Geek (noun) [probably from English dialect geek, geck fool, from Low German geck, from Middle Low German; First appeared 1914]: 1. a person often of an intellectual bent who is disapproved of. 2. a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake.
Computer geek n. 1. One who eats (computer) bugs for a living. One who fulfills all the dreariest negative stereotypes about hackers: an asocial, malodorous, pasty-faced monomaniac with all the personality of a cheese grater. Cannot be used by outsiders without implied insult to all hackers; compare black-on-black vs. white-on-black usage of "nigger." A computer geek may be either a fundamentally clueless individual or a proto-hacker in larval stage. Also called turbo nerd, turbo geek. See also propeller head, clustergeeking, geek out, wannabee, terminal junkie, spod, weenie. 2. Some self-described computer geeks use this term in a positive sense and protest sense (this seems to have been a post-1990 development).
-Eric S. Raymond,
The New Hacker's Dictionary, third edition
Geek: A person who, for one reason or another, is considered socially
unacceptable by the person speaking. A computer geek is someone who is
socially inept but expert with computers. As computers become more
important in the average person's life, this term becomes more often a
compliment than an insult.
Geek: Short for computer geek, an individual with a passion for computers, to the exclusion of other normal human interests. Depending on the context, it can be used in either a derogatory or affectionate manner. Basically, geek and nerd are synonymous.
Geek: Encarta Encyclopedia found no matches for: GEEK
-Microsoft Encarta Encylopedia, 1998 edition
Geek: A member of the new cultural elite, a pop-culture-loving, techno-centered Community of Social Discontents. Most geeks rose above a suffocatingly unimaginative educational system, where they were surrounded by obnoxious social values and hostile peers, to build the freest and most inventive culture on the planet: the Internet and World Wide Web. Now running the systems that run the world.
Tendency toward braininess and individuality, traits that often trigger resentment, isolation, or exclusion. Identifiable by a singular obsessiveness about the things they love, both work and play, and a well-honed sense of bitter, even savage, outsider humor. Universally suspicious of authority. In this era, the Geek Ascension, a positive, even envied term. Definitions involving chicken heads no longer apply.
Jackson Township, New York
THE GEEK ASCENSION
WHERE DOES it begin, this sense of being the Other? It can come early on, when you find yourself alone in your childhood bedroom, raising tropical fish, composing a poem, writing code, meeting friends mostly online, playing by yourself. Or in middle school, when the jocks turn on you and you pray you will get through gym class alive.
Or maybe it comes in high school, where you find yourself on the outside looking in, getting jostled in the halls, watching TV on weekends while everyone else goes to parties.
After some time, there's an accumulation of slights, hurts, realizations: You don't have a lot of friends; other kids avoid you; you're not good at sports or interested in shopping; the teachers seem to like their other students a lot more. There are few school activities you want to be part of, even if you could. The things you like aren't the same things most other people like.
The alienation is sometimes mild, sometimes savage. Sometimes it lasts a few years, sometimes a lifetime. It depends on where you live, who your parents are, whether there's a single teacher who appreciates you, whether you can cling to one or two friends, how well you can hide your brains.
Increasingly, your lifeline is technology. Computers and the amazing power they give you-to install a new operating system, to confide in like-minded allies three time zones away, to slay tormentors on the screen even if you can't do much about the ones at school-are your passion. They give you skills and competence, or distraction and escape, or direction and stature, or all of the above.
Eventually, many of the people who call themselves geeks report a coming out, not unlike coming to terms with being gay or lesbian: a moment when you realize and acknowledge who you are and who you're never going to be.
"One day in my sophomore year," a kid named Jason e-mailed me, "I was sitting in the school cafeteria watching the kids at the other tables laugh and have fun, plotting how I was going to get home early and start playing Quake. And I suddenly got it. I was a geek. I was never going to be like them. They were never going to let me in. So I came out as a geek. . . . I can't say life has been a breeze, but after that, it was okay."
Some say they get comfortable with themselves afterward; many never do. But however long it lasts, at some point somewhere, you brush against this outsiderness-among geeks, it's the one common rite of passage. A few carry the scars around with them for good. Sometimes they hurt themselves. Sometimes-rarely-they hurt other people. But if you're lucky, you move past it, perhaps to a college where Others go. You find a community, a place where you're welcome.
For the first time, you're important, vital, on the inside; a citizen of an amazing new nation. You can instantly connect with the others like you. Being smart isn't a liability; it's usually the only thing that matters.
