red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen

 

 

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

Jon Katz
New York: Villard/Random House ©2000

 

In cyber-speak, a year can be as many as three lifetimes. If two years or more have passed since something was written, many "in the know" would consider it hopelessly out of date. And some of it may be. But not this little book. Although the dot-com bubble burst shortly after Geeks was published, our world is now computerized for good (or ill) and technology is part of everything. We ignore or dismiss it at our peril. And if you think that these machines run themselves, the author shows us the humanity behind the hardware, the wizards of Oz who actually know what's going on behind the curtain.

Computers and technology aren't the only things we need to look at differently. The new hardware demanded software and the development of both created a new culture, one which is still evolving, one which actually inverts traditional "insiders" and "outsiders" — and neither group is coping all that well with the growing pains.

In Geeks, Jon Katz shows us how two traditional outsiders — high school boys who aren't on the football team, are bored silly with typical classroom regurgitation, and are already too eclectic for standardized tests — inadvertently become the new insiders (of a sort), those who understand computers, software, and the power that comes with knowing how to manipulate programming code. Such are the folks who build the monster computing machines that can dismantle corporate firewalls and wander at will through networks large and small.

Katz, a former CBS-TV producer and media critic for Rolling Stone, evolved into writing about computer technology before most folks knew it existed. He "went Hollywood" (wrote for Wired magazine in its early phase), went online (wrote for the early hotWired site and maintains a site at slashdot.org), and inadvertently, became part of the "geek empire." In Geeks, Katz starts off with a flight through the early stages of the Internet and an instructive note on evolution of the term geek from negative to positive.

Negative, c. 1914: "a person often of an intellectual bent who is disapproved of" or "a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake."

Positive, c. 1999: "a member of the new cultural elite, a pop-culture-loving, techno-centered Community of Social Discontents. Most geeks rose above a suffocatingly unimaginative educational system, where they were surrounded by obnoxious social values and hostile peers, to build the freest and most inventive culture on the planet: the Internet and the World Wide Web. Now running the systems that run the world. Tendency toward braininess and individuality, traits that often trigger resentment, isolation, or exclusion. Identifiable by a singular obsessiveness about the things they love, both work and play, and a well-honed sense of bitter, even savage, outsider humor. Universally suspicious of authority. In this era, the Geek Ascension, a positive, even envied term. Definitions involving chicken heads no longer apply."

Within Katz's 1999 description live the key elements that demonstrate why it's important to learn something about technology and the people who make it work. "Now running the systems that run the world. Tendency toward braininess and individuality. Universally suspicious of authority." Think you know this world? Think again — and read as much as you can get your hands on.

From the email responses to his on-line "geek columns," Katz began corresponding with a young fellow just out of high school, who'd encountered computers through a "Geek Club that a sympathetic teacher had founded at [the] rural [Idaho] school" he attended. There, the young man discovered Katz' columns on-line and was surprised to find "his own experience of geekhood was so widespread, even universal." Their correspondence forms the backbone of the book as Katz sees the promise in this youngster and his classmate/roommate, encouraging them to give the 'regular' world a try.

But Geeks is not a Cinderella story and the main characters don't all end up with the glass slipper. Katz's writing is true to the struggle of his subjects, even to the point of quoting strident email exchanges and his own heart-wrenching decisions as he gets involved with the lives of these young men and empathizes with their alienation. An email Katz received in response to his column about the shootings at Columbine High School makes the point:

"My seventeen-year-old son handed me a printout of your Littleton article. No one seems to think that peer abuse is real or damaging. I would like to see any adult report for work and be taunted, humiliated, harassed, and degraded every single day without going stark, raving mad. Human beings are not wired for abuse."

Katz also takes on the American system of education as he does his best to get his protagonists to apply for college — not an easy sell, given their alienating experience with school. "Kids raised in interactive environments — with zappers, Nintendos, computers, sophisticated games — often struggle in environments where adults stand for hours droning at them. Their digital world is much more vital, colorful, and engaging than their educational one." Katz's recommendation? "It's the responsibility of the schools to create more challenging and interactive environments for its [sic] students — a benefit for all younger people who need to learn how to analyze, how to question, how to reach decisions, not just how to take notes and then check the right boxes on the midterm."

Katz acknowledges that "people in the mainstream, non-geek culture are right to be worried about Jesse [one of the books main characters] and his generation. Fond as I am of many of them, geeks are often profoundly alienated from many of the elemental responsibilities, institutions, and traditions of American life. [They are] lost to the press, deeply suspicious of business, [but] next to the Net, pop culture is their ideology and their common language. It may be one of the few reliable ways left for mainstream society to reach an elite that's too skeptical and wary to domesticate, but too smart and creative to write off."

 

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