Jon Katz’s latest book goes a long way to explain the recently-emerged member of society known as the geek by following two recent high school graduates, Jesse and Eric, out of the hinterlands of Idaho and into the corporate world of Chicago. Through the trials of the two boys, Katz inadvertently finds himself in the middle of the geeks’ story.
The recent rise and rise of the Geek has been documented in several different ways. Witness “Pirates of Silicon Valley,” Robert X. Cringely’s columns and shows, the success of Wired (and Slashdot, for that matter) and — lest we forget — the reign of Bill Gates, to name a few examples. No one has delved so deep thus far into the Geek realm as Slashdot‘s own resident journailst/author Jon Katz.
Straight outta Idaho, Geeks (Bantam Doubleday) tells the story of Jesse Dailey and Eric Twilegar, two textbook examples of the modern geek. They both work in small retail outlets in nearby microtowns (one in a computer repair shop the other in an Office Max — the closest thing to geek-friendly jobs in the area), are ostracized by the local Mormon moral majority, spend most of their time online and are complete outcasts for the most part. If it wasn’t for one hip teacher who sees the obvious unharnessed potential of these two and their few friends and starts a Geek Club, Jesse and Eric might end up like so many other geeks: completely overlooked and unrecognized for their talents. By putting added emphasis on this aspect of the story, Katz brings to light the gaping hole in our education system through which most geeks fall. And as he showed in spades with his “Hellmouth” columns, lately that hole has been of the “black hole” variety (see also the countless email messages from the Hellmouth included in Geeks).
On the flipside, Jesse and Eric are (like most other geeks) multitasking geniuses. They read, listen to music, chat with friends online, talk on the phone, download files, trade MP3s, as well as eat and drink, all while sitting in front of their computers. A dizzying deluge of information screaming hither and thither on the screen, over the phone lines, through the modem and through the air. Extreme concentration and juggling skills as such are typically rewarded highly when they are known about.
So, post-Hellmouth, Jesse and Eric realize that they can go anywhere and that anywhere else would probably be better. With minor guidance from Katz, the boys end up in Chicago. Jon Katz draws lines and crosses them throughout the book. He wants to document the story, but at the same time he identifies very strongly with Jesse and Eric. He doesn’t want to see them fail despite their high hopes and thin ropes, and as he says, “the Net is their only net.” In addition to their tribulations at school, Jesse and Eric have minimal home lives and suffer a severe lack of family involvement in their decisions. As he documents their move from small town to big city, Katz struggles to stay out of the story. But he flies into Chicago to be there the day of Jesse’s first job interview and he goes to bat for both boys when it comes to their aspirations for college. Making sure there were two less geeks lost in the cracks of America became more important to Katz than the integrity of his report. A fact he openly admits repeatedly in the book.
During his following of the story of these two geeks, Katz finds that he fits the description of “geek” himself as much as either of them do. Now if only more older geeks would step up for the new generation of geeks instead of ostracizing them.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.