Whether you're a programmer or Web designer or developer, an artist, help-desk geek, or tech supporter, a filmmaker or writer, you're a part of the Geek Ascension. People need you. They hire you. They can't afford to be contemptuous. Life isn't a breeze, but it sure is different. You have an open invitation to what is, at the moment, the greatest party in the world: the Internet and the World Wide Web.
THE RISE OF THE GEEKS
I CAME face to face with the Geek Ascension at an ugly suburban Chicago cable-TV studio on a bitter winter morning in 1996, toward the end of a contentious tour for my first nonfiction book.
Virtuous Reality was a collection of essays about kids, culture, violence,
and morality, a loosely focused defense of screen culture-the Net, the
Web, TV, movies-against the politicians, journalists, and academics
banging the drums, then and now, about the looming collapse of
civilization. It was a position, therefore, that had prompted weeks of media sparring with members of the so-called intelligentsia and representatives of groups that had decency in their titles. I was the degenerate, the anti-Christ, a champion of porn and perversion.
The tour was winding down, thankfully, when I arrived for this predawn breakfast show. There was hardly anyone in the building but the anchorman, a handful of cameramen, the control-room techs, a producer, my book-tour escort, and me. Outside, the wind was howling; my fingers, though I was gripping a cup of coffee, were numb.
Watching the monitor in the green room, I saw Brian, the anchor, launch into the by-now-familiar tease of the segment as the inevitably frenetic producer guided me through makeup, prepped me for about ninety seconds, hustled me into the studio.
"Here's an interesting point of view," I heard the anchor say cheerfully
just before I walked onto the set. "A former TV producer-and a father-who
says the Internet isn't a dangerous place for your kids!"
I was wearing out, worn down by weeks of arguing. I was sick of myself, of the blah-blah coming out of my interviewers' mouths and my own. I was even more sick of people like this Parents for Decency flak, on the phone from Washington, D.C., where spokesmen for decency all seem to be.
"Just last week, a nine-year-old girl was lured into a park by some pervert online and raped," she announced in professional alarm. "Is that the kind of thing Mr. Katz wants us to ignore?"
Brian appeared stunned. "That sounds awful," he said, suddenly less friendly. "What about that?"
"Brian," I snapped, "it seems so dumb for us to be sitting here in a TV studio-with all the junk that you people put on the air all day, from soap operas to freeway shootings-and have to actually argue that the Internet isn't a dangerous place. Kids are more likely to have planes fall on their heads than to get hurt on the Net."
Brian and I were both startled to hear the sound of applause coming from somewhere in the cavernous studio. Brian flushed, hesitated, then plowed on. Shocked, I looked around. Two cameramen were standing right on the studio floor clapping. So were a handful of techs inside the darkened control room, nodding at me, smiling and waving, giving me the thumbs-up, and yelping, "Yeah!" and "Awright!"
In a past life, I'd been executive producer of The CBS Morning News. I knew how CBS management-or I, for that matter-would have reacted to such an outburst. Blood would have been spilled.
In fact, Brian was livid when we went to a commercial. "The bastards, I can't believe they did that."
"Jeez," I said, still startled but pleased. "How do they get away with that? I would think they'd get fired."
"Are you kidding?" Brian muttered through gritted teeth. "We just built a new digitalized control room and automated camera system. We're still working out the bugs. How could we fire those guys? Nobody else could possibly run the damn place!"
On the way out, I stopped by the control room. Three kids were sitting at the blinking, beeping, spaceship-like console, beaming at me and high-fiving each other. They had scraggly longish hair and were wearing T-shirts-one Star Trek, one that said HACKERS DO WANT SEX! and one that really caught my attention: GEEK AND PROUD.
I made the rounds, shaking hands, collecting good wishes and slaps on the back like a candidate working the crowd. Nothing remotely like this had happened on any of my previous book tours. I liked it. "Hey thanks," I said. "I appreciate that. I hope you don't get in trouble."
The three of them snorted. "Hey, no sweat," one answered. "We're safe in
here, man. There are a hundred pretty-boy anchors they could hire. And
they change general managers every other month. But we've been here for
two years. We set this control room up. The cameras, graphics, and
commercial scripts are fully computerized, all digitalized. We worked up the programs that run the studio. We are the only irreplaceable people in the building. Welcome to the geek kingdom."
