Cell tower disguised as fir tree, Bedfordshire, UK. Photo: Dragontree.
"The Critical Engineer considers any technology depended upon to be both a challenge and a threat. The greater the dependence on a technology the greater the need to study and expose its inner workings, regardless of ownership or legal provision. "
– The Critical Engineering Manifesto, 2011-2014
My first conscious contact with telecommunications infrastructure came in the form of a telephone call that simultaneously rang for about a hundred people.
It was called a party line and was common in the 80s in rural New Zealand and other areas too sparsely populated to justify a unique telephone cable to each household. Instead, the telco ran just one line out from the nearest exchange as though the whole community were a single address, and then wove it across the hills, through wooden T-poles, stitching farm to farm.
It worked like this: each farm was given a ring pattern similar to a phrase of Morse Code. Our antique phone with its wooden housing and little metal bells would ring with a dozen different patterns a day, but the rule was that you'd only pick up when the call was for you.
Naturally my sisters and I broke that rule once or twice, trying to keep a lid on our giggles as we lifted the wrong pattern. Though the system practically implemented wiretapping, we knew listening in on others was wrong and, apart from the odd prank, our Party Line worked quite well. As far as I knew the whole world was wired that way, that telecommunication anywhere would imply an open infrastructure with a contract of trust at the center.