On the abuse of telecommunications and its implications

On the abuse of telecommunications and its implications

by Rodrigo Fernos

People in general tend to be very naive when it comes to understanding how a technology like the telephone can be abused.  As usual, we may turn to history to begin to get a obtain an idea of its potential impact.

Around 1890 Almond B. Stowger, an undertaker in Kansas City, noticed that his business was going down the tubes; the number of people calling and requesting services had mysteriously diminished.  When he investigated, he found out that one of the telephone operators of the city was the daughter in law of a rival company.  She had been channeling all of the calls to her husband's family enterprise, at the expense of Stowger's company.  Stowger, furious, ended up inventing the automatic switchboard, a series of mechanical switches that automatically placed a call to the intended telephone without any human interaction. Stowager's 'step-by-step' switch would be so reliable as to be used throughout much of the 20th century. 

While the particular story has a happy ending--Stowger eventually sold his patent to American Electric and retired in his newfound wealth to Florida--it is easy to see the motivation that propelled him in the first place.  Without calls from clientele, his business would eventually have gone bankrupt, forcing Stowger into insufferable losses at a time when the US economy was undergoing a depression. Abuse of the phone meant economically chocking a person to death--something that might not seem to be so bad today, but which certainly during the most harsh economic times when Social Security, Food-stamps, and Medicaid did not exist was tantamount to assassination.

We can get another idea of the importance of the telephone by looking at cases when there is no ill-intent exists, and when sheer bureaucratic inefficiency can lead to the same insufferable result of being left without a telephone for extended periods of time.  Such was the case in Puerto Rico prior to the nationalization of the Puerto Rico Telephone Co. (PRTC) in 1974.  An architect had obtained new offices and had placed a request to switch his telephone from one locale to the other.  Yet, while the PRTC (then an ITT subsidiary) cut the service in the old local, they did not promptly reestablish service in the new locale. This naturally led the office to a drying of customers, as in Stowger's case.  The architect placed a resolute letter of complaints to PRTC, hoping to have the situation resolved as quickly as possible.

"¿Cree usted que profesionales dependientes de tal servicios [telefónico] podamos sobrevivir tal situación? Pagará su compañía todo el daño causado por ustedes a la práctica privada de mi profesión? La ineficiencia de ese organismo nos ha causado y esta causando grandes pérdidas de recursos económicos y de energía a esta oficina.", wrote Luis Aponte.

Contrary to popular belief, the telephone is not a frivolous commodity but a key necessity in the modern world.  Just consider the basic fact that most  people today do not generally live in communities of kin or interest, but rather buy/rent properties 'randomly' throughout the city--or at least what is likable and within their price range. What this means is that in today's contemporary life, individuals generally do not live physically proximate to their 'natural communities', and hence have to rely on the telephone to maintain contact with these.  The same might be said of any goods and services which exist in a given community.  It is this geographic reality which means that there are literally no 'substitutes' for a telephone analogous to their physical counterpart, and hence what makes the abuse of telecommunications such a dangerous to the welfare of its citizens.  The large scale of modern cities means that disruption to telecommunications can have the real consequence of rupturing individuals from their natural groups.  The city becomes a jungle of survival instead of a home in which to strive.

Yet, it gets worse.  

The new digital era, idealized for the frivolity of change which characterizes it, has led to a series of applications which can noxiously alter the nature of these natural  relations.  While it takes a sadist mind lacking any ethics or empathy to actually use them, this is not to say that such minds do not exist nor that they have not been used in such manner.  While in the former cases we saw how the absence of communication affected the well being of individuals, the actual 'content' of the telephone calls could also be equally subverted.  A example might do much to illustrate the point.

There are applications today which allow users to falsify their true identity, both on cellphones and the computer.  While kids might use this to play a prank now and then without being caught, it could be used to much more sinister purposes.  Given that new human relationships tend to be between individuals who do not know each other--obvious by definition, it also means that new relationships might be more easily disrupted precisely because the individuals lack an extensive knowledge base of mutual interactions. In other words, they do not know each other, any actions presumably taken by the other could be incorrectly understood to be a natural example of the person's personality, and hence get a mistaken impression of the individual.  It is this personal ignorance allows for the more effective manipulation of the two by third parties via the telephone.

If, for example, a new potential relationship might suddenly receive a flood of calls from the second party (but which is actually coming from a third party, unbeknownst to the two parties in direct contact), this would provide a false impression about the instability and character of the second party. Yet, because the second party is completely ignorant of these events, they have no ideas as to what might be actually going on, and ironically create the same mistaken impression of the first party. The first party, having falsely received a flood of calls from the second party, reacts 'violently' to the second party, the latter themselves forming a false impression of the  former in the process.  Given the ignorance of what might actually be going on exists, a potential important relationship is thereby prevented from forming as a result of what might be called 'telecommunications terrorism'.

That in a modern society the telephone is a necessary requirement for forming, sustaining, and keeping relationships of all sorts--emotional, professional, etc--means that the disruption and control of these technologies can place n real danger and have real injury to modern day citizens.  That, if for no reason or other, is why abuses of this kind might be considered subject to the death penalty.  Any society which permits this type of illicit behavior is risking placing itself at risk in all areas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and hence the drastic conclusions of our observations.

© 2014 Rodrigo fernos riddick