During the tour, I'd been filing daily Virtuous Reality book tour reports to Hotwired, the website I wrote for. Readers followed my travels, critiqued my press interviews, showed up at book signings, called in to chat on talk shows. So I reported my encounter with the control-room crew in a column headlined "The Rise of the Geeks." The next day, I had hundreds of e-mail messages from people all over the country, proudly claiming the name for themselves.
It was eye-opening. The definition of "geek" no longer had anything to do with biting the heads off chickens. These self-proclaimed geeks invited me to visit their offices, studios, and homes. "We run the systems that run the world," one e-mailed me from New York. "Until recently, most CEOs wouldn't have let us in the door. Now we sit next to the CEOs. We are the only people who know how the place operates, how to retrieve files, how to keep the neural systems running. We are the indispensables."
I'd been inducted, suddenly, into a previously secret society. Wherever I went-Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, radio stations in L.A. and San Francisco-these mostly young men in T-shirts, more secure and cheerful than almost everybody around them, came up and introduced themselves, patted me on the back, offered to take me out for pizza, warned me about nasty anchors and interviewers. They were all walking billboards for Star Wars, various ISPs, Beavis and Butt-Head, diverse websites and computer games.
As I learned more, I wrote several additional Hotwired columns about geekhood, and e-mail responses poured in by the metric ton. They flowed in for months. I'm still getting them.
THEIRS IS an accidental empire. Almost no one foresaw the explosion of the Internet or its mushrooming importance. "The Internet's pace of adoption eclipses all other technologies that preceded it," a U.S. Commerce Department report declared in 1998. "Radio was in existence thirty-eight years before fifty million people tuned in; TV took thirteen years to reach that benchmark. Sixteen years after the first PC [personal computer] kit came out, fifty million people were using one. Once it was opened to the general public, the Internet crossed that line in four years." Although most Americans had never even heard the term a generation ago, the United States will have more than 133 million Net users this year, according to the Computer Industry Almanac.
Historians can point to other periods of astonishing technological
upheaval-the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution-but they're hard
pressed to find a similar convergence of a particular subculture and an
explosive economic boom. Tech industries are growing so quickly that
almost anything you publish about them is instantly dated. A finding like
the American Electronics Association's 1997 estimate that the U.S.
high-tech industry employed 4.3 million workers is inaccurate as this is being written and will be more inaccurate when it's read.
But the sense of limitless prospects for geeks is confirmed by the job market itself. At the beginning of 1998, the Commerce Department reported that about 190,000 U.S. information technology jobs were going begging at any given time, and that close to 100,000 new ones would be created annually for the next decade. The three fastest-growing occupations over the next several years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics added, will be computer scientists (who can work as theorists, researchers, or inventors), computer engineers (who work with the hardware or software of systems design and development, including programming or networking), and systems analysts (who solve specific computer problems, and adapt systems to individual and or corporate needs).
Geeks, then, are literally building the new global economy, constructing and expanding the Internet and the World Wide Web as well as maintaining it. They're paid well for their skills: Starting salaries for college grads with computer degrees average $35,000 to $40,000, says the National Association of Colleges and Employers, but the demand is so intense that many geeks forego or abandon college. Elite geek-incubators like Caltech, Stanford, and MIT complain that some of their best students abandon graduate school for lucrative positions in technology industries. Top-tier recruits not only command high salaries, but the prospect of stock-option wealth before they're thirty.
A society that desperately needs geeks, however, does not have to like them. In fact geeks and their handiwork generate considerable wariness and mistrust. Historians of technology like Langdon Winner have written that throughout history, widespread unease about science and technology has amounted almost to a religious upheaval.
Notice the moral outrage present in so much contemporary media coverage and political criticism of technology. Critics lambaste overdoses of TV-watching, violent video games, and porn on the Net; they warn of online thieves, perverts, vandals, and hate-mongers; they call for V-chips, blocking and filtering software, elaborate ratings systems. They even want the Ten Commandments posted, like reassuring sprigs of wolfbane, in public schools.
If we are outraged and frightened by the spread of new technology, how are we supposed to feel about the new techno-elite busily making it all possible? "Why do I get this feeling that they-all of them, politicians, teachers, bosses-hate us more than ever?"
e-mailed Rocket Roger in the week after the Columbine High School tragedy.
