The essence of geekdom

Can you create an accurate dissertation on nerd subculture by studying two young Idahoans? Jon Katz gives it a try in "Geeks."

Topics: Business, Books,

From age to age, the protestations of youth ring out unchanged: Nobody understands us. Society’s values are irrelevant to us. We’re different.

Each cohort brings along its own totems and fetishes — flappers with their bathtub gin and hot jazz; beatniks with their freewheeling road trips and angular, free-verse poetry; hippies with their free love and electric Kool-Aid acid tests.

The latest generation of malcontents has joined the timeless chorus of dissent with some decidedly modern accouterments, booting up their computers and flocking onto the Internet to pursue their own underground culture of Quake-style video games, rogue MP3 sites, hacking and other variations on the digital sock-hop. They have co-opted the designation “geek” — formerly an archaic pejorative for ghoulish circus performers and unsavory, un-personalitied computer addicts — to describe their own brand of freethinking, nonconformist cyber-hip. Geek chic, if you will.

In “Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho,” journalist Jon Katz shoulders the prickly mantle of geek bard/apologist and attempts to explain this newest subculture to the rest of the world.

His main conceit is tried-and-true: “Geeks” is essentially a Horatio Alger-style tale of self-improvement and upward mobility: two working-class, socially backward but technically inclined lads leverage the power of the Internet to grab the bottom rung of the infotech employment ladder and climb to higher socioeconomic ground.

At the same time, “Geeks” is an attempt to diagram the somewhat elusive essence of geekness. This is a daunting, but not impossible task; though the soul of geek is slippery to the touch, there is almost certainly a canon of core values somewhere in the restless heart of everygeek, which Katz struggles to capture.

But the book’s dual ambitions — to be at once a tender story of coming-of-age in the Age of Internet, and a general dissertation on geek culture — seem to work against each other. Katz’s attempt to explain in broad terms the geek “movement” is hindered by his primary narrative obligation, the more specific and intimate saga of his two subjects.

In arranging his investigation as he has, Katz finds himself a victim of induction; inferring the great truths of the geek nation from a sample size of two may not have been the best plan of attack. Katz’s anecdotal angle of analysis is less convincing than if it were pure ethnography. This is unfortunate; he seems eminently qualified to do one or the other.

It’s easy to see how it happened. “Geeks” began as an article for Rolling Stone, a pop-journalism foray into this latest mutation of youth culture. Journalist Katz made the trip to Caldwell, Idaho, to investigate the story of his two geek subjects, Jesse Dailey and Eric Twilegar, having made their electronic acquaintance on the Internet. “Geeks” appears to be an extension of that magazine piece, wrapped in more general peregrinations on geek life.

A good deal of the padding derives from the author’s lengthy campaign writing pieces for that rough-and-tumble, free-fire zone of geek culture, Slashdot. Many of Katz’s broader assertions on geek nature derive from the tsunamis of electronic responses to his postings on that Web site.

Somewhere in that ocean of e-mail, though, Katz seems to have gotten oversaturated by his subject. Clearly, the jacket copy of the book suggests a loss of objectivity with its definition of geek: “A member of the new cultural elite, a pop-culture-loving, techno-centered Community of Social Discontents.” Overly proud, perhaps, but defensible. But then it continues: “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 World Wide Web. Now running the systems that run the world.”

This characterization tests the limits of credibility, as well as the boundaries of reasonable self-congratulation. Last time I checked, the principal architects of the Web and Internet were not a pack of picked-on, maladjusted high school anarchists. Some of them were startlingly well-socialized, even — gasp — government employees, or tenured physicists.

Indeed, a more general difficulty with this book is that Katz’s lines around geekdom seemed to be drawn far too broadly. Geekness and geek alienation, Katz seems to suggest, are at the heart of the recent rash of high school shootings across the country. This just doesn’t have the ring of truth; it’s an awfully long way from the Columbine death squad to the keyboard of Tim Berners-Lee. Trying to connect the two is an egregious overreach, and intensifies the persistent misgivings one has about this book — namely, that geekness itself may be a concept so broad and spongy as to be useless.

