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Of course Jon Katz plugs his own book on Amazon.com's Web site. After all, Geeks is about the way the Internet is changing people's lives. It's about people making connections, especially the kind of people - the "lost" people - who have trouble connecting in the real world. He says tongue-in-cheek that he wrote Geeks "in an open source fashion." That is, he wrote columns on the themes that Geeks would focus on, published them on the Web, and responses flooded in. These responses fed more writing, which he again posted.
One of Katz's thousands of e-mails was from Jesse Dailey, a teenage boy in Middleton, Idaho. Jesse and his friends had started their very own Geek Club at school, proudly referring to themselves with the name once used to disparage them. Dailey and Katz began corresponding regularly, and, before too long, they met in Idaho.
Geeks aims to document the ongoing "Geek Ascendancy" in which the geeks - highly intelligent, long-despised nonconformists - are at the forefront of the technological revolution, wielding new power. They are "running the systems that run the world." To illustrate, Katz documents Jesse's upward movement from Middleton into the professional, social, and academic worlds of Chicago.
Jesse is almost always accompanied by his best friend Eric Twilegar, whose story Katz also tells. Eric, however, is less likely to win friends and less forthcoming with his thoughts and feelings. You get the feeling that if it weren't for Jesse, Eric never would have left Idaho.
The most powerful part of Geeks deals with the Columbine High School tragedy. The contrast between Dailey's success and Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris's murders/suicides is chilling. In the wake of the shootings, Katz is saddened that "the cost of being different just went up" (i.e., two disturbed individuals brought about a backlash against all things non-mainstream). While conventional wisdom maintains that playing violent videogames makes teenagers depressed, murderous, and suicidal, Katz questions the assumed cause-effect. What if troubled teenagers are depressed before they begin spending so many hours online? What if, for the first time in their lives, these "lost" people are finding friends? What if the Internet is actually a solace to those who have been hurt in the real world?
Online community, Katz makes clear throughout Geeks, may be second to the real thing. But it sure beats nothing.
Ask Jesse and Eric.
Robin Taylor is a Web project manager and technical writer for an IT company in Washington, D.C.