Not surprisingly, geeks can harbor a xenophobic streak of their own. Geeks often see the workplace, and the world, as split into two camps-those who get it and those who don't. The latter are usually derided as clueless "suits," irritating obstacles to efficiency and technological progress. "We make the systems that the suits screw up," is how one geek described this conflict.
The suits, in turn, view geeks as antisocial, unpredictable, and difficult, though they need them too badly to do much about it. They resent the way geeks' strong bargaining power exempts them from having to mainstream, to "grow up," the way previous generations did when they entered the workforce.
Why shouldn't they have autonomy and power? geeks respond; they can be
unnervingly arrogant. Geeks know a lot of things most people don't know
and can do things most people are only beginning to understand.
Until now, nerds and geeks (and their more conventional predecessors, the engineers), marginalized as unglamorous, have never had great status or influence. But the Internet is the hottest and hippest place in American culture, and the whole notion of outsiderness has been up-ended in a world where geeks are uniquely-and often solely-qualified to operate the most complex and vital systems, and where the demand for their work will greatly exceed their ability to fulfill it for years to come.
For the first time ever, it's a great time to be a geek.
WHAT, EXACTLY, is a geek?
After years of trying to grapple with the question, I still find it largely unanswerable. Continually meeting and corresponding with geeks has made my idea broader than the stereotype of the asocial, techno-obsessed loner.
For one thing, you can hardly be a geek all by yourself. The online world is one giant community comprised of hundreds of thousands of smaller ones, all involving connections to other people. The geekiest hangouts on the Net and Web-the open source and free software movement sites-are vast, hivelike communities of worker geeks patching together cheap and efficient new software that they distribute freely and generously to one another. That's not something loners could or would do.
In fact, the word "geek" is growing so inclusive as to be practically undefinable. I've met skinny and fat geeks, awkward and charming ones, cheerful and grumpy ones-but never a dumb one.
Still, in the narrowest sense, a contemporary geek is a computer-centered
obsessive, one of the legions building the infrastructure of the Net and
its related programs and systems. Geeks are at its white-hot
Beyond them are the brainy, single-minded outsiders drawn to a wide range of creative pursuits-from raves to Japanese animation-who live beyond the contented or constrained mainstream and find passion and joy in what they do. Sometimes they feel like and call themselves geeks.
The truth is, geeks aren't like other people. They've grown up in the freest media environment ever. They talk openly about sex and politics, debate the future of technology, dump on revered leaders, challenge the existence of God, and are viscerally libertarian. They defy government, business, or any other institution to shut down their freewheeling culture.
And how could anyone? Ideas are free, literally and figuratively. Geeks download software, movies, and music without charge; they never pay for news or information; they swap and barter. Increasingly, they live in a digital world, one much more compelling than the one that has rejected or marginalized them. Being online has liberated them in stunning ways. Looks don't matter online. Neither does race, the number of degrees one has or doesn't have, or the cadence of speech. Ideas and personalities, presented in their purest sense, have a different dimension.
Geeks know-perhaps better than anyone-that computers aren't a substitute for human contact, for family and friends, for neighborhoods and restaurants and theaters. But cyberspace is a world, albeit a virtual one. Contact and community mean somewhat different things there, but they are real nonetheless.
THE ROOTS of the term are important. At the turn of the century, "geek" had a very particular meaning-geeks were the destitute nomads who bit the heads off chickens and rats at circuses and carnivals in exchange for food or a place to sleep.
For nearly seventy years, the term was unambiguously derisive, expanding to label freaks, oddballs, anyone distinctly nonconformist or strange.
But in the 1980s, a number of sometimes outcast or persecuted social groups in America-blacks, gays, women, nerds-began practicing language inversion as a self-defense measure. They adopted the most hateful words used against them as a badge of pride.
Rappers began singing about "niggas" and gay activists started calling themselves "queers." A motorcycle group called Dykes on Bikes roared proudly at the head of gay pride parades. Young women invoked "grrrl" power. The noxious terms became the coolest-a cultural trick that, for their targets, seemed to remove the words' painful sting. Similarly, as hacker and writer Eric Raymond suggests, in the nineties the word "geek" evoked newer, more positive qualities.
As the Internet began to expand beyond its early cadre of hackers, some like-minded tenants in Santa Cruz, Austin, San Francisco, and Ann Arbor began dubbing their communal homes "geek houses." Formed at a time when the wide-bandwidth phone lines necessary to explore the Net were expensive and rare, these enclaves became techno-communities, sharing sometimes pirated T-1 lines and other requirements. The bright students they attracted used technology not to isolate themselves, as media stereotypes would have it, but to make connections.
