Get Out of Town
Geeks are the leaders of the new computer-reliant economythey're the people who know the mechanics and workings of machines and programs. But that doesn't mean the world shows them respect. When parents, politicians, or pundits attack the Internet and other aspects of geek culture, the group is constantly misrepresented, ridiculed, and looked upon as corks about to pop.
Geeks is also Jon Katz's story of how two members of this knowledge-privileged class walked out of their Idaho town and down the path toward respect.
It's been an oddly rough time for geek culture: Despite all the dot-com glorification spewed out by the mainstream press, the actual people who get e-commerce applications up and running don't get any respect unless they've earned itor their stock options have. The reporting after the Columbine shooting, and the attendant overregulation of "nonmainstream" teens at schools across the country, was probably the most egregious example of this. An anecdote at the book's outset, in which Katz is on a book tour and defending the rights of Internetphiles to a not-buying-it talk-show host, offers a glimpse of the divide. The host is baffled by Katz's diverting from the "control the computers" script that continues to be popular to this day; the guys in the control room, however, cheer him on during his diatribe, thanking him for finally understanding them, for not just acting dismissive and turning the real world into nothing more than an extension of high school social hierarchies.
"We are the only irreplaceable people in the building," one of the control room denizens tells Katz. And geeks all across the countrysystem administrators, programmers, people who know how to make the economy's wheels turncan make the same claim. Yet they still are afforded little respect from the popular culture.
Geeks follows the story of Jesse and Eric, two 19-year-olds from Idaho who hang out online together and who spend the majority of their nonworking time in front of their machines. (Jesse actually had been featured a few years earlier in a newspaper story on Internet addiction.) They call their apartment "The Pit," but that term might best be suited for their entire living environmenttheir dead-end jobs are clearly underutilizing their talents, and their social life is nonexistent. Enter Katz, who, inspired by an email from Jesse, heads out to Idaho to see what Jesse and Eric's life is like.
The story can best be summed up by what happens next: Katz convinces the two to get out of Idaho and move to Chicago, where they'll have greater opportunities in every sense of the world. The two of them load up a truck and head out, with an apartment they found online as their soon-to-be home base and a recruiter (also found online) as their lifeline to employment.
Of course, no cross-country move planned entirely online can go without a hitch. The apartment complex they choose is far from the outskirts of Chicago, and the recruiter's prospects dry up. The nuts and bolts of their lives haven't changed much, eitherthey're still spending most of their time online, downloading sound files from Hotline servers and talking to people online.
The lives of the two friendsthey established a strong bond in high school, at a lunchtime "geek club" sponsored by a teacherdo eventually diverge in Chicago, in a way that's simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful. Both Jesse and Eric apply to college, with differing results, and Jesse becomes more acclimated to Chicago. The post-Idaho changes that both undergo are definitely huge steps; but the two remain geeks to the core, their computers on and at the ready at all times.
Near the end of the events narrated in the book, the shooting at Columbine took place. Two of Katz's columns from the community site Slashdot are reprinted in the book, providing a reminder of just how intensely people continue to demonize geek culture. Based largely on letters from Slashdot readers who were harassed by teachers, administrators, and fellow students, the stories serve as a sobering postscript to Eric and Jesse's story, a reminder that not everyone is as lucky as they were in gaining freedom from a hopeless situation.
Katz provides a refreshing look at a slice of geek culture, one that's a brand apart from the money-fueled hype about new companies, and one that illuminates the other side of the "warning to parents" hype that has lurked at the edges of every tech report. Geeks offers adults a chance to see how spending all that time in front of a computer can pay offnot only in terms of hefty salaries and stock options but also in terms of personal growth and development.
Maura Johnston is a freelance writer living in Hicksville, New York. She is the creator of maura.com and bittersweets.org.
Read an Excerpt
From: Jesse Dailey
To: Jon Katz
When I was looking on the Tribune, there were 433 jobs under Computer/Info Systems, under every other category I looked in there was an average of 15-20.... A total of about 40% computers. The problem now isn't finding a place in which those jobs are in demand, because like you say ... they are everywhere. The problem is finding a place that wants to hire someone like me. In a Human Resources kinda way I'm defined as 19 w/ one year of experience.... In reality, I am an ageless geek, with years of personal experience, a fiercely aggressive intelligence coupled with geek wit, and the education of the best online material in the world. Aarrgghh!! too much stress being a geek on the move.:)
Jesse and Eric lived in a cave-an airless two-bedroom apartment in a dank stucco-and-brick complex on the outskirts of Caldwell. Two doors down, chickens paraded around the street.
