Weekend Reading—Geeks

Jon Katz offers up the tale of two poor but computer-savvy teens as they leave their small town behind in search of the digital-age version of the American Dream.

By Thomas Pack

By Jon Katz
Villard Books
Published February 2000
256 pp., hardcover
ISBN: 0-375-50298-X
Price: $16.05 at .
The story that unfolds in the nonfiction Geeks is, as author Jon Katz notes, a traditional and American tale, but at the same time, it’s one that could occur only during the digital age: “Two unattached, semidestitute kids were planning to head cross-country, to leave their dreary lives behind and make their fortunes in a strange, huge, vastly more complex place than either had ever seen. But instead of hopping a freight, it was the Internet they’d ride out of town....”

The town is tiny Caldwell, ID. The kids are 19-year-old Jesse and Eric, who make a meager living fixing and selling computers. Their families provide little financial and emotional support. No one expects the boys to go to college. Neither of them has much of a social life—nor any other kind of life—besides a digital one on the Internet, where they spend most of their time playing Quake II and downloading music.

But where other people might see boys goofing off, Katz sees an impressive display of a new skill. He watches Jesse and notes that “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.”

Searching for a better life
After Katz mentions that the boys’ computer skills might be worth more in parts of the country where IT jobs are plentiful, Jesse and Eric move to the Windy City. They consult the Internet to help plan the trip but end up in a neighborhood of older people that leaves them almost as isolated as they were in Idaho.

The roommates find IT support jobs, however, and soon begin to enjoy decent incomes. Still, they spend most of their time online and long for more well-rounded lives—ones including social interaction, girlfriends, and intellectual stimulation. Jesse decides he could find many of those things at the University of Chicago. But will the institution accept him and his mediocre transcripts when the admissions office is already overflowing with applications and turning away star students from across the country?

The outsiders
The theme of the outsider runs throughout Geeks. “Where does it begin,” Katz asks, “this sense of being the Other? It can come early on, when you find yourself alone in your childhood bedroom, raising tropical fish, composing a poem, writing code, meeting friends mostly online, playing by yourself.”

Katz points out that even though employment opportunities for outsiders are better than they have been at any other time in history, geeks still are not accepted in the mainstream: “A society that desperately needs geeks, does not have to like them. In fact geeks and their handiwork generate considerable wariness and mistrust.”

So the irony is that although geeks have seen their status and their salaries rise, they still are misunderstood by most people, and in many important ways, they remain as alienated as ever.

The recommendation
Katz’s book puts a human face on technology. It’s a fascinating chronicle of not only the determination of two young men to overcome obstacles and improve their lives but also the struggles and the victories of an entire American subculture. I highly recommend Geeks for your weekend reading.

Thomas Pack is a freelance technology writer.
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