The geek houses didn't last long. Faster and cheaper modems, ISDN and T-1 lines and other useful developments for data transmission became ubiquitous, spread to offices and university campuses, and made techno-communities almost instantly obsolete.
But the term kept spreading, picked up by the smart, obsessive, intensely focused people working to build the Internet and the World Wide Web-programmers, gamers, developers, and designers-and by their consumers and allies beyond. Geek chic-black-rimmed glasses, for instance-became a fashion trend. Bill Gates was a corporate geek, a category inconceivable a decade earlier, and no one was laughing. As the Web became culturally trendy, the image of its pale and asocial founders faded. Now it's amusing to see the term "geek" springing up almost everywhere-on TV shows (you know you've arrived when a network launches a primetime series called Freaks and Geeks), in advertising, on T-shirts and baseball caps. And appropriated by people who wouldn't have given a real geek the time of day just a few years ago.
People e-mail me all the time asking if they are geeks.
In this culture, I figure people have the right to name themselves; if you feel like a geek, you are one. But there are some clues: You are online a good part of the time. You feel a personal connection with technology, less its mechanics than its applications and consequences. You're a fan of The Simpsons and The Matrix. You saw Phantom Menace opening weekend despite the hype and despite Jar Jar. You are obsessive about pop culture, which is what you talk about with your friends or coworkers every Monday.
You don't like being told what to do, authority being a force you see as not generally on your side. Life began for you when you got out of high school, which, more likely than not, was a profoundly painful experience. You didn't go to the prom, or if you did, you certainly didn't feel comfortable there. Maybe your parents helped you get through, maybe a teacher or a soulmate.
Now, you zone out on your work. You solve problems and puzzles. You love to create things just for the kick of it. Even though you're indispensable to the company that's hired you, it's almost impossible to imagine yourself running it. You may have power of your own now-a family, money-yet you see yourself as one who never quite fits in. In many ways, geekdom is a state of mind, a sense of yourself in relation to the world that's not easily rewritten.
THE UR-GEEK AND HIS TRIBE
PONDERING GEEKNESS and its meaning, I made an excursion to Berkeley last year to put the question to somebody I trusted to know: Louis Rossetto, founder of Wired magazine.
The trip was a pilgrimage and an excuse. Louis was a geek in every sense of the word as I understood it, although not without his considerable contradictions: He lived and worked outside the mainstream, eschewed suits and "suits," was short on patience and social skills but passionate about the power of digital technology to reshape the world. I had written for Louis for five happy years, until he lost control of his magazine in a bitter financial wrangle and Wired was acquired by the Condé Nast Publishing Group.
I met him in the early nineties when I was media critic for Rolling Stone and got an unexpected e-mail: Louis was coming to New York on a business trip and invited me to dinner. There was no small talk of any sort in the message, no chat, no preamble. What he sent was a long and thoughtful invitation to write for Wired-a summons, really-accompanied by a wonderful screed about the Internet blasting away corrupt Eastern media institutions and replacing them with a new culture in which nothing would be the same-not words, images, businesses, or institutions.
A few years earlier, Louis had come out of nowhere-Amsterdam, in fact-to peddle his notion for a magazine about the computer culture. In Europe, he'd published a forerunner, a magazine called Language Technology that then became Electric Word. Now he thought America was ripe for such a publication, an idea almost universally rejected until Wired eventually made its debut and hit the magazine industry like a nuke.
Our dinner, Louis proposed, would take place at a coffee shop on Eighth Avenue. This was a surprise; media moguls that I'd dined with usually preferred Orso or, if truly anxious to signal their importance, had sandwiches brought into the office. I e-mailed somebody I knew at Wired to ask what Louis was like.
"Well," my friend replied, "we just had our annual Election Day meeting in which Louis calls the whole staff together and urges us all not to vote, so that we won't be supporting a useless, outdated, two-party political system."
I fell in love.
When I bought some copies of the magazine, I was further mesmerized. The cover was a luminous orange; some strange purple graphic blotted out most of the text on the contents page; and an incomprehensible quote about the future was sprawled across a staggeringly expensive four-page color spread up front.
Everyone I knew in New York, including editors at Rolling Stone, New York, and GQ, jeered at Wired. It was ugly. It was silly. It was, well, geeky. And doomed. Computers would never grow much beyond a small group of nerds.
