When my wife and I were first dating, we’d talk on the phone constantly, the way that new lovers often do. She lived on the south side of Chicago and I was up on the north side and I kept crazy hours at work, and so we’d connect by phone when we couldn’t connect in person. And those conversations would range the way those conversations always do: hopes, dreams, work, laundry.
I was working one of those ridiculous long nights we often had during production of Punk Planet, the magazine I ran back then, and I was idly chatting with my girlfriend on the phone about a story we were working on about Iraq. This was back probably in 1999, when the crippling sanctions on Iraq since the first Iraq war had mostly been forgotten and we were one of the few news organizations (if you could even call us that) still trying to keep that story alive. This was thanks mainly to the work of a single guy, Jeff Guntzel, who would send us dispatches from the country when he’d travel there with the activist group he was a part of. He’d also occasionally call us from a business center in Baghdad—his voice a raspy whisper through the amount of static and noise on the line.
I was working on the layouts for one of Jeff’s stories and was excited to tell this girl I was trying to impress more about it. But, as those young love conversations do, we moved off-topic pretty quickly, jumping from one topic to the next. I don’t remember much about those conversations now, but I still remember the distinct click the phone made when we switched from talking about the Iraq story to discussing her misadventures at the local laundromat earlier that evening.
That click became a regular occurrence on our office line—popping up as you’d move towards or away from more politically charged topics—and was followed not long after by intractable problems with our office phone line. Occasionally you’d pick up the phone and, instead of a dial tone, you’d get the digital static of a modem; other times you’d pick up and there’d be a few moments of silence followed by a click and a dial tone. Mid-conversation you’d sometimes find your voice beginning to echo, then snap back into normality. And of course, sometimes the phone would stop working entirely, and a bewildered customer service representative would mutter words about things being “flagged” before putting me on hold. The line would usually start working quickly after those service calls.
Finally, after an extended period of bad dial-tones and calls getting cut off, the line just entirely went dead. A particularly dogged technician came to the office. He spent time in our space, time in his truck, time up on a pole. If I remember right, he even drove to one of the main switches near us. Finally he came back, looking completely bewildered and said, “I really don’t know what to tell you. It’s almost as if your line goes somewhere else before it comes to us.”
This was before September 11. This was before the PATRIOT Act. This was before Bush was elected and Obama after him. This was, obviously, almost a decade and a half before this week’s revelations of governmental phone metadata collection and the NSA’s PRISM project. We were a tiny magazine—at the time, our readership probably hovered somewhere around 10,000. And yet there was this technician telling me what I’d already deeply suspected: Our line was going somewhere else.
I wish I could say I was outraged by the NSA PRISM project, by the collection of cellphone metadata, by any of it. I am disturbed by all of it, disappointed for sure, but outrage would imply that my worldview was shattered. But the world I’ve lived in for a long time is the world we’ve all been plunged into with the revelations this week. My worldview that things might be different than they are went away a long time ago, broken by the clicks that came up through the line as two young lovers shared their secrets over the phone.