Did you know that before the Internet, future hackers “phreaked” the telephone system instead? This craving for information inspired Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker, Ed Piskor’s inside look at the life of fictional hacker Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle, whose experience were based on several real-life infamous hackers.
Here, Ed presents an eight-page preview of Wizzywig, coming July 25 from Top Shelf! Check it out, below.
TFAW.com: Can you introduce Wizzywig to us?
Ed Piskor: Wizzywig is a story that spans maybe 25 years in the life of a notorious computer hacker, Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle. In the ’70s, fiddling with the telephone system was a puzzle that he enjoyed. When computers start getting hooked up to the phone lines, he falls down a rabbit hole of computer hacking and social engineering into areas and databases he has no right to play around in.
This ultimately makes him wanted by authorities, and he uses his accumulated knowledge of the verboten to maintain a life as a fugitive for an untold number of years.
Kevin is the composite analog of many of America’s most notorious hackers of the past three decades. In the same way that Charles Foster Kane was a stand-in for William Randolph Hearst, maybe nine hackers make up Kevin’s personality and experience.
TFAW.com: Where does this preview scene fit into the mix?
EP: This scene is early on in Kevin’s “career.” Before computer hacking, there was a hobby called “Phone Phreaking” where guys would dig deep to try and figure out the intricacies of the telephone network. This was the most complex piece of high tech that you could play with in the ’70s.
Just by dialing different sequences you could discover interesting things, and the phreaks shared anything they discovered with their peers. Kevin is obsessed with the phone system and wants to know every detail about how it works. He simply can’t be a passive user anymore, and he can’t stop thinking about all the cool tricks that must exist within the network.
A lot of the best hackers/phreakers use very low-tech means to get access to whatever captures their interest. Here, Kevin and his friend Winston imbibe in a glorious pastime called “trashing,” in which you simply roll around in the garbage heaps of places you want to know more information about. This dumpster is strategically located on the premises of the city’s main telephone headquarters.
They start off by picking the lock, which is another tool in the hacker arsenal. The “snake rake” is the ugliest way to pick a lock, where you just push the tool in and yank it out fast, while turning the “tension wrench” at the same time. If you do it right, all the pins will be pushed in at the same time so that you can turn the tumbler. It’s loud. It’s more luck and less of a skill. It’s highly effective with masterlocks, especially.
So Kevin and Winston are looking around for proprietary information to figure out how the phone system works on a technical level, and how the interoffice bureaucracy is handled. With enough information, they’ll know enough to be able to simply call an operator and pretend they’re someone within the company who needs them to perform a task or give them a piece of information. This is called “social engineering.”
If you’re a good enough social engineer, you can simply make a phone call and get other people to do all your dirty work, if you’re charismatic and convincing. This is a highly useful gambit for a hacker.
TFAW.com: Can you describe the experience of coming up with this scene? What did you want to communicate, and do you think you were successful?
EP: This scene might be the first scene where Kevin crosses the line of legality. It was important to show a gradual slip down this path, and this scene made perfect sense at this point in the story. There is a famous moment, where a real-life hacker group is trashing one day, and they hear a siren and get freaked out thinking that they’re busted, only to find out it was an ambulance.
That little, real-world stroke is better than fiction, and I had to steal it for my story. I think it clearly shows that our guy might not be a sweet little angel, and that he may have it inside himself to continue pursuing his interests no matter what the legality. He also comes across as a real sociopath at the end of this sequence, to me, anyway.
TFAW.com: What do you hope people take away from reading Wizzywig?
EP: I’ve been around long enough to know that as an artist, you can’t really steer people in any direction. You can try to inflect certain things within the work, but even talking about what those things may be might create a defensive or contrarian position in the reader.
Even the title, Wizzywig, is a phonetic spelling of the acronym W.Y.S.I.W.Y.G, which means, “what you see is what you get,” and that’s precisely what I’d love the outcome to be for the reader. You’re going to read the work, you’ll take in information, and through the filter of your own moral barometer, you will have an opinion on the character and story. If I get my way, your opinion will differ from the next reader’s.
Our thanks to Ed for the in-depth peek into Wizzywig. Pre-order your copy today and save 20%!
Are you intrigued by this inside look at pre-Internet-age “hacking”? Post your comments below!