The middle-class, whose dollars advertisers lusted for, would never embrace computers; thus nobody would ever make money with a computer magazine. Kids would never read it. Or, only kids would read it. It was incomprehensible, indulgent crap. The Net was a fringe medium, a toy, a fad. Wired was a brutal rebuke to the ingrown, narcissistic media culture of New York, where no story could be more important or interesting than the people who covered it.
Inside Wired, the stories were text-heavy and surprising, sometimes brilliant features about the wiring of the world, sometimes rambling manifestos about how the Internet would one day transform all of civilization.
The magazine violated every publishing precept and was almost immediately ragingly successful. It launched a counterculture that elbowed the increasingly resentful rock-and-rolling baby boomers aside for good and created a parallel nation, almost entirely constructed and inhabited by the people called geeks.
Intrigued, I sat in a Greek coffee shop and watched the door for the arrival of a man who had described himself as pale, skinny, and rumpled. A half hour or so after the appointed time, a pale, skinny, and rumpled man wearing a worn black sweatshirt that said Wired in barely visible letters, with the hood up over his head, came in and scanned the tables. My first thought was that this was the Unabomber; he rather resembled the hooded visage on the "wanted" posters being circulated by the FBI.
Louis sat down and ordered some tea. He wasn't hungry.
He talked like a Trotskyite, all fierce idealism, taking off on amazing riffs about history and politics, but also making it clear that he wanted to make a lot of money. He imagined a Wired media empire that would trumpet news of the coming revolution all over the world. For some reason, he took it as a given that I was potentially a kindred spirit who just didn't get it-yet.
He wanted the old media, which he reviled and castigated continuously, to love Wired and appreciate what he had done. (He was always astonished and hurt when they didn't.) He hated Wall Street; he wanted Wall Street to give him money. He had sometimes brilliant, sometimes barely fathomable visions for the future. Some of them came to pass.
A radical, even a revolutionary, it was easy to picture Louis tossing bricks outside the Bastille or running through the streets of Moscow with the Cossacks in hot pursuit. Yet he was approachable, too, at least if he found you interesting. If he didn't, he wasted no time in letting you know it.
The news about computers, he announced, wasn't about money, but ideas-how
they could be manipulated, reproduced, stored, represented, combined, and
connected. Computers and the Net would transform everything; nobody and no
institution would remain untouched-not scientists, academics, artists,
politicians, journalists, homemakers, doctors, lawyers, or schoolkids. Computing was no longer the sole province of nerds and engineers but also the new locus of creative people-poets, painters, novelists, critics. These, he said, were the geeks. It was probably the first time I remember hearing the word outside the context of freaks and carnivals, and I was momentarily startled. But it was just a word, a passing reference, and it didn't surface again for a while.
Computing had always been seen as a scientific process, Louis went on, but that was shortsighted. Networked computers were a medium, a world, a nation even-a new thing, a new method, a new process. Imagine words and images as fluid, mutable, nonlinear; all broken down into data, bits, atoms; all transmitted freely around the world to anyone with the right machine.
He pulled out several articles, some reprints of Net writings, early copies and prototypes of Wired and tossed them all at me. He peppered me with questions, harangued me with diatribes. I'd rarely met a magazine editor with such raw enthusiasm; the ones I knew tended to talk about marketing plans and demographics.
We talked about the Net and about Louis's idea of a civil society. We talked about Elvis and Thomas Paine. One thing you can be sure of, he told me, as he picked up the check before I had finished eating: the media I'd worked in were done, over. Newspapers were tired, stuffy, aging. Network TV was finished. The slick magazines, all of which featured the same celebrities on the same covers, were dinosaurs. None of them had anything to say to the young, to the future.
Was I coming or not? he asked abruptly.
Where? I stammered, thinking for a second that he meant San Francisco.
"Along," he said.
Good, he said, because otherwise, a media critic like me would soon have nothing to write about.
He tossed his backpack over his shoulder and got up. He was sorry he had
to go, he said, but he had to get up early the next morning to get out to
Bell Labs in New Jersey. They were doing a lot of neat stuff.
For the next few years, I had more fun than I'd ever had in my life
writing for Wired, then for its website Hotwired as well.
In stunning contrast to the from-the-top-down world of Eastern media, where publishers and editors huddle constantly to decide what they want writers to write, Louis was a profoundly libertarian, if undisciplined, editorial genius. He overreached, alienated, and offended. But he also captured and advanced a revolutionary culture.
