“An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”
— Isaac Newton, first law of motion
Vincent Agapov was one of the most outwardly-well-behaved boys in the evil Mrs. Durr’s fourth-grade class and probably the quietest kid in his whole grade. He had shaggy, brown hair that he rarely brushed and usually had dirt stains on his face, hands, and knees. He was a good boy, but he didn’t really know how to socialize with others.
He turned 10 near the end of fourth grade and his father gifted him his very first cellphone, an AT&T M-1. The phone was cheap, but it could take a beating and still text and make calls — and that’s all his father asked him to do if he ever needed help.
The bullies at Vincent’s public school were prolific in presence and potency, living each day as if they were writing a full chapter in their best-selling autobiographies. While they pounded you they would also emanate an oppressive aura of righteousness that really drove home a wholly profound feeling of powerlessness in the scrawny boys they typically preyed on.
That year, Vincent made only one friend in his class of twelve — though, he did end up being a friend for life. Conrad was another quiet kid that suffered through peer repression, although he probably ended up staring down the butt of a bully at least twice as often as Vincent solely because of his obsessive love of computers.
The two were inseparable, both inside of school and out. And it wasn’t even because the bullies were commonly present all around their small town, either. The two shared an unspoken bond; they understood each other and saw the world through the same tint of glass.
During a sleepover one particularly cold winter, Conrad was obsessing over Vincent’s cell phone. He’d wanted one since the day he was born but even the cheapest models were out of reach for his struggling family. He often joked about selling one of his copious siblings for the money; his overworked mother empathized her own reasons but never found the joke funny.
“Can I call person?” Conrad asked excitedly, still examining the textured plastic of the cell phone from centimeters away. “Yes, can I?”
Vincent laughed a high pitched squeal that matched his prepubescent voice. “Who you going to call? You have to know number, you know.”
The smile fell away from Conrad’s face and the gears in his head visibly cranked, grinding on the possibilities. “What your number? Can I call you?”
“You call yourself, it go to voicemail,” Vincent explained, remembering his dad’s sit-down that explained it all. “You enter number for someone else.”
Conrad paused, again deep in thought. Eventually, he opened his eyes and shared an ear-to-ear grin. “I’ve got idea.” He looked down at the phone, inspecting the numbers again, and prepared to make his very first phone call. “What your number?”
“I said can’t use my number,” Vincent explained again, swiping for the phone.
Conrad parried and kept the phone just out of reach. His outstretched finger hovering directly over the phone’s buttons trembled with anticipation. “I know, I know. I’ve got idea, remember. Just need your number.” The chaotic fire of excitement in his eyes won Vincent over and he relayed his full phone number back to his friend.
“Three,” he concluded at the last number.
Conrad didn’t push the three button, however. He slowly looked up from the phone — shaking with excitement — and grinned like a madman. Then, the keypress tone sang out as Conrad declared, “Four!”
The line rang six times. Between each ring, the room fell so silent you could hear the stomps of the ants marching along the windowsill. Eventually, an old woman’s voice crackled faintly over the line: “Hello?”
The boys’ faces each turned beet red and they stared at each other, holding in explosive laughter. Neither had anything to say and they panicked, hung up, and then finally burst out laughing.
“Amazing feeling,” Conrad remarked, still giggling.
Vincent pried the phone from his elated friend and started punching in a new set of numbers. On the last keypress he muttered, “Five,” and giggled some more. “My turn now,” he added as the line started to ring.
“Hello?” The voice was of an older man. Not old-old like a grandpa, but old like a dad or an uncle. The unmistakable sound of a tiny train roared by from somewhere inside the phone and murmurs of street noise permeated the background. “Hello?”
“Hell — oh?” Oh, Vincent thought aloud, overwhelmed by the feeling of his first-ever burst of adrenaline coursing through his veins. I should have thought about what to say, was all he managed to coherently think.
“Yes, hello?” The man sounded busy.
“Yes, hello?” Vincent parroted back, still lost in his racing thoughts. The man sounded busy. Maybe we should call someone else. Maybe I shouldn’t be calling anyone at all. Is this mean? Why don’t I have any friends I can actually call?
“Hello, who is it? How are you called?” The man spoke quickly.
Conrad covered his mouth, just barely holding back a deep, euphoric laugh. The guy must be so confused!
“Hello,” Vincent echoed again, fighting back his own laughs and settling into a strategy. “How are you called?”
For a moment, it was unclear whether the man would start yelling. He didn’t. Instead, he took a deep breath and said, “Lex. I am Lex Bortnik. You called me; what it is you want?”
“You called me,” Vincent parroted. “What it is you want, Lex Bortnik?”
“You called me,” Lex insisted, raising his voice. “What you mean, ‘I call you’? Where you live? I find you!”
Vincent immediately hung up and dropped the phone, staring at it. “You think he will?” the boy asked his friend nervously. “Trace phone, come here?” He thought about how easy it was for the police to trace phones on TV and get the bad guys. “Or he call politsiya?”
“Possible,” Conrad agreed thoughtfully. “But not likely. Next caller?”
“Another night,” Vincent protested. The rush of power over a stranger was intoxicating, but the addiction hadn’t fully set in yet. That night, two prank calls and a scary threat was enough to satisfy the boy with the phone — but from then on, the addiction to chaos would only grow.
