Excerpt: Geek Culture

May 01, 2000 8 min read
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One night a few years ago, media writer Jon Katz opened an e-mail message sent by a newly graduated high schooler from the town of Middleton, Idaho. Katz, a regular Rolling Stone contributor, had for some time been thinking and writing about what he called “geek” culture in America. People who love computers and the Internet share a deep sense of alienation, he had found, a feeling that they don’t belong anywhere but in front of a computer screen.

The e-mail that Katz read that night was from Jesse Dailey, a bright Internet junkie who, along with his best friend, Eric Twilegar, was plotting to leave small-town life for a technology job in the big city. Katz would eventually help the two boys in their quest and write a book about them, the newly released Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho. But that first e-mail made him hop a plane for Idaho to learn more about what Dailey said had first given him a sense of belonging: the Middleton High Geek Club and its founder, a teacher named Mr. Brown.

My first day in Idaho, it struck me how strangely traditional and American their story was, and how simultaneously unprecedented: Two unattached, semidestitute kids were planning to head cross-country, to leave their dreary lives behind and make their fortunes in a strange, huge, vastly more complex place than either had ever seen.

But instead of hopping a freight, it was the Internet they’d ride out of town to Chicago, and it was the Middleton High Geek Club that started the trip. Jesse and Eric were exactly 50 percent of its membership, along with Sam Hunter, just starting his first year at Albertson College of Idaho, down the road in Caldwell, and Joe Angell, a freshman at the University of Colorado. The only place in Idaho Jesse was insistent on showing me was their clubhouse—Mike Brown’s classroom.

Middleton was barely a town at all. We drove past farms, fading old houses, gas stations, a couple of sandwich shops. Middleton High seemed frozen somewhere in the ‘50s, a sprawling, one-story tile, glass, and brick complex, many of its students headed inexorably toward lifetimes of low-paying jobs in small, conservative Idaho towns.

“The best you can do around here is to get to Boise State,” said Eric, who had attempted that very thing, “then maybe get a computer job there. That’s what getting out of Middleton usually means.” Not that anybody here had ever pushed them to get out, told them they were smart enough to, or offered much help. There was only Mr. Brown, the genial, stocky, sandy-haired English teacher from New York-official school liberal, magnet for and friend of outcasts.

From the moment Jesse and Eric approached the school, and even more so as they crossed the parking lot, walked through the door and down the hallways, they turned wary and alert. They glowered at the LDS Church that sits right next to Middleton High. Non-Mormon as well as Mormon kids are given time in their school schedules-the kids call it going to “seminary"—to visit nearby Mormon churches daily.

A handful of kids said hello in the halls; Jesse and Eric nodded, but didn’t stop for conversation. It wasn’t exactly a joyous homecoming.

The three of us showed up in Mr. Brown’s room at about noon, just when the Geek Club used to convene, Jesse and Eric drifting to their usual seats in the far corner of the classroom.

“We’re getting out of Idaho,” Jesse told him, after they’d introduced me. “We’re going to Chicago.”

“Wow,” said Brown, a bit surprised. “Great news.”

Mike Brown was a warm, easygoing guy, not only the founder of the Geek Club but also one of the school’s football coaches. He was, it was clear, one of those teachers who genuinely enjoys kids. He had the gift of tapping into the rebellious streak of a kid like Jesse while simultaneously curbing and channeling it.

Everyone in the Geek Club used the same phrases—"a truly great teacher,” Sam Hunter said-to describe Mr. Brown. He was the person—sometimes the only person- who made them think and listened to their ideas. He was funny, accessible, self-deprecating, and informal-unusual qualities at Middleton High, where geeks were not beloved and where Jesse still bitterly recalls a teacher who punished students for goofing off by making them compose papers on a classroom typewriter—a typewriter!—instead of a computer.

Most teachers avoided controversial subjects, but Mr. Brown’s classroom reverberated with them. “Horrendous debates over everything from evolution to abortion,” Joe Angell said. “Sometimes it split along Mormon and non-Mormon lines. We talked about politics. He encouraged me to read Catch-22, and it’s my favorite single book.”

Among his students, Jesse and Eric and Sam and Joe stood out; they were all idea-starved. “I could see they needed a place to talk, a refuge here. A place to feel safe,” Brown recounted, as I wedged myself into a chair with a writing arm. “They weren’t jocks or preps, the dominant social groups. They liked to kick around ideas, argue about movies and books. Sam and Joe were less vehement, though, and better-liked by their peers. Jesse and Eric never seemed to care much about being liked.”

