How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet out of Idaho
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About the author
Jon Katz is the author of Running to the Mountain and Virtuous Reality, as well as six novels. He has written for Wired, New York, GQ, Hotwired, and the New York Times and was twice nominated for the National Magazine Award for articles in Rolling Stone. He writes for Slashdot.org and the Freedom Forum's website "Free!" on the Web. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife, Paula Span. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jesse and Eric were roommates in the tiny town of Caldwell, Idaho, nineteen-year-old working class kids eking out a living with their seven-dollar-an-hour jobs selling and fixing computers. College was never in the cards. Their families had been torn apart by divorce and hard times, separation and illness. They had almost no social lives, and little to look forward to. They spent every spare cent on their computers, and every spare moment on-line.
Jesse and Eric were proud geeks— suspicious or disdainful of authority figures, proud of their status as outsiders, fervent in their belief in the positive power of technology. They'd been outsiders as long as they could remember, living far from the mainstream of school or town life. Nobody spoke for them, they were on nobody's social or political agenda.
Geeks is the story of how Jesse and Eric—and others like them—used technology to try and change their lives and alter their destiny. They rode the Internet out of Idaho to Chicago, a city they had ever set foot in, seeking the American Dream, a better life. Geeks describes this brave and difficult journey, as two self-described social misfits use the resources of the Internet to try to construct a new future for themselves, escape the boundaries of their dead-end lives, and find a community they could belong to.
Geeks explores a growing subculture about which many of us know little, a world with its own language, traditions, and taboos. In telling the stories of Jesse, Eric, and others like them, Geeks is a story about the very human face of technology.
From: Jesse Dailey
To: Jon Katz
When I was looking on the Tribune, there were 433 jobs under ComputerInfo Systems, under every other category I looked in there was an average of 15-20.... A total of about 40% computers. The problem now isn't finding a place in which those jobs are in demand, because like you say ... they are everywhere. The problem is finding a place that wants to hire someone like me. In a Human Resources kinda way I'm defined as 19 w one year of experience.... In reality, I am an ageless geek, with years of personal experience, a fiercely aggressive intelligence coupled with geek wit, and the education of the best online material in the world. Aarrgghh!! too much stress being a geek on the move.:)
Jesse and Eric lived in a cave-an airless two-bedroom apartment in a dank stucco-and-brick complex on the outskirts of Caldwell. Two doors down, chickens paraded around the street.
The apartment itself was dominated by two computers that sat across from the front door like twin shrines. Everything else-the piles of dirty laundry, the opened Doritos bags, the empty cans of generic soda pop, two ratty old chairs, and a moldering beanbag chair-was dispensable, an afterthought, props.
Jesse's computer was a Pentium 11 300, Asus P2B (Intel BX chipset) motherboard; a Matrix Milleniurn II AGP; 160 MB SDRAM with a 15.5 GB total hard-drive space; a 4X CD-recorder; 24X CD-ROM; a 17-inch Micron monitor. Plus a scanner and printer. A well-thumbed paperback-Katherine Dunn's novel Geek Love-served as his mousepad.
Eric's computer: an AMD K-6 233 with a generic motherboard; an S3 video card, a 15-inch monitor; a 2.5 GB hard drive with 36 MB SDRAM. Jesse wangled the parts for both from work.
They stashed their bikes and then Jesse blasted in through the door, which was always left open since he can never hang on to keys, and went right to his PC, which was always on. He yelled a question to Eric about the new operating system. "We change them like cartons of milk," he explained. At the moment, he had NT 5, NT 4, Work Station, Windows 98, and he and Eric had begun fooling around with Linux, the complex, open-source software system rapidly spreading across the world.
Before settling in at his own rig, Eric grabbed a swig of milk from a carton in the refrigerator, taking a good whiff first. Meals usually consisted of a daily fast-food stop at lunchtime; everything else was more or less on the fly. There didn't seem to be any edible food in the refrigerator, apart from a slightly discolored hunk of cheddar cheese.
