U hires author to teach social aspects of technology

by Sam Kean

Jon Katz wrote the recent best-seller “Geeks: How Two Teenagers Rode the Internet Out of Idaho,” for one main reason: to document life on the Internet, something he calls the freest subculture on earth.
This true story follows teenagers Jesse and Eric — labeled “geeks” because their lives seem to revolve around computers and the Internet — as they escape small-town life in Idaho for a fuller life in Chicago.
But the title also refers to the geeks themselves, using the term to celebrate their lives rather than be ashamed.
These two are also the kind of students that will soon be attending the University. Katz writes a great deal on the social aspects of technology, and to translate his insights into improved teaching, the University has hired Katz as a residence professor of journalism during October.
One character in the book described being a geek as “sometimes about technology, but mostly, it’s about brains, and about being resented for being smart.”
A New York Times book review said, “Katz’s obvious empathy and love for his ‘lost boys,’ his ability to see shades of his own troubled youth in their lives, gives his narrative a rich taste that makes it unlike other Net books.”
Katz said he never could have predicted his book would empower geeks in this way. Teenagers gave the book to their parents to explain their lives, and parents read it to understand their children. In this way, “Geeks” became the story of many more teenagers than just Jesse and Eric.
Dressed in khakis and a sweater, Katz does not look like someone who has 15-year-olds as friends around the world, but these are the very people he befriended while writing “Geeks.”
He’s wildly popular with young people, said Eugenia Smith, College of Liberal Arts communications director.
To come to the University, Katz turned down an invitation to teach at Harvard University, Smith said. Besides the cynicism of Harvard students, Katz said he was attracted by the University’s commitment to technology.
But even with geek friends, Katz, 53, can never be a geek himself. In fact, he said he doubts if anybody older than 20 can be a geek because he or she will already be out of touch with what’s really happening on the Internet.
And despite what some critics say, Katz said what’s happening on the Internet can be humanizing. As an example of this, he said his dog Devin was given to him by an online fan.
Because Devin was abused, he cannot be left alone; thus, he accompanies Katz when he is away from his home and family in New Jersey and travels to class with him every day, usually curling up in the corner to sleep.
Katz said after just a few months, he’s fallen in love with the dog.
Though, he warned the Internet cannot substitute for human contact. Contrary to popular belief, his book says geeks know this better than anyone else.
Instead, Katz uses the Internet to have rolling conversations around the world. He estimates he has received over a quarter million e-mails in his life — and he replies to every last one, Smith said.
At times, though, Katz has seen the Internet become more than just humanizing — for some people, it’s their only outlet.
Katz said the media coverage of the May 1999 Columbine High School killings demonized teenagers who merely shared interests, such as computer gaming, by association with shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Journalists effectively gave schools across the country a license to oppress.
Thousands turned to the Internet. After writing about the unjust portrayal, Katz had three computers crash from an overload of responses. They still sit in his basement, thousands of e-mails trapped inside. “For the first time, kids spoke instead of being spoken about,” Katz said.
This outpouring, the “Voices from Hellmouth” series, marked a turning point for Katz. After Columbine, he broke from traditional journalism and remains critical.
Now he writes primarily on the Internet, where he’s been “reborn.” Writing there is precarious but thrilling, he said, because of the constant and articulate criticism he receives on everything he writes.
Unlike before, he does not see his views as absolutely true when he posts them; instead, columns are only starting points for further discussion.
The lack of constant feedback isolates traditional journalists, Katz said. He calls the media corporatized and “militantly moderate,” unlike the Internet, “where the First Amendment actually means something.”
But Katz acknowledged the Internet does have negative qualities, including how fragmented it is. For instance, some SlashDot.org — dubbed “the CNN of geeks” — readers decried him as a “suit” who had exploited geeks for profit.
And the Internet itself splits the world into those who can afford technology and those who cannot.
Even though geeks currently run much of the computer-driven world, Katz predicted their power will wane as the Internet acceleration slows. At that point, geeks will slip behind the scenes, where Katz said many of them feel more comfortable anyway. But until then, and for the rest of October at the University, the world of “Geeks” is alive and well.

Sam Kean covers faculty and appreciates comments at [email protected]