8/30/95 / Los Angeles Times D1
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THE CUTTING EDGE: It's all geek to these who live, work and play
computers. They are the digital commune denizens who live and breathe
By DAVID PESCOVITZ, Special to The Times
SANTA CRUZ -- In a plush suburban home just north of this seaside city, a
young woman named
and her girlfriend
are gathered around a
computer in their living room.
Picori, a friend who has stopped
visit, plops down in front of another terminal on the floor beside her
who is already typing away on his laptop computer
plugged into a wall jack. The group is silent, save for an occasional fit
of laughter, even though it is having a conversation with 20 of its
This is the
and the residents
and their guests are partying via modem. Their unusual names are computer
log-in handles that in these circles are used as frequently as real names.
Over the last decade in Santa Cruz, several hundred of these
techno-savvy young people, mostly in their 20s, have formed a virtual and
physical community that revolves around the on-line world of social
computing. And there are no pocket-protectors or high-waters in sight.
"Geeks are nerds with social skills," says 24-year-old Russ Granger, a
Santa Cruz musician,
World Wide Web site designer and full-time geek known
as Parade. "We're also the
kind of people who can spend our entire workday
in front of a computer and come home to relax . . . in front of a
Granger's home, called the
Marshmallow Peanut Circus for its similarity
in hue to the bright orange candy, and the Think Tank are two of more than
a dozen geek houses spread out across the Santa Cruz area. The four- or
five-person houses are digital communes, inhabited primarily by former UC
Santa Cruz students who remained here after landing jobs in town or over
the hill in Silicon Valley. A few were computer science students; most
were not. But all of them spend at least several hours a day on-line and
enjoy the self-effacing irony of calling themselves
In the geek houses, computer network cable is strung along the walls,
Unix is spoken fluently and terminals hold the prestige spots in living
rooms and bedrooms. On-line, the Internet-connected community is thriving:
E-mail is exchanged at a furious pace, and a plethora of Santa
Cruz-oriented chat rooms and forums are home to discussions about events in
the city, politics, sex, music, art--and other geeks.
"When I first started geeking, I was really impressed because all these
interesting things were happening on the forums, yet there was nothing
tangible to see," says 26-year-old
who also lives at the
Circus. "The community is primarily invisible until you get on-line."
Over the years, the geeks have become a close-knit Santa Cruz subculture
that reflects the city's history of liberalism. They are drawn together in
part by shared interests that range from alternative music, film and
underground literature and comics to role-playing games, neo-paganism and
"The unwritten geek credo states that originality and strangeness are
good, and that blind conformity and stupidity are unforgivable," reads a
rant on a long time geek's World Wide Web home page.
In the geek community, friendships may begin on-line, but they are
solidified in the real world.
"We're not a group of people who hide behind computers because we're
afraid to meet other humans," says Tammy (Picori) Berger, a 24-year-old who
programs Web sites for an advertising agency and lives at the
converted schoolhouse known for its geek parties. "We get on-line so we can
meet new people and get together with them."
Often, these face-to-face gatherings are in the form of "food runs."
Imagine 100 geeks converging on an all-night diner in the wee hours of the
morning to feast on pancakes, coffee and inside jokes. "The first time I
got a `write' [an instant on-line message], it was like in `War Games' when
the computers said, `Do you want to play a game?'" says Lore Sjöberg
a 25-year-old technical support engineer at
International and resident of the Villa Villekulla geek house. "But
instead, the message was, `Do you want to go to Denny's?'" Food runs
began in the early days of the Santa Cruz geek culture -- which formed,
Sjöberg jokes, when "some guys in the 1970s walked around communicating
with slide rules." In truth, the geek community traces its origins to the
statistics labs at
UC Santa Cruz, circa 1985.
The so-called stat labs were 24-hour-a-day computer facilities where
students could connect to on-line forums originally intended for academic
use. The forums quickly evolved into eclectic electronic bulletin boards,
and the 10 or so stat labs became social hubs for all-night on-line
communications. Several years later, a geek designed a simple program for
real-time electronic chat, and it was party lines all over again.
When Adrienne Rappaport, a.k.a.
enrolled in UCSC as a technical
theater major in 1987, she was just another PONA -- a "person of no
[on-line] account" in geek speak. But like many of the early geeks, she was
quickly introduced to the on-line scene by a friend who brought her into a
stat lab late onenight.
