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Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet out of Idaho

Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet out of Idaho

4.3 16
by Jon Katz

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Jesse and Eric were roommates in the tiny town of Caldwell, Idaho, nineteen-year-old working class kids eking out a living with their seven-dollar-an-hour jobs selling and fixing computers. College was never in the cards. Their families had been torn apart by divorce and hard times, separation and illness. They had almost no social lives, and little to look


Jesse and Eric were roommates in the tiny town of Caldwell, Idaho, nineteen-year-old working class kids eking out a living with their seven-dollar-an-hour jobs selling and fixing computers. College was never in the cards. Their families had been torn apart by divorce and hard times, separation and illness. They had almost no social lives, and little to look forward to. They spent every spare cent on their computers, and every spare moment on-line.

Jesse and Eric were proud geeks— suspicious or disdainful of authority figures, proud of their status as outsiders, fervent in their belief in the positive power of technology. They'd been outsiders as long as they could remember, living far from the mainstream of school or town life. Nobody spoke for them, they were on nobody's social or political agenda.

Geeks is the story of how Jesse and Eric—and others like them—used technology to try and change their lives and alter their destiny. They rode the Internet out of Idaho to Chicago, a city they had ever set foot in, seeking the American Dream, a better life. Geeks describes this brave and difficult journey, as two self-described social misfits use the resources of the Internet to try to construct a new future for themselves, escape the boundaries of their dead-end lives, and find a community they could belong to.

Geeks explores a growing subculture about which many of us know little, a world with its own language, traditions, and taboos. In telling the stories of Jesse, Eric, and others like them, Geeks is a story about the very human face of technology.

Editorial Reviews

Get Out of Town

Geeks are the leaders of the new computer-reliant economy—they'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 it—or 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 country—system administrators, programmers, people who know how to make the economy's wheels turn—can 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 environment—their 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, either—they're still spending most of their time online, downloading sound files from Hotline servers and talking to people online.

The lives of the two friends—they established a strong bond in high school, at a lunchtime "geek club" sponsored by a teacher—do 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 off—not only in terms of hefty salaries and stock options but also in terms of personal growth and development.

Maura Johnston

Maura Johnston is a freelance writer living in Hicksville, New York. She is the creator of maura.com and bittersweets.org.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
While promoting his book Virtuous Reality, journalist Katz was introduced to the world of "geeks," those smart, technically savvy misfits who are ostracized by their high school peers. Katz wrote in his column on the slashdot.org Web site about the isolation, exclusion and maltreatment--from dirty looks to brutal beatings--such kids routinely face. Tens of thousands of anguished e-mails confirmed his story. One of the e-mailers was Jesse Dailey, a working-class 19-year-old trapped in rural Idaho, where he and his friend Eric Twilegar fixed computers for a living, and hacked and surfed the Web, convinced that they were losers and outcasts. Katz, also a writer for Wired and Rolling Stone, traveled to Idaho to meet the pair, intending to chronicle their lives. He wound up encouraging and sometimes assisting Jesse and Eric as they tried to improve their lives by moving to Chicago, where they sought better jobs and even considered applying to college. Sometimes intensely earnest, Katz cuts back and forth between Jesse and Eric's story and more general discussions of the geeks' condition. Over the course of the book, Jesse and Eric come to represent geeks' collective weaknesses and strengths. While the bulk of the book has broad social and educational implications (concerning the fate of bright kids who don't come from socially and educationally privileged backgrounds), it is a highly personal tale: Katz takes us inside the lives of these two young men, shows us their sense of isolation, their complete absorption in the cyberworld, their distrust of authority and institutions, and their attempts to negotiate an often hostile society. He breaks through the stereotype and humanizes this outcast group of young people. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Katz writes that "Geeks is... a very human, almost classically American story about two plucky, brainy, rebellious outsider kids from a little godforsaken town who headed to the big city to make their fortunes." He began to write a book about geeks (nerds) after he got an unusually enthusiastic response to his Hotwired article "The Rise of the Geeks." But, as Margot Adler of NPR says, "it is about mentoring—about the willingness of one person to enter the life of another, someone temporarily needy, and offer a hand." From hundreds of e-mails, Katz chose to follow up on one from Jesse Dailey, a young man living in Caldwell, Idaho and doing computer repairs. This highly acclaimed and popular true story is uplifting and inspirational. Every student who doesn't think he has a chance should read Jesse's application letter to the University of Chicago. Every guidance counselor should read it, too! Jon Katz took an interest, communicated, encouraged, befriended; sometimes it only takes one person to make a difference. Not to be missed. YALSA has chosen Geeks as a Best Book, as has the New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Random House/Broadway Books, 210p, 21cm, 99-043150, $12.95. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Rita M. Fontinha; Lib. Media Spec., Norwood H.S., Norwood, MA, March 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 2)
School Library Journal
YA-Katz sets out to explain geek culture by tracing the life stories of two 19 year olds from Caldwell, ID. The young men had no money, no family support, but they did have a riveting passion for computers. A year after graduating from high school, they were desperately seeking relief from their dead-end jobs. By chance, the author received a moving e-mail message from one of them and traveled to Idaho to meet them. This meeting is the start of the boys' journey and is the book's beginning. Early on, readers realize that the biggest roadblock to their success was the educational system and the intolerance of others toward those not following the traditional direction of society. Students will identify with the situation. Many will see themselves in much of this book and realize that they can survive-and flourish-in real life. Geeks is well written, thought provoking, and attitude changing. Readers may not agree with all of Katz's sermonizing, but they will agree that America needs ideas like his to serve as a catalyst for change and progress. Above all, Geeks will bring about much needed thinking and dialogue about the experience of going to high school and the price people have paid and are paying for being different. Students will enjoy Katz's argument that even if society does not acknowledge their varying needs, geeks will ultimately ascend.-Linda A. Vretos, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Katz's new book, however, is refreshingly brief. In Geeks he displays a deft reporter's touch...Katz's obvious empathy and love for his ''lost boys,'' his ability to see shades of his own troubled youth in their tough lives, gives his narrative a rich taste that makes it unlike other Net books.
The New York Times Book Review
Armed with nothing more than big brains and a bit of pluck, two misfit teens flee their stifling Idaho hometown for Chicago in this nonfiction work. An oddly touching page-turner about social outcasts using technology to wriggle free of dead-end lives.
From the Publisher
Praise for A Dog Year