Prank calls became the best part of sleepovers and eventually the only reason for sleepovers. Vincent and Conrad grew older and progressed through school, always in the same class, and always sticking together even when the bullies came around.
As the harmless boys evolved, so too did their prank calls. When Conrad got his first job, his mother scraped up just enough to get him a phone also. These two phones changed the game and both boys quickly learned the best prank phone calls came from calling two different people and holding their phones together, letting the sound pass back and forth. The reality bubble of pretending your victim had called you was suddenly made real — and they’d get front-row seats for their own endless entertainment.
As the pranked became the pranksters, the boys were pleased to retire from the hard work of coming up with what to say and instead focused on enjoying the chaos and building their prankster army of people that would go to long lengths to prove to strangers they weren’t the ones that made the call. Vincent kept a black notebook that he logged every phone call in: what number, what time, who answered, whether they were a boy or a girl, and how they responded. People who responded angrily got a frowny face next to their name with thick, furrowed brows, and people who were friendly got a smiley face. An assortment of other symbols littered the pages, tracking every other little detail the boys could think of.
The notebook eventually became a sort of power source in its own way, allowing the boys to further customize detailed scenarios they wanted to enjoy. When Conrad received a spectacular beating from bullies one summer evening, that night he paired the angriest of the angry prankmen together and sat back, relaxed, and just listened to the aural testosterone filling the air. Vincent particularly liked pairing up the kids’ numbers he found with old-old people that were hard of hearing and listening to them each try to figure out what exactly the other one was going on and on about.
When Conrad started taking computer programming classes in school, he took their prankster army to a new level. He coded a program that would generate two phone numbers randomly and then call them from the computer. The merged audio from both calls was played over the computer speakers so the boys could listen in and the computer microphone picked up whatever was said by one person to play back to the other. It worked surprisingly well.
As usual, the boys would enjoy themselves and the bits of chaos they could so effortlessly create and frequently took more notes on which phone numbers reacted which way, taking turns scribbling into the black notebook.
Eventually, Conrad improved the program again to include the basics of what they wrote in the notebook. It automatically stored the phone number, when it was called, whether someone answered, how long they talked (and at what volume), and all the boys had to do by hand was add any other relevant information about the speakers they could think of.
At one point in the fall, Conrad was waiting outside the principal’s office and overheard his secretary on the phone with a bully’s parent. She took down their new number and read it back to confirm it. Conrad scribbled it down on his wrist so he could remember it and then had a week of fun siccing the worst of the worst pranksters on the bully’s dad. During each call, he argued more and more with the strangers claiming it was they who had called him, and each time he got more and more furious when they vehemently argued the opposite. The boys would sit on rocking chairs near the computer and fight to contain their laughter. When the bully’s dad would eventually hang up, they’d call him with a completely different person on the other end and it’d escalate further when he accused them of being in cahoots with the previous callers.
It was a glorious power; one that gave these two bludgeoned boys a place in a world they thought had forsaken them. A power that gave them control over who was the one being bullied in any situation, and they sure as sugar didn’t want it to be them!
The prankster program had undergone years of improvements by the time the government got a whiff of the boys’ growing operation. A night raid was all it took to confiscate the racks of servers that by now all ran the program in parallel, flagging the most interesting calls for the boys to listen to and silently tagging and storing the rest for a rainy day. Both boys were quietly jailed for the rest of their lives for publicly undisclosed crimes.
The Chaos Program — as the government so aptly renamed it — received a low budget and a small staff to maintain and improve functionality over the years. A data scientist was brought on to convert the audible speech to digital text so they could properly analyze it and automate everything the boys were still doing by hand in their final years.
How the program generated the numbers to call was rebuilt from scratch to forgo randomness and plugged into a mainframe computer that stored information on everyone the government knew about. Domestically, the program was used to prank call dissidents and political opponents and their supporters, instilling a palpable unrest and hostility among those who would wish to change what was already working.
Internationally, the program was shipped around the globe en masse and installed covertly, bundled into malicious viruses and worms, installed on hacked computers, and generally spread far and wide. With the invention of caller ID, the new developers added the ability to spoof the calls to look like they were coming from a third party that would occasionally receive a follow-up call with more ranting and contempt, resulting in rippling echoes of chaos for the kinds of people who would later call back their prankster and yell all the things they forgot to say the first time around.
Occasionally the Chaos Program team would coordinate with other departments, letting the program run freely with new tools or different targets. Each election season, the program would spoof calls from known political offices (from which caller ID would typically read the office name, rather than a random number) and play prerecorded messages meant to subvert a particular candidate, in use from presidential candidates all the way down to local mayors and legislators around the world. The department working on international guidance simply provided the public relations team with a list of candidates that would best serve their country if they were to win, and the PR team designed recordings meant to drum up support for those candidates.
If Vincent and Conrad were still alive today to see the monster they’ve created, I think they would have very different opinions on whether they should have opened Pandora’s box.
Vincent was always a fan of chaos and, I think, would have been undeniably proud to see the unimaginable power source he’d set in motion in for his country.
Conrad, on the other hand, was always more concerned by the technical challenge at hand: I think he’d be extremely excited to see how the Chaos Program will evolve in an age of artificial intelligence, pervasive data mining, and the ability to synthesize anyone’s voice — but he’d also be just a little bit concerned about just how much vitriol and hate a single person could set in motion to spread around the world for years to come.