It is before dawn in California, where four computer programmers are hacking the public telephone network in New York. Sam Peters, otherwise known as “The Kid,” explains that Compton—another programmer—got a message on the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, an early precursor to the Internet) about a man walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers. The programmers—The Kid, Compton, Dennis, and Gareth—have placed bets on whether or not the tightrope walker will fall, and now they are calling payphones in the vicinity and trying to convince strangers to narrate the event in order to settle the bet.
The Kid and his colleagues are at the forefront of communication, and yet they are using their technology to gather information about an essentially artistic event. The notion of uncertainty—of not knowing what will happen—spurs them forward in their quest to understand what’s going on in New York, a curiosity similar to their interest in technology and how it might change the world.
The programmers speak to four people in New York before finally reaching someone who doesn’t hang up on them. Compton speaks to the man through a microphone, asking him questions about the tightrope walker. The conversation is full of stops and starts and misunderstandings as the man—whose name is José—tries to understand who he is talking to and why they are calling. He tells them only basic information, and the group becomes frustrated with his unobservant manner. Nonetheless, José tells them small details about the walk, narrating as the tightrope walker hops from foot to foot and lies down on the wire.
It is somewhat ironic that what initially fails the programmers is not their technology—designed to aid long distance communication—but rather the human they speak to: the breakdown in communication is not due to faulty equipment, but an inability to effectively converse. The subtle message here is that, regardless of how advanced the human race may become, the fundamentals of human connection remain vital to progress.
Frustrated with José, Compton asks him to hand the phone to somebody else. Now somebody with a deep voice comes onto the line and tells the programmers that the tightrope walker has fallen. “He splattered all over the place,” he says. Compton begins to suspect that José is tricking them by using a false voice. He accuses him of this, and soon the line goes dead. Compton, who bet that the tightrope walker would survive, declares that he is not paying his debt until they hear from another source. Dennis, who is the owner of the programming company for which the others work, says that they should get back to work—they are working on a project for the United States Pentagon.
The importance of effective communication is emphasized yet again when the programmers receive false information from José. As a result, doubt and misinformation abounds. The fragile connection between people on opposite sides of the country reflects McCann’s structuring of the book, in a way.
Ignoring Dennis’s idea to keep working, the programmers call the New York payphones again. Each of them tries to find an open line. The Kid is the first to get one, and a woman’s voice answers. She proves much better at explaining the scene than José. She tells them that the tightrope walker has walked back and forth six or seven times. She says that there are helicopters and that they’re getting extremely close to him—she worries they’ll blow him off the wire. Then she explains that the walker is waving to the crowd, his balancing pole resting on his lifted knee.
Better able to communicate with this new person on the other end of the line, the programmers receive a much clearer account of what the tightrope walker is doing. Once again, the importance of fundamental human connection emerges as a paramount concern when it comes to making progress, even if that progress is chiefly computer-oriented.
The Kid, who is known for almost never speaking, is intrigued by this woman and begins asking her questions. She tells him that her name is Sable Senatore and that she works in a research library near the World Trade Center. Meanwhile, the other programmers silently mock The Kid for having an obvious crush on this strange faraway woman. In the middle of their conversation, Sable explains that the tightrope walker has finished, that he has walked off onto the other side, greeted by a swarm of police officers.
By rendering the tightrope walker’s finale through a third party—through Sable—there is a certain sense of a collective consciousness, as if all eyes are pointed in the same direction, thinking the same thing.
Before she hangs up, The Kid asks if Sable is married. She laughs, tells him she has to go, and hangs up. The Kid sits in disappointment as his coworkers berate him, making fun of his eagerness. Then Dennis tries to get everyone back on track, suggesting they start working again, but nobody wants to stay. They’ve been up all night, and Compton says he’s going home. Nonetheless, The Kid opens the program he was working on and looks over at Dennis, who is already at his own console. The program hums and clicks, and The Kid immerses himself in writing code, feeling high off the idea that he can forget everything, that there are no limits to where he can go on the computer.
It seems that The Kid is perhaps compensating for his failed communication with Sable by taking delight in writing code. He feels that there are no limits to the world of writing code, and this might be another way of articulating the fact that there are no social conventions or challenges that he can be tripped up by when he’s dealing with computers. Hungry for attention and connection in the real world, he throws himself into finding alternative avenues of communication.