BOOK REVIEW by Nell Farrell
This book will make you wish you'd paid your dues while there was still time. Like learning a foreign language or musical instrument, becoming a geek is best done in the formative years, well, the anti-formative years: adolescence. The very idea that this would be a desirable goal shows that a quick reshuffling of the social hierarchy has occurred. I missed the very possibility of becoming this new kind of geek by just half a generation. And the difference between the traditional geek and the now self-proclaimed, indispensable-to-the-"suits," cutting-edge techno geek is absolute.
The reasons why, on the other hand, are the same as they always were. Alienation. Otherness. Escape. There are moments when you will cringe with trepidation or else with sympathy for them and for us. Because what Jon Katz is chronicling in his book Geeks are the internal workings of the geeks themselves, not their machines. If you are reading this review, if you pick up the book, you are probably a sympathizer. In which case, beware; Geeks may bring up painful high school memories and it may make you mad. Mad at a society that literally and in all senses of the word tortures those, especially the young, who don't want to or cant conform, often meaning those who are smart, creative, provocative, and inquisitive. And as one geek's mom e-mailed to the author after the Columbine tragedy in Littleton, Colorado (http://archive.salon.com/special/littleton/), "I would like to see any adult report for work and be taunted, humiliated, harassed, and degraded every single day without going stark, raving mad." (page 172) And the trepidation? Katz blows away any beliefs you may have about violence being a direct product of video games and the Net, but he is frank about the negatives of what it means to be a geek. (I use the term here in its new definition, which Katz describes as "A member of the new cultural elite . Now running the systems that run the world.") People often create an alternate online life if their incarnate life is only providing them with hurt and bitterness. And the dues are, in my estimation, high: a majority of waking hours spent in front of (or in?) the computer. The cause and effect are lack of face-to-face human interaction, world experience, physicality. And what does that lifestyle do to society, to those individuals, and to the information have-nots?
Jon Katz became interested in investigating the cultural phenomenon of what he calls Geek Ascension, and began communicating via e-mail with many people who identify themselves as such. And that's how he met Jesse Daily.
"He was a working-class geek who had done almost everything it was possible to do to and with a computer, and who'd graduated from high school a year earlier, Jesse wrote. He was working unenthusiastically but diligently in a small computer shop in dreary Caldwell [Idaho]. He shared an apartment with a classmate and fellow Geek Club alumnus, Eric Twilegar, who had a different kind of dead-end job: selling computers at Office Max in nearby Nampa. They spent most of their lives online, Jesse said, gaming, trawling for music, downloading free software." (page xli)
Thus began what turns into a very personal, in fact endearing, relationship between the author and his "subject." Katz visits the guys in Idaho, hangs out in their apartment (cave), observes their days and lives. He is unable to keep his journalistic distance, however, and begins to guide them in making changes in their lives. Although at first this seems like an infraction on Katz' part, he is up-front with the reader about his rather fairy godfather-like hand in Jesse and Eric's subsequent journey to Chicago and role in their struggle to get into college.
Geeks reads like a novel, or even a diaryI devoured it in a few evenings. There are moments when it is sentimental, figuring Jesse as a "wolf child" in need of saving. At times it veers off into stories apart from the theme, of the college admissions rigmarole for instance. Katz devotes a section of the book to the aftermath of Columbine, a trauma for countless kids all over the country who were persecuted in the resulting media-driven witch huntthose who wear black, game, are social outsiders, etcand a turning point in the group consciousness of geeks. It's a tangent, but again the author's personable presence both in his narrative and in his own actions carries it off (he communicated with thousands of kids as a result of his writing and speaking out for a soul search of the society-deep motivations behind the incident). These deviations, however, somewhat undermine the theoretical aims of the book. If this was to be a chronicle and exploration of the hows and whys of a specific cultural byproduct of US society, I wanted more answers, indeed more questions, about the nature and implications of a life dominated by technology. But what Katz does achieve is a delicate personal story in the face of a tsunami-like cultural paradigm-shift.
If you have a comment to make about this book, it will take you about five minutes to find Jon Katz e-mail and start up a personal correspondence with him. I was shocked by this discovery. How simple. How revolutionary. Society knows that we are teetering on the edge of a new universe, but no one yet knows how big or small it really is. We get turned around by our old-fashioned legal structure, our general fear of change, our apathy. We are left behind by the rapid multitude of changes. See what Shawn Fanning did with his website Napster. And all the hackers out there who work twenty-four hours a day undermining The System and creating a new one. Its exciting. But until we work out the snarls that our geeks are creatingor rather, understand them as the complicated, ever-changing structures that they arewe as a society will continue to be afraid of them, and they will continue to work in a world apart.
This book is about paradoxes. Simultaneous connection and removal. Alienation and community. Inclusion and exclusion. I found myself cheering Jesse and Eric on in their quest to succeed in this life that they have in many ways chosen, knowing it is different and embracing that. I found myself lauding and a bit envious of their creed: an inexhaustible and completely self-driven curiosity and desire to learn and create (how often do you see that in mainstream US culture?), belief in self-reliance and the individual, the building of a meritocracy, and a hard-won "open invitation to the greatest party in the world" (page xix) the Internet. At the same time that the Internet is billed as the most exciting and possibility-laden invention of all time, the fact of the matter is that in it these kids are finding a badly needed safety net. It's fabulous that they have found, or created, anythinghence the subtitle of the bookbut the need for it comes from nothing positive. And in order to keep up their knowledge and involvement, they have to forego smelling the roses, literally. But this group of hunched over, anti-society techies is also well-read and intellectually engaged. Geeks doesn't pass judgement on this lifestyle; the subtext is 100 percent supportive, while at the same time the story line is one of the need and achievement of expansion. If it didn't quiet my reservations, this book does make clear that the term "real life" is not the opposite of "life on the screen," and for the blur of the line between them, one cannot decry the validity of either. It will be Jesse who figures out how to mesh the two.
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