Serial Killer III: Radio Radio
Technologically, the mid-’90s was an exciting time to be young. By ’96, I had watched as the computers on our desks had gone from the single-unit Mac Plus, to alternately shrinking and expanding variations on the desktop tower. Monitors went from black and white to grayscale to 256-color to lifelike color. Games, at first simple distractions of shades and vectors, became immersive, story-driven works of art.
Our first 14.4 modem’s screeching, clicking and hissing echoed venomously through my parents’ newly built studios, but we harnessed the beast and rode it confidently into the Internet. As baud rates increased, exploration of the unknown went farther and deeper. Soon, my uncle’s stories about sending messages back to the States from Europe in the ’80s at (a bone-crushing!) eight baud drew laughs. When my friend Scott’s house was wired for DSL, I spent my first afternoon truly just screwing around on the Web. What happens if we type this? Where will this seemingly made-up url take us? And that continued at home, only for shorter bursts. But I found nothing that I, even at thirteen, hadn’t already anticipated. Human nature plus complete freedom and unlimited space yield pretty obvious results.
The big discovery for me in this era was the illusion of privacy–through a lower-tech medium than I’d expected. One warm spring day, I was helping my mother clean out her office and installing a newer, more reliable cordless phone. Cell phones weren’t universal yet, but having a cordless was standard. The new set installed, I began putting away the old one, when the handset fell off the cradle. I bent to pick it up and heard a sound coming from the earpiece. The years have tarnished the total recall of what I heard, but this is what I remember of it after gingerly picking up the plastic handset and listening to the conversation bubble through the light static:
… comin’ to me.
So what you do?
I hit that nigga with the pipe. Knocked the mothafucka out.
Well, that’s how it goes… So what you doing Friday?
Sometimes, all it takes to uncover a massive crime is luck and a little bit of battery power. Those old cordless phones could, with their telescoping antennae and the right environmental conditions, pick up other conversations on similar frequencies. While the phone still had a little juice left, I turned it on and went up to my room for higher ground and a better signal. I spent the next hour sitting at my desk and listening to hissing, popping and the occasional garbled transmission until even the background static faded out as the battery died.
Weeks later, I bought myself a scanner radio with a much wider range of frequencies. Tuning in late at night, I would reach into the invisible lost-and-found bin of the electromagnetic spectrum and eavesdrop on the lives of others. Police tracked a burglar across the city, a pair of medics tried in vain to save a woman who’d been hit by a car, and construction workers told jokes over their walkie talkies. And I listened.
In the years that followed, I used the lessons of the radio to safeguard my own privacy. I would only put out into the digital world those things that were approved for public consumption. But it went further than that. I also began boxing thoughts, ideas, and even parts of my personality within myself. The concept of the memory castle might be an apt description of how I began storing these things. Room by room, hallway by hallway, ideas had their place. Some I’d stored in common rooms, available at any time for use in conversation and writing. Others I merely hid in rooms, freely available to those who took the time to look. And still others I put behind doors, accessible only though an increasing number of locks and keys. But even that isn’t secure. Substances, discomfort, and lack of sleep can unlock doors more efficiently than the craftiest of questions. How do you keep the worst of your demons on lockdown when faced with that kind of security liability? The answer, it turns out, is obvious, given the source of the question: fragment and encrypt the information and store it in the clouds, far, far away from the castle.