In fact, Eric Twilegar personified the social attitude of the hardcore geek—distance, anger, alienation. And Jesse Dailey was the school’s official Mormon-baiter—no insignificant role in these parts—challenging the existence of God and the validity of dogma, criticizing the values and tenets of LDS without fear-or much tact or respect, either.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Jesse, a memorable figure in a trench coat who wore a corduroy porkpie hat over his shoulder-length hair, would come to define himself—and be defined by his peers—as the Other.

“He was wild,” one of Sam’s friends told me. “He loved to argue, especially about religion, but he’d fight about anything, especially if it would tick off the preps who ran the school or the Mormons. He was the only one of his kind around here, somewhere between a prophet and a hippie preacher.” Some of the Mormon kids, intent on saving Jesse, brought him notes from their bishops and copies of the Book of Mormon to try to win him over. They didn’t have a prayer.

It was 1996, and Brown had been reading Katherine Dunn’s strange, evocative novel Geek Love, talking about it in class, pointing out the enthusiastic alienation of its characters. “The book takes the extreme case,” Brown recalled. “People as far on the fringes as you can get, completely dehumanized by ‘normal’ society. And it humanizes them-which is ironic, because they’re already human.”

At first, when the four boys began drifting in awkwardly at lunchtime, Brown was afraid to spook them. Deliberately, he barely looked up from the papers he was grading as Sam, Jesse, Eric, and Joe, foregoing the theater of hostilities that was the cafeteria, carried bag lunches into his classroom and spent the period arguing about movies and books and, increasingly, computers.

“They always sat in the farthest corner,” Brown said. “Gradually, we talked as I worked and they ate.”

All four had grown passionate about computing and the Internet. Sam and Joe had become the school’s roaming tech support, a rapidly spreading phenomenon among geeks as hard-pressed and technophobic school districts turned to their one-time social outcasts to help run their computer systems. In fact, geeks repeatedly cite the nearly universal need for people who can cope with computers and software as the primary reason for their elevation to a new techno-elite.

If Sam and Joe had turned their new interest outward, Jesse and Eric characteristically went the more solitary route, obsessing over hardware, code, hacking, and games.

Brown sensed that Jesse, in particular, was in distress, but didn’t know exactly what kind; Jesse never talked about personal stuff. Brown didn’t know that the year before, Jesse had joined a street gang in nearby Nampa, had been shot at late one night by a rival gang member, had gotten into marijuana and amphetamines, and had been busted by the Caldwell police for driving under the influence of liquor and for possession of marijuana. (The case was eventually plea-bargained.)

Jesse didn’t volunteer much about that time to me, either. It lasted between six months and a year, he said a bit vaguely. The gang had about a dozen members, who hung out, smoked dope, and broke into cars. “A form of rebellion,” he said. “I don’t know what else to call it. It was as if I had to go down, all the way to the bottom, to the guts of things, before I could move on. I saw it as an exploratory time. I wrote a paper about it at the end of my junior year, but I lost it.”

In March 1995, the Idaho Statesman had run an article about the so-called phenomenon of Internet addiction. Jesse, then 16 and described as a “supersmart teen,” figured prominently in the story, saying he spent 35 to 40 hours per week online. “It’s like a revolution,” he told the Statesman. “Being online sets you apart somehow; you can just log on and leave the world.”

This is perhaps the most orienting part of the geek experience for many kids like Jesse: They see the Net as a separate world, their world.

“If you knew him, you knew the only thing he really cared about by the end of high school was the Internet,” an old friend agreed. “Slowly, he had left the high school world behind, stopped caring about it. One on one, he is charming, considerate, loyal. But when you put him in the high school setting, it would just sometimes enrage and inflame him. He would take on anybody and everybody, especially when it was hopeless.”

Mostly, Brown tried to channel Jesse’s evident anger and frustration into constructive discussion.

Some kind of turning point arose the day a couple of kids wandered into the room, took in the scene, and asked Jesse and the others if they were brown-nosing, scoring points. Brown stepped in. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, you don’t belong in here. Have you paid your dues?’ And one kid says, ‘What is this?’

“I answered that this was the Geek Club. ‘If you want to hang in here, fine, but you’ve got to bite a chicken’s head off first. Are you willing to do that? Live up to your convictions.’ ”

Jesse got the idea on the spot and pounced, announcing that this was a private club; the intruders couldn’t come in because they were too well-dressed. “It was amazing,” Jesse says. “All of a sudden, we were a club, and we could keep other people out.”

From the book Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho, by Jon Katz. Copyright © 2000 by Jon Katz. Reprinted by arrangement with Villard Books, a division of Random House Inc.


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