Once upon a time, in the days before the ubiquitous and invisible internet, there was only one network. It was made of long-distance lines — actual wires — and it was ruled by an absolute monarch, Ma Bell. Most people traveled the network along conventional channels. But there were also explorers, a small group of curious misfits eager to map the darkest, most obscure corners of this evolving global net. Harvard students, blind teenagers, budding engineers — eventually they came together and formed a subculture. They became “phone phreaks.”

That’s the story Phil Lapsley picks up in Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell. He spent years researching the early days of phone phreakdom, from its beginnings as the solitary explorations of a curious few to its heyday as a countercultural movement — and as a nightmare for AT&T. By phone, naturally, he discussed the hidden history of phone phreaking, and why, despite decades of technological advancement, it’s a story that remains relevant today.