Growing Up Geek: Jesse Hicks

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Growing Up Geek: Jesse Hicks
Welcome to Growing Up Geek, an ongoing feature where we take a look back at our youth and tell stories of growing up to be the nerds that we are. Today we have our very own Contributing Editor, Jesse Hicks.

I've never been one for nostalgia, but if I had to choose a Proustian element from my geeky childhood -- a singular sense-memory that evokes a whole constellation of related feelings -- I'd pick the eerie keening of a 28.8 modem. That high, quavering sound, for me, conjurs up the earliest days of my geekdom, when computers were slow, landlines were king and the internet was young.

I was twelve when my family got our first computer: a 486DX that first appeared without a hard drive. My mom had found a great deal at a computer show...or so it had seemed. That missing 120MB hard drive, as you may have guessed, severely limited functionality. But once that problem was remedied, I was off and running with DOS and XTree, happily deleting essential system files. The learning process had begun.

There weren't many geeks in my small-town, rural Pennsylvania high school. Our computer lab, used mainly for business classes that taught typing and, uh, checkbook balancing, was a half-dozen cheap PCs running MS-DOS. One day I used the COLOR command to tweak my display. That provoked our mustachioed, football-coach teacher to threaten me with a visit to the principal. A year or two later I showed a few classmates how to send messages over NetWare. Soon the whole network was pinging with electronic communiques. That time, though, no one offered to escort me to the principal.

Without much of an IT program at school, I had to learn elsewhere. My parents wrote technical manuals for defense contractors; their friends were all military-industrial-complex types, many in computer security or engineering. In exchange for mowing his lawn, one of them would give me a box of 3.5" floppies loaded with whatever I chose from his extensive collection. Mostly I'd grab a few Sierra games, like Space Quest 4: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers. I even found a little game called Wolfenstein 3D.

Probably to greater influence, I also found t-files, those kilobyte-sized text files filled with esoteric information about bomb-making, poison chemistry, and other pastimes no teenager should miss. I dug through those black plastic squares in search of forbidden knowledge: The School Stopper's Textbook, The Anarchist Cookbook, and The Poor Man's James Bond. Come to think of it, it was very Dungeons and Dragons, this pre-internet quest. You couldn't Google floppies; you could only progress through them slowly, one by one, with only the (often intentionally misleading) labels to guide you. If you were strong, determined and pure of heart you might discover a recipe for homemade napalm. This would make you popular among a very particular subset of your peers.

On those floppies is also where I first found the ezine Phrack. It gave me my first glimpse into a subculture I could only know from afar: the hackers and phreakers then worming their way through the telco systems. I devoured the arcana and set out on my own explorations. I had ToneLoc running on a rotary phone line every day while I was at school; I'd come home afternoons to pore over the data. Maybe I'd find an open VAX system run by the local hospital or, once, the dial-up for a nearby school.

By the time I'd really gotten into the hacker subculture, the internet was beginning to replace BBS's. The single ISP in town offered Telnet, FTP and Usenet -- the web hadn't yet caught on. I'd thread through pages of text, even archiving especially insightful posts from alt.2600 and alt.JFK. (Only later did I realize not every teenager goes through a JFK assassination phase.) Or if I was really wasting time, I'd find an FTP site full of the latest Doom mods.

And every time I wanted to enter that other world, I had to pass through the gateway: the clacking of those seven rotary-dial numbers, then the warbling digital-to-analog handshake. It was like an incantation, a magic sound that opened a door and marked a threshold.

My first paying job was hauling roofing shingles for $50 a day. My second, though, was interning with a tech startup. They'd built a "kid-friendly" web browser that, using a proxy, served only pages the company deemed appropriate. It also locked down the computer, meaning little Timmy couldn't use it for nefarious purposes, or delete his dad's spreadsheets. My job had two responsibilities: trying to break out of the browser, and finding "adult" sites the proxy hadn't blocked. So I spent most of my days trying to reach pornographic websites. (As I remember, we had to sign a sexual-harassment waiver for HR as a condition of employment.) Although that company is long gone, along with my stock options, there I learned skills that I still use every day.

I started a degree in information science just as the dot-com bubble burst. I suddenly had a profoundly uninteresting career path, it seemed at the time. The world-changing potential I'd seen as a teenager had been tamed, commodified. Or, more realistically, it collapsed under its own hype, once people realized that selling pet food online was not the first step toward utopia.

Sometimes, though, I miss the hype. Or at least the sense of potential. Even now, with the return of stratospheric valuations and with Facebook approaching a billion users, I rarely encounter technology that moves me to wonder in the same way as that shrill, otherworldly sound of a machine reaching out to connect. Part of it's my experience, but the world has changed, too. When I feel like the internet got boring, I have to remind myself: no, it got normal. It stopped being a place you had to seek out and just became a place everyone was -- per Marc Andreesen, who would know, software has eaten the world.

Seeing that happen has been strange and sometimes disorienting. Growing up alongside the internet has been different than growing up with it; sometimes, just to keep myself from taking ubiquitous connectivity for granted, I try to remember a time before it. And I can, but barely. It's far away and hard to discern, like the long ago sound of a modem trying to connect.

Jesse Hicks occasionally appears around the internet, including on Twitter (@Jhicks23). If you have a smallish alligator and you need someone to look at it quizzically, he's your man.
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