“A great book that dog lovers will definitely enjoy.”

“The story line of Katz’s latest book can be summed up very simply–two dogs die and two new ones join the family but its charm comes from an intricate blend of witty anecdote and touching reflection.”
–Publishers Weekly

“A surfeit of tail-wagging, face-licking love.”
–Kirkus Reviews

Praise for Running to the Mountain

“A wonderful book — personal, moving, funny… to call a book a perfect gift always seems slightly patronizing, but I already have a long list of names — yes aging baby boomers — I’m intending to give Running to the Mountain.”
–USA Today

“A funny, moving, and triumphant voyage of the soul… Katz finds faith not by running away, but by realizing that spiritual sustenance comes from within — from the decency with which we handle our roles as spouses, parents, and friends.”
–Boston Globe

“You’ll love this book…. In the end, we admire Katz, not for the spiritual grace that he seeks but for the grace he finds: the grace of fatherhood, husbandhood, of tending fully to those who depend on him to be a source of stability in their world.”
–Men’s Journal

“Candid and inspiring… Katz has much to be proud of: he faced himself, he rearranged himself, and he came back to write movingly of the experience.”
–Washington Post Book World
Praise for Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho
“In Geeks, Katz displays a deft reporter’s touch and shows us the geek truth, rather than simply telling us about it…. Too often, writing about the on-line world lacks emotional punch, but Katz’s obvious love for his ‘lost boys’ gives his narrative a rich taste.”
-New York Times Book Review

“Geeks is a story of triumph, friendship, love, and above all, about being human and reaching for dreams in a hard-wired world.”
-Seattle Times

“A touching page-turner about social outcasts using technology to wriggle free of dead-end lives.”
-U.S. News & World Report

“An uplifting and hugely compassionate book.”
-Philadelphia Inquirer

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

From: Jesse Dailey
To: Jon Katz

When I was looking on the Tribune, there were 433 jobs under ComputerInfo 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-inch monitor; 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.

Meet the Author

Jon Katz is the author of Running to the Mountain and Virtuous Reality, as well as six novels. He has written for Wired, New York, GQ, Hotwired, and the New York Times and was twice nominated for the National Magazine Award for articles in Rolling Stone. He writes for Slashdot.org and the Freedom Forum's website "Free!" on the Web. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife, Paula Span. He can be e-mailed at jonkatz@slashdot.org.

Brief Biography

Montclair, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
August 8, 1947
Place of Birth:
Providence, Rhode Island
Attended George Washington University and The New School for Social Research

