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Digital Redemption

Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho

During the weeks of media-stoked paranoia after the Columbine High School massacre, writer Jon Katz became a conduit for thousands of outcast teens who were suddenly singled out as potential sociopaths simply because of their fondness for the Internet, dark clothing or fantasy video games. Katz’s columns at www.Slashdot.org didn’t defend the killings, but they did explore the special hell endured by high-school geeks at the hands of taunting peers and suspicious adults, and they generated megabytes of e-mail from alienated kids and concerned teachers and parents.

The timing of the massacre and the outpouring around Katz’s columns were oddly appropriate, since Katz had just published a Rolling Stone article about Jesse Dailey and Eric Twilegar, two “Pissed-off, Castoff Nineteen-Year-Olds” who “Escaped a Seven-Dollar-an-Hour Future in Dead-End Idaho and Rode the Internet out of Town.” The heartbreak of Columbine made Jesse and Eric’s escape seem all the more providential, and created a compelling moral subtext for Katz’s book Geeks, a greatly expanded version of the magazine article.

Geeks is technology journalism with a highly personal twist, making it one of the rare books I’ve read for this column that stayed in my thoughts for weeks. Katz, who is in his 50s, reveals himself as a former “lost boy,” unable to cope with authority and destined early on to fail in a string of schools and jobs. He sees some of himself in Jesse and Eric, with one big difference: These boys were born into the Internet age. Despite their broken families, hermitlike social lives and (in Jesse’s case) involvement with gangs and drugs, the two became geeks par excellence, teaching themselves how to disassemble hard drives, debug operating
systems, dispatch their foes at Quake and use the Net to find jobs and an apartment half a continent away. Jesse, academically underqualified but passionate and thoughtful, argues his way into the University of Chicago, while the brooding loner Eric lands a high-paying technical support job at Andersen Consulting.

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These are the days of the Geek Ascension, Katz is persuaded: “The outcasts are coming inside.After a long and bitter persecution, they are taking their rightful place at the center of society-valuable, in touch with one another, even appreciated.” One only has to visit Silicon Valley to see how right he is. The geeks who drive every startup and run every IT department are being rewarded with status, stock options and even envy. The Internet hasn’t become a lifeline to every bright, lonely, angry kid; it certainly didn’t help Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. But Katz’s poignant book reminds us what the computer revolution is supposed to be about.

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