The apartment itself was dominated by two computers that sat across from the front door like twin shrines. Everything else-the piles of dirty laundry, the opened Doritos bags, the empty cans of generic soda pop, two ratty old chairs, and a moldering beanbag chair-was dispensable, an afterthought, props.
Jesse's computer was a Pentium 11 300, Asus P2B (Intel BX chipset) motherboard; a Matrix Milleniurn II AGP; 160 MB SDRAM with a 15.5 GB total hard-drive space; a 4X CD-recorder; 24X CD-ROM; a 17-inch Micron monitor. Plus a scanner and printer. A well-thumbed paperback-Katherine Dunn's novel Geek Love-served as his mousepad.
Eric's computer: an AMD K-6 233 with a generic motherboard; an S3 video card, a 15-inchmonitor; a 2.5 GB hard drive with 36 MB SDRAM. Jesse wangled the parts for both from work.
They stashed their bikes and then Jesse blasted in through the door, which was always left open since he can never hang on to keys, and went right to his PC, which was always on. He yelled a question to Eric about the new operating system. "We change them like cartons of milk," he explained. At the moment, he had NT 5, NT 4, Work Station, Windows 98, and he and Eric had begun fooling around with Linux, the complex, open-source software system rapidly spreading across the world.
Before settling in at his own rig, Eric grabbed a swig of milk from a carton in the refrigerator, taking a good whiff first. Meals usually consisted of a daily fast-food stop at lunchtime; everything else was more or less on the fly. There didn't seem to be any edible food in the refrigerator, apart from a slightly discolored hunk of cheddar cheese.
Jesse opened his MP3 playlist (MP3 is a wildly popular format for storing music on computer hard drives; on the Net, songs get traded like baseball cards) and pulled down five or six tracks-Alanis Morissette, John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton, Ani DiFranco. He turned on his Web browser, checked his e-mail, opened ICQ chat (an also-rapidly growing global messaging and chat system) looking for messages from Sam Hunter, fellow Geek Club alumnus, or his mother or sisters.
He and Eric networked their computers for a few quick rounds of Quake 11. Racing down hallways and passages on the screen, picking up ammo and medical supplies, acquiring ever bigger guns and Wasters, the two kept up their techno-patter about the graphics, speed, and performance of their computers. "My hard drive is grungy," Eric complained. Jesse gunned Eric down three times in a row, then yelped, "Shit, I'm dead." A laser burst of bullets splattered blood all over the dungeonlike floor.
Meanwhile, the two of them continued to chat with me over their shoulders, pausing every now and then to kill or be killed. All the while, Jesse listened to music, and answered ICQ messages. Somebody called and asked about ordering an ID card, the cottage industry that at fifty bucks a pop will help underwrite their contemplated move to Chicago. Somebody e-mailed a few additional MP3s; somebody else sent software and upgrades for Quake and Doom. I was dizzied and distracted by all the activity; they were completely in their element.
The game was still under way when Eric moved over to the scanner and printer and printed out something semi-official-looking.
"Too dark," was Jesse's assessment, without seeming to look away from the screen. So Eric went back to his computer and called up a graphic program. Jesse took another phone call, still playing Quake, as Joni Mitchell gave way to Jane's Addiction, then the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
At any given point, he was doing six things almost simultaneously, sipping soda, glancing at the phone's caller ID, watching the scanner and the printer, blasting away at menacing soldiers, opening mail from an apartment manager in Chicago, fielding a message from his sister in Boise.
He wasn't just a kid at a computer, but something more, something new, an impresario and an Information Age CEO, transfixed and concentrated, almost part of the machinery, conducting the digital ensemble that controlled his life. Anyone could have come into the apartment and carted away everything in it, except for the computer, and Jesse wouldn't have noticed or perhaps cared that much. He was playing, working, networking, visiting, strategizing-all without skipping a function, getting confused, or stopping to think.
It was evidently second nature by now, which explained why he looked as if he hadn't been out in the sun for years. It was more or less true: A couple of weeks earlier, he'd gone hiking along the Idaho River on a bright day and landed in the hospital emergency room with his arms and legs severely sunburned.
He carried himself like someone who expected to get screwed, who would have to fend for himself when that happened, and who was almost never surprised when it did. Trouble, Jesse often declared, was the building block of character. Without the former, you didn't get the latter.