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 computers.
By DAVID PESCOVITZ, Special to The Times
SANTA CRUZ -- In a plush suburban home just north of this seaside city, a young woman named Dracon and her girlfriend Goddess are gathered around a computer in their living room. Picori, a friend who has stopped by to visit, plops down in front of another terminal on the floor beside her housemate Banshee, 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 friends.
This is the Think Tank, an all-female "geek house," 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 computer."
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 geeks.
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 Carolee Harrison, 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 Renaissance festivals.
"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 Resort, a 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 (log-in Vagabond), a 25-year-old technical support engineer at Borland 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. Edie, 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 Armory, 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 party.
"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.
Armory resident Ford Prefect, 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 Scruz-Net, 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 registered users.
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 Falcon, has been geeking for a decade and maintains the 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."
Pescovitz writes the "Reality Check" column for Wired magazine and is a contributing editor to bOING bOING. (firstname.lastname@example.org)Copied from the PRODIGY(R) service 08/30/95 21:16