the icon, but his flamboyance

perhaps unfairly overshadowed an equally influential proto-­hacker-Mark Bernay,

a.k.a. the ­Midnight Skulker. It was Bernay who acted as the Johnny Appleseed

of phone phreakdom, traveling up and down the West Coast in the late 60’s

pasting little stickers in phone booths that gave the numbers for “toll-free

looparounds,” AT&T tech-check connections that permitted nationwide free

conference calls, the primitive proto-Internet of the blind phone phreaks and

hackers. And it was Bernay who sketched out for me the Manichaean, metaphysical

pleasures of computer hacking: the cat-and-mouse games with security, the

intellectual game-playing that holds the appeal for the most advanced hackers.

(Bernay would often tell security how to detect the Midnight Skulker just to

raise the game to another level.)

I think it was Bernay’s phone-booth stickering that first

evoked a Pynchon vibe in me when I was reporting the story. Because, as a

youthful fan of Pynchon’s The Crying of

Lot 49 , I’d done some stickering myself; I used to sticker phone booths

with the sign of the muted post horn, the symbol of the Trystero , the shadowy conspiratorial network in

Pynchon’s novel. (See illustration.)

Anyway, entering the phone-phreak underground was like

entering the Trystero underground. Among many things that make The Crying of Lot 49 perhaps the great American visionary work of the

past century (a novel that ranks in my pantheon with Pale Fire ) is its imagination of an alternate communication system,

a Web uniting the disaffected, the disillusioned and the just plain disgruntled

in America. The outsiders who no longer trusted their private dreams and

longings to the official public channels of communication (like the post office

and the phone company). A fantasied conspiracy-as-communion that took the form

of an underground postal system. A vision that took as its sign and symbol “the

muted posthorn,” the symbol of  Thurn

and Taxis, the ancient European private postal service-with a mute silencing

it.

Curiously, “mute” was

the phone-phreak term for one of their key artifacts, a skeleton-key device to

generate the 2,600-cycle-per-second tone that put the phone company’s

long-distance signaling system at their command. Coincidence? Were the phone

phreaks life imitating (Pynchon’s) art? Or was Pynchon’s art anticipating,

prophesizing life? I don’t think it’s just me seeing things through the lens of

Pynchon; I think it’s Pynchon foreseeing

things. Foreseeing, as he put it in the novel, “a network by which x number of Americans are truly

communicating … among a web of telephone wires … searching ceaselessly among

the dial’s ten million possibilities for that magical Other who will reveal

herself out of the roar of relays.” Sound familiar?

But there was one particularly spooky foresight or

foreshadowing that floored me: “the lawyer Metzger.” As I was talking to the

documentary producer about the origin of my odyssey in a lawyer named Metzger,

it suddenly struck me: Wait a minute, wasn’t there a lawyer named Metzger in The Crying of Lot 49 ?

I raced home and dug out my copy of the novel. There it was,

on page 17: Oedipa Maas, Pynchon’s heroine, receives a summons from the estate

of a deceased lover, Pierce Inverarity. She is to be the executrix of his

tangled last will and testament, a labyrinthine legacy embedded, encoded in the

circuit board of the new American landscape.

She checks into the Echo Court motel in the San Francisco

suburb of San Narciso, and “That night the lawyer Metzger showed up.” Her

guide. I won’t dwell much further on the fictional lawyer Metzger himself, or

the fact that he turns out to be the former child actor Baby Igor, or on one of

the all-time great seduction scenes in American literature (one that also

serves as a metaphor for the veiling and unveiling of Truth!), the one that

ensues when Metzger and Oedipa watch a Baby ­Igor movie on the motel-room TV.

Except to say that, in very much the same way that a lawyer named Metzger was

my connection to the underworld realm, “the lawyer Metzger” is the one who

connects Pynchon’s heroine to the shadowy Trystero underground. Coincidence?

One of the persistent concerns of The Crying of Lot 49 is the nature of coincidence. How does one

distinguish accident and chance from pattern and plan, signal from noise, order

from randomness, conspiracy from paranoia-in physics, in history, in human

consciousness?

I won’t detain you with any further meditations on this

subject (not now, anyway), but the coincidence of the fictional and factual

“lawyer Metzger” both serving as Vergilian guides to an underworld labyrinth is

(as I believe Martin Heidegger put it in his famous Marburg seminar on

Heraclitus and the pre-Socratics) “pretty freaky, dude.”

But I do want to talk about the vision of The Crying of Lot 49 and its embodiment

in the ideals of enlightened phreaks and hackers as a political vision. I’d contend they are the true opposition party in American culture, or at least the smartest

one. They have a far more knowing and savvy critique of technological totalism

than postmodernists,post-Marxistsand ­cultural-studies savants, all of whom are

in thrall to totalizing ideological systems even as they purport to critique

such systems.

They-my guys, the Pynchonian underground-are the ultimate

opposition to systemization. But theirs is not, I repeat, not a Luddite critique. These guys love the possibilities of technology; they love systems and they

love to fuck with systems. (Fuck with them like lovers.) They know that systems

tend to become stagnant, oppressive and totalitarian unless they’re fucked

with. That they only evolve under the pressure that punctures their

self-confidence.

But I would argue that my party, the Pynchon-Crunch

opposition, are more than political-they’re also a philosophical opposition.

Although Captain Crunch may not immediately strike one as a philosopher in the

mode of Aristotle or Kant, the cyber-­hackers can be seen as descendants of the

Skeptics, the ones who ­refute the pretenses of the overconfident

system-builders.

Perhaps (like all great lifelong passions) my predilection

for cyber skeptics can be traced back to high school. It was in high school

that I read Pynchon, and it was in high school that I was engaged in a friendly

rivalry with a tech-minded classmate named Bob Metcalfe, who later went on to

become a legendary cyber-world system-builder and theorist: He invented

Ethernet and “Metcalfe’s Law” (“the value of a network grows by the square of

the size of the network”-is this a real law of science or a clever Ethernet

promotion?). Mr. Metcalfe is a terrifically good-natured techno-optimist of the

George Gilder school, and I have great respect for his achievements. But after

high school we went our separate ways, and I cast my lot with the anti-system

skeptics-the losers, the left-out, the lost causes, the disillusioned and the

disappointed, the doomed Romantic visionaries. But we’ve got Captain Crunch and

Thomas Pynchon on our side.

Endnote: It occurred to me that this is what I was getting

at a few months ago when I announced the formation of The Edgy Alliance: a

Trystero-like linkage of kindred spirits. And so I’d like to open the

membership rolls again and ask any who want to join the nearly 300 Edgy Allies

to whom I’ve already sent membership cards, to send their name and address (and

also suggested column topics) to The Edgy Alliance, Box 105, 577 Second Avenue,

New York, N.Y. 10016.