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Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet out of Idaho 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book, overall, is about two boys (Jesse Dailey and Eric P. Twilegar). It's the story of these two boys and their techno-centric lives. They live, eat, sleep, and breathe technology. One day, the author of the book, John Katz, approached them saying he wished to write about them. He begins to become acquainted with the boys and eventually prods them with the idea that with their computing skills, they could land a job anywhere in the entire U.S. This is the story of their move from small-town Idaho to big-city Chicago and the subsequent trials and successes in this unfamiliar territory. The book is quite interesting, especially because of its unique perspective. The author of the book literally invades their lives, doing everything but move in with them. He learns about their habits, their wants, their needs (the few there are), and on days when he can't visit them, gets a full account of what happened. He kept up a relay of e-mails with both boys (some of which are showcased throughout the book), phoned them quite often and found out all the details he possibly could concerning their lives. He didn't take on the traditional role of just viewing the two of them, but takes an active part in their lives, in some cases helping them out in a time of financial need, or help in an unknown situation. He becomes part of their family. But, the book also is rich in its underlying themes. Reading between the lines, it's really book about the troubles geeks everywhere suffer: being excommunicated from the area around you and being spit on by society. These appear everywhere from a small section of the book written during the time of the Columbine attacks to the sourness toward society felt by the two boys. I found the book very interesting. It shows the reader how technologically adept people are excluded in institutions such as, say, high schools. It shows the odd and fantastic ways a person can develop after being tormented to a great extent. As much as I did enjoy reading this book, I felt the ending came a bit fast. The book moved off in the tangent of getting Jesse into college, more specifically, the very selective University of Chicago, but once they find out whether he made it in (I won't spoil the ending and say if he does or doesn't), the book begins to drop from it's previous level of detail given and the book slows down and wraps up. I think that had the author put the same amount of detail into the end of the book as in the rest of it, it would've made the book flow to the conclusion in a better manner. But this is only a minor flaw. Overall, I'd give this book 4 1/2 - 5 out of 5 stars. I've read very few books in my lifetime that were so enthralling and were such pageturners.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Here is acres of white fenced in property, thick tall grass grows here with the occasional pond. Here, wild herds of horses roam. Though really, they aren't considered "wild" anymore since they are enclosed. But they do sleep out here and get their own food, not brushed or treated lie the horses that sleep in the stalls.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
A fun filled book good for all ages. A very easy read and leaves you wanting more and more!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is known for catching your attention from the beginning and holding it in place.This book is emotional and funny in all the right places.This book is great.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book was a book that i picked up just to see if it was any good i never expected to like it but it gave me another veiw of the world complety different then mine
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book changed my entire outlook on being a young geek, or as some say a 'geek in the making' jesse and eric are two brave boys trying to make it big in the world, trying to make it to college, even though it wasn't 'in the cards' and jesse would put it. when the two find out that geeks can pretty much get a job anywhere, they get the courage to move to chicago into a small little apartment... i'll leave the rest for you to read. and please do -liz age:12
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jon Katz is a terrific writer. I enjoyed learning about the world of computers and geek kids in GEEKS. I think that this book offers super insight into kids, and it was an all around interesting and fun read at the same time. Good book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you're a geek, or you know of a geek and want to understand them better, this is the book to read. Amazing, touching, and interesting. This is a wonderful book. I read it in one sitting (big-time page turner). It's going onto my shelf next to Stranger in a Strange Land (The other key book to understanding geeks).
Guest More than 1 year ago
For those of us who have no understanding of those who eat, live and breathe on the internet, Geeks is the open door in describing a new generation obsessed and impacted by this wonderful technology. Jon Katz chronicles the story of two young men in 'nowheresville' whose lives are dominated by a modem, keyboard and monitor. On encountering these young men our author brings to them other alternatives that their compuuter skills can offer beyond their small town. They take up the challenge and we view them as they make their journey from a limited environment to a place which offers them untold possibilities. Whether or not to take advantage of these possibilities or remain in their cyber world is the challenge that the boys face. The question is can they meet the challenge? I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Geeks. It was a heart warming, informative story of a world and group that is unfamiliar to most people. It moved beyond the stereotype of Geeks being little more than computer obsessed young people. Geeks are given a human face of young people facing the pains of growing up. Rejection and the pain that it causes these young people are areas in which we find invisible. Considered as outcasts by their peers and potential lunatics by adults, Geeks are quick to withdraw into their cyberworld. Katz deals with this issue and many others that portray Geeks in a negative light. This is a must read book for understanding those who are being nurtured in this new technology.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is like everything else out there. It has the usual plot of every other book, with fighting and everything. Don't waste your time or money by getting it bevause, as I mentioned, "It is a book LIKE every other!"
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a good book if you're a geek, just like you wouldn't read a romance book if you were a hardcore goth, don't read this book unless you consider yourself a geek or if you have an open mind. Now, with that said, I want to tell everyone that this is one of the best books I've read in a while. If you're a geek that is feeling down, read this book. It might not make your life perfect and happy, but it will at least make it bearable.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would suggest reading this if you really like reading about geeks. These boys, who really know the Net, find out money is to be made, and search for jobs and a college in Chicago... To me it was boring. Their life seemed so dull, and their problem was boring.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book might even deserve six stars, it is that rich in content and in humanity. This book will interest computer buffs, University of Chicago buffs, and people who have driven through small hamlets in the West (or elswhere) and asked themselves, 'Who could possibly bear to live in this place, and why?' If you want to take up a dialog with the author, he supplies his e-mail address for the purpose. Great non-fiction writing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book hits home with the hard life for a geek. Chapter 10 is very intresting and covers a very important time, but you have to read to find out what it is. Katz new exactly how to document the story about Jesse and Eric so that you would feel almost like you were there. This book is very good motivation for geeks and those who just are not sure where they belong. I loved every minute of this book, and I am sure anyone who reads it will.