Caught in the Web

Zach Loafman, a gifted St. Mark's teen, fights an addiction to the Internet.

There's a fear of the Internet because most people still don't understand it. It seems wildly unregulated, uncharted, uncontrollable. Zach's parents were exceptions. They knew the fascination for Zach wasn't the dreaded Internet pornography we've read so much about. And Zach wasn't like those movie hackers, breaking security codes, stealing credit card information or threatening national security. For Zach, the Net was simply the perfect escape, a world free from parental friction, from social problems at school and family problems at home. It was a universe where he had the feeling of control, where logic prevailed, his computer curiosity was fed, where people are more like he is. "Attributes that work in cyberspace work in the adult world," says Steven Levy, a long-time observer of computer culture who covers it for Newsweek. "In cyberspace, people are more interested in your mental abilities than kids in high school usually are. There's no jock culture."

Zach started ignoring his friends at St. Mark's as he made more friends on the Net--friends who were physically located in Boston, Missouri, Virginia. At school, he'd always hung out with a small group of like-minded students who took the same honors courses--Latin was the language of choice, since they were all on the math team. It was a brilliant group, but limited. In his computer knowledge, Zach was probably at the level of a lot of college juniors and seniors, so--as far as that goes--Zach fit in better with this young college crowd than he did with most boys at his school.

Zach is shy, he's big and tall, and he wears glasses. He plays bass clarinet in the school band. He doesn't drive without music--his musical tastes are eclectic, to put it mildly. Right now, he prefers a mix of heavy metal, "Mars" by Holst, some Indian sitar music, some bagpipe music, Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, and Monty Python ("I had to have the Spam skit"). He suffers from allergies and occasional asthma. He speaks softly and revises a lot, trying to be perfectly precise, muttering often under his breath, "How can I explain this?," "How can I describe this?" Wild-haired, slightly eccentric, he wears a black trench coat over his school uniform--gray flannel shorts and oxford cloth shirt. Zach's an outstandingly bright guy in a school designed for bright young men, but he is a little lopsided. His favorite emoticom on the Net is the winking smile--; )-- to indicate irony or gentle sarcasm.

Zach speaks in acronyms. Conversing with him is like talking to someone in another language, especially if, like me, you're still having trouble getting the computer to perform basic functions. Like a lot of people my age, I'm still trying to learn what to do with the computer. Zach is interested in teaching the computer what to do. He has some difficulty translating from computer-ese into English. His mother knows this is the norm for "computer people"--she's in Toastmasters to sharpen her communication skills, and she encourages Zach to practice communicating face to face.

He's absent-minded in the classic professor's way--he manages the school basketball team for P.E. credit, but he doesn't always know the final score of the game. He was raised with more awareness of the Netiquette than etiquette--it's OK to put your elbows on the table occasionally, but you should never "SCREAM"--use all caps--on the Net. He's scornful of America Online users and their "stupid questions," people who think the Internet is a new thing, who didn't know about it before AOL and barge around without knowing how to use it.

Zach's a computer idealist. He's offended by the idea of patented algorithms, regarding them as public intellectual property, like the old hackers who programmed in the public domain, who believed information on the Internet should be free to everyone because that's what's going to make the cultural difference in the future. He resents the culture trying to impose itself on the Net--"the traditional hacker is a rebel by nature," he says, referring to his heroes, the early computer prodigies at MIT as portrayed in Steven Levy's book, Hackers, which Zach calls an "important book."

"Early hackers are better role models than, say, football players," Levy says, speaking from his office in New York. "Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith might be great people, but their accomplishments off the field aren't inspiring. There's an iconoclastic--but not violent--element to the hackers' ethic that would appeal to teenagers. And society is really rewarding these people now--they're millionaires."

The hacker ethic: Access to computers should be unlimited and total. All information should be free. Mistrust authority. Computers can change your life for the better.

St. Mark's only offers two computer science courses, which Zach took in the first two years of upper school. He's trying to schedule a CS class at a local college--Southern Methodist University, University of Texas at Dallas, or even University of North Texas, where his stepmother works--which is allowed by St. Mark's as long as it meshes with his courses there (difficult, since the school is on a trimester system). He thinks about returning to St. Mark's to teach computer science, and he already has his course planned--"object-oriented--they have nothing on that." He's even imagined the first day of class. "I'd just walk in and throw them an orange, and say, 'Tell me about this. What properties does this object have?'" He likes to imagine creating a computer virus that would break through anti-virus programs, one that, after announcing its presence to a dismayed user, would actually attack and destroy other computer viruses--a T-cell computer virus.

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