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True Nerd Tales

Or, why I occasionally get nostalgic for 1985

By Annalee Newitz

In 1985, I was a depressed, hyper-intellectual nerd who read John Fowles novels for fun and was obsessed with pornography. At a time when most of my 10th-grade classmates were just saying no to sex, drugs and progressive politics, I was a self-declared bisexual leftist. Living in Irvine, Calif., at the height of the Reagan Era, I was the very definition of "psychotic freak." But I loved 1985. That was the year when I met the best friends I had in high school. They were a pack of boys who called themselves--in the quaint lingo of the time--hackers, phreakers and crackers. This year smack in the middle of the 1980s was also the year I learned to love machines, and to lust after the geeks who toy with them.

Looking back, I often wonder how an oversexed female proto-English major managed to hook up with a group of sexually repressed, techno-obsessed boys with weird social skills. Ultimately, however, it isn't terribly surprising. All the outcasts know each other in communities like Irvine: we stick out like civilians in a militarized zone; we're the T-shirts and sneakers among the guns and boots.

In late 1984 I met John, who became my first true hacker pal. His souped-up Apple II was so stuffed with illegal copies of games that he called himself a pirate.

He knew my demented friend Tim, a.k.a. Gandalf, from local BBSs where everybody could send email and download porn or games. Tim introduced me to Cory and Jeff, a.k.a. Splat and Ectoplasm, on a chat board called WizNet. And everybody knew Jeff, a.k.a. The Gonif, because he was one of Irvine's most notorious hackers. The Gonif's handle appeared on countless "liberated" games whose copyright codes he cracked.

Together, we were a giddy, hazardous phalanx of nerds, tying up our parents' phone lines with data streams late at night, frenziedly playing videogames at the local mall (Tempest on an emulator just isn't the same), and consuming massive volumes of junk food when we hung around at John's place on the weekends watching '80s sci-fi like The Terminator and Videodrome. We weren't the kinds of geeks that David Bennahum--who is exactly my age--celebrated in his dry, sanitized techno-teen memoir Extra Life. We did not learn about hierarchy and the work ethic from our experiments with computers. Instead, we learned about the joys of breaking the law. And we learned about sex, which is supposed to be the one thing that nerds never have.

I always think fondly of Jeff/The Gonif when I remember that time. Like most new users, I looked up to him because he taught me about assembly language and he told me secrets gleaned from The Pig Sty, a local hacker elite BBS. He also taught me about geek love.

We began our friendship in the summer of 1985 on WizNet, where both of us spent a lot of time chatting. On WizNet, he wasn't The Gonif, the celebrity hacker. He called himself simply "Jeff ..."--and the ellipses were a kind of literary flourish that appealed to me narratively the same way that a gorgeous smile might have appealed to an ordinary young woman. Having never seen Jeff ... in the flesh, I was seduced by the way he expressed himself through language. Very late one night we were in a private chat room, the two of us embossed in green light on my Kaypro 4 screen, speaking to each other in a way that felt almost telepathic. He had been telling me some small, personal detail about himself. I vividly recall writing back, "I love your mind." To a 16-year-old bookworm, nothing could have been more romantic and sexually charged than having a chance to fall in love entirely through the medium of text.

Of course we didn't stay textual for long. We began to meet in the flesh, and I taught him about erotic pleasure while he taught me about the mental thrill of hacking. I can remember lying naked between The Gonif and his computer, which glowed next to his bed in the darkness. Once, he programmed his Apple II to answer the phone when he knew I'd be calling--after a couple of rings, the voice synthesizer said in its electronic warble, "Hello, Annalee, I love you." Ever since then, nothing could ever really do it for me like a nerd and his computer. I will always go weak in the knees when I watch the scruffy, awkward commuters heading down to Silicon Valley or across the city to South Park in the mornings. And I will always be proud to call myself a nerd slut.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd. It won't cost you anything to email her your rational comments, violent disagreements or love letters at [email protected]

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From the November 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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