Jesse opened his MP3 playlist (MP3 is a wildly popular format for storing music on computer hard drives; on the Net, songs get traded like baseball cards) and pulled down five or six tracks-Alanis Morissette, John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton, Ani DiFranco. He turned on his Web browser, checked his e-mail, opened ICQ chat (an also-rapidly growing global messaging and chat system) looking for messages from Sam Hunter, fellow Geek Club alumnus, or his mother or sisters.
He and Eric networked their computers for a few quick rounds of Quake 11. Racing down hallways and passages on the screen, picking up ammo and medical supplies, acquiring ever bigger guns and Wasters, the two kept up their techno-patter about the graphics, speed, and performance of their computers. "My hard drive is grungy," Eric complained. Jesse gunned Eric down three times in a row, then yelped, "Shit, I'm dead." A laser burst of bullets splattered blood all over the dungeonlike floor.
Meanwhile, the two of them continued to chat with me over their shoulders, pausing every now and then to kill or be killed. All the while, Jesse listened to music, and answered ICQ messages. Somebody called and asked about ordering an ID card, the cottage industry that at fifty bucks a pop will help underwrite their contemplated move to Chicago. Somebody e-mailed a few additional MP3s; somebody else sent software and upgrades for Quake and Doom. I was dizzied and distracted by all the activity; they were completely in their element.
The game was still under way when Eric moved over to the scanner and printer and printed out something semi-official-looking.
"Too dark," was Jesse's assessment, without seeming to look away from the screen. So Eric went back to his computer and called up a graphic program. Jesse took another phone call, still playing Quake, as Joni Mitchell gave way to Jane's Addiction, then the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
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. Anyone could have come into the apartment and carted away everything in it, except for the computer, and Jesse wouldn't have noticed or perhaps cared that much. He was playing, working, networking, visiting, strategizing-all without skipping a function, getting confused, or stopping to think.
It was evidently second nature by now, which explained why he looked as if he hadn't been out in the sun for years. It was more or less true: A couple of weeks earlier, he'd gone hiking along the Idaho River on a bright day and landed in the hospital emergency room with his arms and legs severely sunburned.
He carried himself like someone who expected to get screwed, who would have to fend for himself when that happened, and who was almost never surprised when it did. Trouble, Jesse often declared, was the building block of character. Without the former, you didn't get the latter.
In the press
Praise for A Dog Year
“A great book that dog lovers will definitely enjoy.”
“The story line of Katz’s latest book can be summed up very simply–two dogs die and two new ones join the family
but its charm comes from an intricate blend of witty anecdote and touching reflection.”
“A surfeit of tail-wagging, face-licking love.”
Praise for Running to the Mountain
“A wonderful book — personal, moving, funny… to call a book a perfect gift always seems slightly patronizing, but I already have a long list of names — yes aging baby boomers — I’m intending to give Running to the Mountain.”
“A funny, moving, and triumphant voyage of the soul… Katz finds faith not by running away, but by realizing that spiritual sustenance comes from within — from the decency with which we handle our roles as spouses, parents, and friends.”
“You’ll love this book…. In the end, we admire Katz, not for the spiritual grace that he seeks but for the grace he finds: the grace of fatherhood, husbandhood, of tending fully to those who depend on him to be a source of stability in their world.”
“Candid and inspiring… Katz has much to be proud of: he faced himself, he rearranged himself, and he came back to write movingly of the experience.”
–Washington Post Book World
Praise for Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho
“In Geeks, Katz displays a deft reporter’s touch and shows us the geek truth, rather than simply telling us about it…. Too often, writing about the on-line world lacks emotional punch, but Katz’s obvious love for his ‘lost boys’ gives his narrative a rich taste.”
-New York Times Book Review
“Geeks is a story of triumph, friendship, love, and above all, about being human and reaching for dreams in a hard-wired world.”
“A touching page-turner about social outcasts using technology to wriggle free of dead-end lives.”
-U.S. News & World Report
“An uplifting and hugely compassionate book.”