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.