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Cult of Jamie

By Annalee Newitz

I STOOD IN THE MIDDLE of a vast nightclub whose walls vibrated with pounding music. Crazed lights illuminated hundreds of moving bodies. Impossibly beautiful underage girls danced with lean boys in baggy pants, suits drank expensive drinks and an ethereal goth cross-dresser on stage flashed the crowd to show off the silver panties under his latex miniskirt. DJs on an elevated platform behind industrial girders and a chain-link fence looked tiny in the huge space.

It was practically impossible to believe that the whole thing was made possible by open source hackers. Make that one open source hacker: Jamie Zawinski (www.jwz.org), the notorious Netscape bad boy who got rich on stock options, quit Netscape in a huff after the AOL merger and became a San Francisco club promoter seemingly overnight. I'd scored some tickets to this special "pre-opening" party for his newly revamped club, the DNA Lounge, to find out what it looks like when geeks become cool kids and make the scene. I'll admit up front that I'm not much of a nightclubber, so I can't really say if Jamie's club is extra special in that department. I'm a geek, and I came to find geek culture writ large.

I'd been to Jamie's website and was excited to see his comments on how all of DNA's software was open source. But where was that software? I wandered around and found several flat-screen terminals wrapped in plastic scattered throughout the club. "Web access coming soon" was scrawled on little pieces of paper stuck to them. OK, web access in a nightclub is pretty geeky. Points for that. And certainly the raw industrial décor--exposed ventilation ducts, cement walls unadorned, matte black steel accents--was a tip of the hat to techno-aesthetics. There was kind of a delicious cyberpunk feel to the place.

But where were the geeks? I didn't see a single person in a T-shirt with a BSD slogan, a Linux penguin or a UNIX joke. There were a few cyberpunks drinking imported beer, but almost everybody else looked like a cross between a goth and a regular old club kid. There was, however, a remarkable cult of Jamie-ness among the boys. I saw dozens of guys with Jamie's signature long mane of hair cascading over a dark leather and/or latex ensemble. No sign of Jamie himself, of course--as the promoter, he couldn't make himself ubiquitous. That would probably be too geeky.

Perhaps the DNA represents the fate of geeks who still have money: they blend in with the rich, the beautiful, the hip. They finally become tragically, abysmally normal. In desperation, I scoped the room for someone who looked like a real geek.

At last I found him. A tall, sexy boy in a black T-shirt and black jeans was leaning against the second-floor balcony, watching the dancers below. He radiated geekhood in a way I can't entirely explain. Maybe it had something to do with the intensity of his expression, or the way he seemed so unself-conscious and unposed. He had that I'm-looking-at-everything-from-a-distance demeanor I associate with people who spend a lot of time inside their heads. How could I meet him?

I decided to bluff. "Hey," I yelled in his ear, after elbowing into a spot next to him, "didn't you used to be an engineer at Snowball.com?" I chose the name of a random dead dotcom for my pickup line.

He gave me a weird look. "No."

I pretended to think. "But you're an engineer, right?" He nodded. Score! "I think I must have met you at a dotcom party back in the day," I continued. "Where do you work?" He shouted back that he worked at WebTV.

"Hey, didn't WebTV die or something?" I asked.

"No, we were bought by Microsoft," he said, shrugging.

"You're Microsoft's bitch now!" I exclaimed. "Aren't you afraid Jamie Zawinski is going to swoop down and beat you up for bringing your proprietary values into his open source club?"

Now the WebTV guy was really giving me a weird look. Finally he cracked a sweet little grin. "You're funny," he decided, then turned back to watch the crowd.

"Hey," I tried one more time. "Where are all the geeks at this party?"

WebTV geek didn't know. He was alone. "I think it's mostly music people here," he explained.

About 10 minutes later, I was on my way home. Jamie may have moved the crowd, but he didn't manage to move me.


Annalee Newitz (pirate@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who wishes she could have brought the WebTV guy home with her.

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From the July 19-25, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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