What happened to Wired was almost mythical, of course, following the inexorable march of modern American capitalism and its Darwinian laws. Louis overextended his revolution. After building the magazine, he hired platoons of brilliant geeks to develop the ambitious and expensive Hotwired. He launched British and Japanese editions of the magazine, followed by a book-publishing division and an ill-fated and short-lived TV show.
In July 1996, Wired offered its stock to Wall Street. The IPO failed to attract enough investors, and was withdrawn. The company that had defined the digital revolution so spectacularly was firmly rebuffed by the existing order. And the man who had helped spark the revolution was soon back on the outside-the traditional geek fate. Louis eventually lost control of everything in the Wired empire and retreated to the Berkeley Hills with his wife, Wired publisher Jane Metcalfe, where, in the next few years they had two children, Zoe and Orson.
Louis and I stayed in touch via e-mail. We never talked about the financial or legal maneuverings, but it was clear he was devastated by the loss of Wired, uncharacteristically depressed, in pain, uncertain about what to do next.
Condé Nast, the publisher of slick, sweet-smelling magazines like Glamour and Details, quickly purged Wired of the ideas, arguments, and rhetoric that had been the hallmarks of Louis and his strange band of cyber-theorists. If the new Wired was intelligent and professional, it also seemed bland, focused on celebrity, business, and machinery. It became the very kind of medium that Louis had always railed against. Not long afterward, Hotwired was also sold off, to the Net company Lycos.
I'd retreated back to Rolling Stone before Wired's new editors had a chance to toss me out, which they clearly were eager to do. Louis had e-mailed me his regrets when he'd heard I'd left.
Publicly, he had vanished, at least in the media sense. He was rumored to be involved in the legal and financial maneuverings over the sale of the magazine. He had refused to say anything to the press.
I felt almost superstitious about not starting this book without his input and his blessing, however. Though he'd hardly given an interview since his retreat, he agreed to see me and e-mailed elaborate directions to his house.
Louis's aerie proved accessible only by footpath. His son, Orson, was running around with his nanny, while workmen banged and hammered at the residence, which hung above San Francisco Bay. Louis made a cup of tea, then sat down on a couch.
He looked fit, but saddened, the pain visible in his eyes. But he was warm and welcoming. When I told him about my book and asked how he defined a geek, he grew instantly animated, leaning forward and waving his hands as he always did when captivated by an idea.
My own sense of a geek, I prompted, centered around the idea of alienation. That was part of what fascinated me, not the technology, but the seemingly common experience of life outside the mainstream, life with resentment and some pain. It seemed a thread linking the residents of the burgeoning Geek Kingdom.
Louis had little time for emotional deconstruction. Alienation was part of
life for him and people like him, the ticket you paid to get in, neither
surprising nor, to him, particularly interesting.
Class used to be about race, gender, social standing-old ideas, he said. Geeks were involved with the new ones. "The new cultural class has no physical demands or restrictions," he said. "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 sometimes about technology but mostly, it's about brains, and about being resented for being smart."
He told me a story about the first time he met Bill Atkinson, "one of the people who worked on the Macintosh with Steve Jobs back at the beginning. He engineered the interface. I met him in Amsterdam when he was going around promoting a new Apple product called Hypercard. After our interview, we went out to the center of town, where we sat at a street café and watched the amazing people go by. He'd never been to Amsterdam before.
"He was there with a colleague, another nerd. And suddenly they started talking about calling home to find out what was on Star Trek; the first episode of the second series was debuting that night. And it struck me: these guys don't just make technology because they're paid for it, they do it because they like it, and they like it because of how it works and because of what it makes possible. They like it because they find aspects of it really cool.
"All geeks have this magpie sensibility, right up to and including Gates," he went on, warming up now. "Jobs says 'insanely great,' and Gates says 'really neat,' and what they both really mean is that they like the ingenuity, smartness, cleverness, intelligence, just plain coolness of stuff."
Then, lapsing into the sixties' jargon that marked his own youth, he said, "Geeks are cats who dig a special kind of cool. It's the newest cool, the cool of the new-and there's nothing sleeker, shinier, and newer than the human race's latest scientific intuitions that alter the universe."
