The Lost Boys, the Internet, and Jon Katz: Geeks

You know the ones. They are the kids who got their books stolen and their lockers vandalized. They are the ones who didn’t go to the Prom, or who showed up stag … uncomfortable and obviously not from choice. They were the outcasts that neither team wanted to pick. Dweeb, nerd, geek, freak. Maybe you were one of them, or maybe you were the reason they hated school. Either way, reading Geeks will be an educational experience.

Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet out of Idaho is media critic and journalist Jon Katz’s third work of nonfiction. Although the summary makes it sounds as though this is a story exclusively about Jesse and Eric, the aforementioned Lost Boys, Geeks is actually as much a voyage of discovery for Katz as it is for the two teenagers. A middle-aged, middle-class father and professional writer, Katz’s world is as far removed from that of his subjects as one could imagine.

At least in some respects. As he points out time and again, his own problems with authority have often made his road a little rockier, getting him kicked out of two universities and exacerbating problems in the workplace.

What is a geek? We’ve all used the word: jokingly, tauntingly, or (probably rarely) even respectfully. The exact definition of geekiness is a central concept in Geeks, not surprisingly, and the consensus is somewhat vague. According to Katz, “if you feel like a geek, you are one.” Not a terribly helpful explanation, until he expands on the theme:

“You are online a good part of the time. … You’re a fan of The Simpsons and The Matrix. You saw Phantom Menace opening weekend despite the hype and despite Jar Jar. … You don’t like being told what to do … Life began for you when you got out of high school, which, more likely than not, was a profoundly painful experience.”

Louis Rossetto, founder of Wired magazine and a former employer of Katz’s, defines geekdom more loosely.

“’There are music geeks and dance geeks. Geekdom is evolving. Anybody who is obsessed with a topic and becomes completely one with it–whether it’s computers, music or art–geeks come into that. Geeks is about technology but mostly, it’s about brains, and about being resented for being smart.’”

There, in a nutshell, is the essence of Geeks.

The book is as much a manifesto of Katz’s new-found insight into the world of the geek as it is a story. Through the adventures of Jesse and Eric, two real-life characters from Middle-of-Nowhere, Idaho, he explores the ways in which the world is changing as technology becomes a bigger and bigger part of everyday life, and how this change affects the social outcasts and misfits who have been traditionally marginalized. Ten or fifteen years ago, Katz explains, these would have been the kids who knew how to run the film projector—the only ones in the school who could fix the film if it broke and get the tape rolling again. Since there wasn’t much call for that sort of work, they were at the bottom of the educational totem pole: bullied, ridiculed, and snubbed. Today, these are the only kids who can fix the network or provide tech support for the school, and their power is staggering.

Geeks may be coming into their own in the Electronic Age, but news travels slowly in schools and the word still hasn’t spread that geeks are people who should be respected and admired. Jesse explains the isolation and daily rejection that typified high school for him and others like him:

“’The whole school is set up for other people—jocks and preppies, sports. You are not valued at all. You are constantly taunted, humiliated, elbowed, laughed at. The classes are boring and most of the teachers don’t care if you live or die. People hate you for having ideas, for talking about them, for being different. You are never—ever—invited to anything. High school is like a whole universe of parties, groups, activities to which you are the only person who doesn’t have the key, who never gets an invitation.’”

Don’t get the impression, though, that Geeks is some sort of melodramatic crying session about the evils of high school and the coldness of the world. This is, overall, an uplifting book, more so, perhaps, because of the contrast it draws between what has been and what can be. Jesse and Eric are sympathetic characters and their plight, stuck in dead-end jobs in a Mormon-controlled community, where staying put equals stagnation, appeals to the reader’s sense of drama. Their tale is archetypal: a classic quest in which the Holy Grail is acceptance. The story is sometimes clouded by Katz’s musings, and the suspense is occasionally rendered absurd by his attempts at wit (“There was no net beneath these kids, only the Net.” Oh, say it ain’t so!), but these flaws are not serious enough to damage the overall story.

The message? It’s a great time to be a geek.