"My freshman hall mate was having an argument with her boyfriend all
over the UCSC forum, and she took me down to a stat lab to show me what was
going on," says 26-year-old Rappaport, who now works in a hotel and lives
at the Think Tank. "I just had to put in my two cents. Through the forums
I developed a much larger social life."
As geeks graduated or decided to move off campus, they remained immersed
in the forums through dial-up computer accounts. Numerous geek houses
began cropping up with names to match their personalities or their
geographic locations. The McMillitron house was on McMillan Street, while
the oldest geek house still in existence, was named for a
founder's passion for pyrotechnics.
"Geeks tend to live together because often you'll find someone to move
into your house on-line," Sjöberg explains. "Of course, there are
advantages to living with other geeks. It's more likely that the person
moving in will understand why your house needs eight phone lines."
The geek houses became physical nodes in the virtual community where any
holiday, birthday or geek culture anniversary is an excuse to throw a
"When someone hears the phrase geek party, they probably think that
means 12 boy geeks in ill-fitting suits and maybe one girl sitting around
drinking Hi-C and talking about the latest `Star Trek' episode. And that's
really not true--except for the `Star Trek' part," Sjöberg says, laughing.
Rappaport fondly remembers an "Under the Sea" retro prom, where paper
fish hung from the ceilings and a requisite photographer shot each formally
dressed couple in front of a papier-mache seashell. And at tax time each
year, the Resort hosts a "capitalism party" where geek funny money is
exchanged for Tarot card readings, drink umbrellas, T-shirts emblazoned
with the slogan "Just Say N2O" and other comedic commodities.
While kitschy parties still bind the community together, the influx of
new-student geek blood has slowed since the old-time geeks' heyday in the
stat labs. In the last few years, the terminals in the labs fell into
disrepair and the university's Computing and Telecommunications Services
focused funds on new microcomputer labs.
a 26-year-old UCSC graduate and Webmaster
for HaL Computer Systems,
still puts in pro bono hours fixing ailing
terminals in the remaining stat labs as part of the school's Council for
Open Access Computing. But with maintenance of the labs now the
responsibility of the individual colleges housing them, interest in keeping
them open fluctuates. In addition, the university recently began limiting
undergraduate student dial-up access to 10 hours per week on-line between 9
a.m. and midnight during the school year because of overloaded phone lines
and modems. But in 1993, several of Santa Cruz's first geeks founded
an Internet service provider that has become the on-ramp of
choice for the city's geeks who want unlimited and affordable access to the
Net. Through Scruz-Net, the geeks can still chat on-line and read and post
to their favorite forums without being dependent on the university.
The Armory, one of the Scruz-Net's first customers, even offers free
dial-up accounts through its own computer system and has more than 1,000
Many geek houses also host their own forums and serve Web pages brimming
with information about the residents' eccentric personalities. Meanwhile,
the falling price of Internet service has reduced the need for geeks to
pool their resources in order to pay for access.
"As connectivity gets cheaper and cheaper, you can have one- or
two-person geek houses," says 27-year-old Jon Luini, who co-founded the hip
Internet Underground Music Archive
(IUMA) in 1993.
Luini, known on-line as
has been geeking for a decade and
Santa Cruz Geek Social Scene
site on the World Wide Web. The
site includes a list of the geek houses' current and former residents with
links to their home pages, a party calendar and a history of the community.
That history, Luini says only half-jokingly, has slowly moved toward
corporate geekdom as geeks started their own Net-related companies such as
IUMA and Scruz-Net or were hired at the numerous high-tech firms
surrounding Santa Cruz. In fact, two of the four Think Tank residents put
their geek smarts to use at
Apple Computer's on-line services division,
and another roommate is a contracted Web site administrator and Internet
consultant for the company. Other Santa Cruz geeks have found work at
Novell, Seagate Technology and Aladdin Systems.
But with gainful employment comes responsibility, and alarm clocks.
"Now that we make some money and have to get up early for work, the food
runs tend to be earlier and at nicer restaurants," Sjöberg says. "Instead
of midnight at Denny's, it's 8 p.m. for sushi."
- Santa Cruz Geek Social Scene
- The Armory
- The Marshmallow Peanut Circus
- The Resort
- The Think Tank
- Internet Underground Music Archive
Pescovitz writes the "Reality Check" column for
Wired magazine and is a
contributing editor to bOING bOING.
Copied from the PRODIGY(R) service 08/30/95 21:16