Most of the editors and publishers I knew didn't want to talk about geeks at all. Louis would talk about them forever. "Because they revel in redefining what's possible, they are inherently revolutionaries," he went on, getting excited. "They live to hallucinate new visions, to invent the next big thing, to prove the smug adherents of the status quo wrong. For the longest time, they were unappreciated, servants to bureaucrats and politicians in whatever organization they were part of, a benign cult relegated to the margins of social respectability. But in a world where the human mind is the most precious node on the planet's nervous system, pure meritocracy is not only possible and desirable, but inevitable."
A few years earlier, a vintage Louis rant like this would have been emblazoned, along with suitably arresting and strange artwork, across several pages of Wired. But that morning, the only audience was me, sitting alone with him in his living room.
There had always been a biblical element to Louis's saga-he'd screwed up,
and was therefore condemned to wander in the desert. He might never enter
the promised land, but the young people he'd led out of bondage would
AND THEY were having a marvelous time, it seemed.
As responses to the geek columns continued to roll in, I heard from a Texas minister whose website allowed his parishioners to give him feedback on his sermons, and from an Alaskan Inuit who ran her tribe's computer operations. Programmers, gamers, designers, and systems operators weighed in with their tales of vindication, of a new order unfolding. "We're building the pyramids of tomorrow," wrote JameB2. "Ain't it cool?"
They thrilled to the great reversal: The suits were dependent on them. Let the gatekeepers and moral guardians cluck and caw about civilization crumbling. They loved their bold new world and were filled with passion and enthusiasm about it.
They also celebrated the experience of finding one another. They were almost painfully eager for community.
"The term 'geek' and the terribly powerful social and emotional stigma that accompanies the term had me running from it,"
e-mailed Doug Riordan, an online developer. "Now I find myself embracing what I am. I am my own geek."
One response stood out, from another correspondent who'd become his own geek. I happened to be online late at night, sorting through the geek outpouring, when an e-message appeared from a small town in southern Idaho. E-mail sometimes has a peculiar chemistry all its own. Instantly transfixed, I had the sense a writer sometimes gets when he's stumbled across the very thing he's been looking for.
Here was someone-a kid barely out of high school, Jesse Dailey-expressing surprise that his own experience with geekhood was so widespread, even universal; he'd been stunned to recognize his travails-and also his triumphs-in my columns.
He'd written to tell me about a Geek Club that a sympathetic teacher had founded for Jesse and a few of his friends, and how the club had quickly become an institution at their rural school. The idea of a Geek Club in Middleton, Idaho, amazed me in itself. But I also responded to the kid's tone; his mixture of vulnerability, pride, and defiance.
I e-mailed him back and asked him to tell me more about himself.
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. 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.
The Geek Club-and this was where the triumph came in-had changed his life, he said, given him a place to belong, a name to call himself. Caldwell wasn't a particularly rewarding or stimulating place to live, he acknowledged, but that mattered less than it used to: He lived on the Net, which alone formed the boundaries of his life.
I'd been planning to crisscross the country visiting a number of the geeks who had contacted me. But after exchanging a few
e-mails and phone calls with Jesse, I dropped that idea. I thought I'd found a better way to tell this story. I was soon on a plane to Idaho.
I'm the "Head Geek" at my high school, which means that I work for the tech administrator doing IT-type work and coordinating the other work-study nerds. As you may imagine, we catch a lot of flak from other students because we spend so much time and energy on the computers at school, not to mention our own machines at home. When this happens, one of the things we do to shrug it off is to joke that if they didn't have us to keep their computers running, the school would cease to function. This is not altogether untrue.
Anyway, I was thinking about this tonight and watching Dune, the movie (it's a lot better if you've read the book, by the way). It occurred to me that what is true of my school is also true of other organizations, from small businesses to the federal government. Just like the Fremen in the movie stopped the universe by stopping the export of Spice, if computer geeks stopped working en masse, the whole country, and even the world, would grind to a halt.
How would this work though? Could some teamsteresque union (hopefully sans Jimmy Hoffa) work together on things that are important to us? I figured you might be a good person to write to about this. You seem to get this kind of thing:).
Pick this book at ThinkGeek.
Contents of Book
Introduction: The Geek Ascension xvii
- First Encounter 3
- TheCave 16
- The Geek Club 25
- Leave Fast 37
- The Trip 55
- Thanksgiving 72
- The More Things Change 81
- Escape from Richton Park 98
- The Dean 121
- Into the Hellmouth 145
- Don't Expect Miracles 180
The Letter 185