The raving self esteem of the geek is one of the more interesting facets of the recent bloom of geek culture: Though the geek may be shunned — or at least held at arm’s length — by mainstream society, the geek’s technical inclinations present a lucrative overlap with the current appetites of the job market. Katz tells us what most of us already knew: the Internet has created rich employment opportunities for certain kinds of narrow, youthful obsessives; what was once mere callowness is now a career skill.

In a society where money is truth, this has created irresistible opportunities for the predictable geek refrains of, “we’re smarter than everybody else,” and “we told you so.” Much of the momentum of this “geek ascension” — as Katz dubs it — rides on the current human resource vogue for info-tech types. This has created more than a small degree of contemporary geek mania; whereas the computer nerds of yesteryear were manageably insecure, today’s geeks are flush with a healthy sense of entitlement, and seem quite pleased to throw their weight around when the occasion presents.

Despite the hyperbole and conflicting motives, I’m inclined to applaud Katz’s effort in “Geeks.” In attempting to shine a light on geek culture, he’s taken on a difficult task, particularly in consideration of the petulant resistance of his subjects to classification or characterization of any kind. After watching from the sidelines the merciless online thrashings — when not outright abuse — rained upon him by his Slashdot audience, I often wondered why he lingered so long in the line of fire. Slashdot, with its uncontrolled content and participants’ poor impulse control, remains Internet culture’s answer to “Lord of the Flies.” Clearly, I thought, Katz offered more than this audience deserved. If, in “Geeks,” he hasn’t managed to completely encircle his topic, at least he deserves a medal for valor. And “Geeks” is, for all its warts, several degrees more insightful and entertaining than many of the simpering techie odes being written these days.

But there is one flaw in the book I can’t overlook: the author’s astounding oversight of the real story of “Geeks.” The tale suggested by the book’s subtitle — and the story Katz insists he’s telling — is of two teenage no-hopers who absorb the geek credo, meet the Net, and make a better life: Internet as a new meritocracy and conduit to opportunity.

I just don’t buy it. The book I read had a completely different story, one in which the teens’ principle access to opportunity is not the Net, but Katz, who catalyzes most all Jesse’s and Eric’s good fortune: By making them aware of life — and job opportunities — outside rural Idaho; by making minor celebrities of them in Rolling Stone; by arranging for a small loan to cover housing costs; by encouraging them to cultivate relationships with — drum roll — significant others; by coaching one of them through his application to an elite university, even personally pleading the youngster’s case to the dean.

Katz is cheerleader, parent and mentor, and has some marvelous things to show for it: an engaging story of salvaged potential, and the personal satisfaction of doing something nice for someone else (even if he did get a book deal out of it). But by putting himself so prominently within the frame of the picture, Katz has introduced a kind of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty effect: his influence makes it impossible to take a true measure of his subject.

Although his own object lesson is laid upon the pages as bluntly as could possibly be, Katz seems blithely unaware throughout the book. Leveraging his position and connections as a notable journalist on his subjects’ behalf, he unwittingly demonstrates the very kind of social capital that makes the world go ’round, and that geeks in general lack — and that they’re unlikely to accumulate in Internet chat rooms, news groups and MUDs.

Which, for a less geekly reader, is unforgivably frustrating. Ultimately, “Geeks” is not a story about the Internet or computers or techies. It is a story about personal bonds, optimism, access to opportunity and the courage to dream — with a little help from a mentor. How many other geeks must there be, languishing in sad, disadvantaged little burgs with no Katz to come to town and pull them up? Will their techie tinkerings and an ISDN lines alone be sufficient to lead them to $50,000-a-year IT jobs, too? Despite the techno-optimistic spin of “Geeks,” the book’s unintentional subtext seems to argue firmly against it: Compassion and goodwill cannot be automated, and must be delivered in the flesh.

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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