[evolve home] [falcon's nest]
santa cruz geeks in the press

by Peggy R. Townsend
Santa Cruz Sentinel - December 29, 1996
Transcribed without permission

B&W Scan: Page 1 | Page 2

The kingdom of Darkwater lies on a quiet street a stone's throw from Highway 1.

It's an unassuming place in a middle-class neighborhood with a white Saab parked out front.

The only thing that sets it apart from the houses around it is a black-bottomed swimming pool and a second story that looks like an afterthought.

But inside.

Inside, Darkwater is peopled with four men and a young woman whose idea of a great time is a dozen people in the hot tub, a flagon of mead and a few ThinkPad 560s.

They're people who earn more than enough money to buy their own homes but prefer sharing a bathroom.

People who wear their hair long if everyone is wearing it short, who are as likely to talk about sexual bondage as Jean Paul Sartre, and who believe ignorance is the ultimate sin.

They are part of something called a geekhouse, the grown-up cyber equivalent of a college fraternity, and Santa Cruz is one of the hubs of the lifestyle.

"What 'geek' means is that you are being social over the net," says Craig Jackson, slouching in front of a Macintosh computer in one of Darkwater's cluttered bedrooms.

His hair is long and wavy, his voice quick.

Geeking means talking online, staging elaborate parties, hanging out with friends over a three-day board game.

"Geeks are their own society: a literate, hyperinformed underground," he says and the other geeks in the house nod their heads.

They're sprawled on the bed, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

Full of energy and things to say.

"Santa Cruz has some of the most evolved geek societies around."

Twenty-seven geekhouses dot Santa Cruz.

They are places with names like Antfarm, The Tower, and Marshmallow Peanut Circus.

They hide in the recesses of the mountains, in quiet beach neighborhoods, in rambling old homes and are filled mostly with single adults in their 20s and 30s who grew up in the world of high technology.

They say they were the outcasts in high school, too smart for their own good, too bored to be A students. Some even flunked out of college.

But now many of them are wizards of the computer business, people earning healthy salaries but who love their old lifestyle of friends and late-night Denny's runs.

What holds them together is their passion for socializing and connecting on the Internet, a world where they find companionship, ideas and, most importantly, party invitations.

They will spend hours in front of a computer screen, but they are not "nerds" or "hackers" they say.

Nerds are computer people with no social skills, prone to pocket protectors and taped glasses.

Hackers is a term no one uses anymore.

Geeks like science fiction, board games, Nerf wars and all-night parties.

They are the few, the proud, the weird.

"The unwritten geek credo states that originality and strangeness are good," says Craig on one of his web pages. "...Blind conformity and stupidity are unforgivable."

It's Thursday night and four of the five denizens of Darkwater are home.

Two are sprawled out on the floor playing a video game on a new Sony Play Station while another watches. The fourth is in her bedroom working on a paper for a college class.

Out back, the hot tub that was featured in the coffee-table book, "24 Hours in Cyberspace," steams softly into the cold night air.

Later, the residents will slip out of their clothes and slide into the hot tub under a rainy sky.

Like they do most nights.

But not now. It's 8 p.m.

The evening is still young.

The house is furnished in early-college-dorm; sheets are snarled on unmade beds, a half-finished game sits in the middle of the room, small piles of dirty clothes dot the floor and 20 gallons of a medieval drink called mead brew in the closet.

In almost every room a computer hums: Macintoshes, PCs, all linked to a single server in the living room.

Twenty-three-year-old Ian Ricksecker hunkers down in front of the house computer named Poseidon after the Greek god of water and earthquakes.

His fingers fly over the keys as he connects to a computer game called NetHack.

It's an arcane game that's been around for 20 years and has no fancy graphics or sounds.

It's just a stream of Xs and As and letters that look indecipherable to the uninitiated.

"It's fantastically huge and complex," says Craig of the game.

His eyes and fingers never leave the Play Station as he talks.

"People keep putting all their stuff in it. It changes all the time."

"NetHack has such a long history," says Ian. "I just love it."

Like any true geek.

The five members of Darkwater have lived here anywhere from three years to six months.

One is a computer programmer, two are computer program-breakers, another is a sought-after computer consultant ("he's close to God," one roommate confides) and the fifth is a masseur and part time Kinko's employee.

Online, they have names like "Tiger" and "Amaroq."

Offline it's Susan and Ian.

"With geeks, first you learn their log-on name, then their first name and sometimes their last name," says Craig, as the door opens and a young man with a blond ponytail walks into the room and flops onto the bed.

He's what the geeks call a "house pet," says Susan Prestige, one of the original Darkwater residents.

"Those are people, who by definition are welcome to stop by at any time, even if we're not here."

And that's the main thing about geek houses.

"We like the student lifestyle," says Craig, whose online friends call him "Omni." "It's social. Geekhouses are kind of extensions of dorm life."

Indeed, much of Santa Cruz's geek culture was born on the campus of UC Santa Cruz.

As the geeks tell it, geeking began back in the '80s under the influence of the late-night blur of the computer labs. Deep into the night, one student would send out a computer message" "food run" Denny's" and within 20 minutes there would be 60 students drinking coffee and eating waffles in the Ocean Street cafe.

"It's a lifestyle you get accustomed to," says Ian, "and then all of a sudden you're making a lot more money than you're used to."

$40,000. $50,000 a year.

One of the Darkwater residents makes $85,000 a year working part-time

"Geeks end up buying lots of toys or buying houses," says Susan.

"Then they invite their friends to all come and live in the bedrooms."

The geeks troop up the stairs to Craig's bedroom and flop themselves onto the floor and the king-size bed with black sheets.

Another "house pet" has showed up and the conversation is flowing.

Between bites of take-out calzone they discuss comic books, their distrust of the media and their hatred of any form of censorship.

They talk about the parties: the Capitalism Party held at The Tower geek house where you had to bring something to sell or trade, the Nightmare before Christmas Party that lasted until dawn, the party where you had to dress up as your favorite toy.

Geeks know how to have a good time, they say.

It's one of the fallacies that geeks are happiest communicating with faceless friends.

"At our parties, there's lots of alcohol and lots of flirting," says Ian. "We're definitely not people who just sit around and geek."

But there is something special about that wired connection.

"When I have a conversation online, I am a lot more emotionally vulnerable than a conversation face-to-face," says Ian.

As the geeks talk, Ian lays his head down in Susan's lap and she strokes his long dark hair.

Craig, her boyfriend, sits across the room. He doesn't seem to mind.

The talk slides to high school where Jackson said he was tested at genius level but didn't get much more than C-pluses in school.

"It was boring," he says and the room fills with a chorus of "yups" from the other geeks.

"I'd be bored all day and go home and watch PBS and learn something," he says disdainfully.

He didn't have a lot of friends.

Didn't go to the prom.

Wasn't voted most popular.

"But now we're out to take over the universe," he says.

The geeks nod.

And laugh.

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