In 1998, when I was 9 and on a family vacation, I spent six hours in the San Juan airport with nothing to keep me entertained but a single paperback. I only hazily remember the plot: a team of computer-savvy teens from around the world working together to save the space shuttle from cyberterrorists. I read it four or five times in a row, and though I lost the book years ago, its cover—lime green, with a space shuttle surrounded by various “computery” visuals—was permanently etched into my brain.
I’ve always been fascinated with pop culture ephemera, the countless books and movies that, despite someone pouring their heart into creating them, never quite caught on. I’m also endlessly amused by the ’90s pop culture insistence that everything be “cool” and “radical”—a book about hip, high-tech teens saving NASA from disaster seemed like it would be the perfect snapshot of a time when computers were magical.
And as someone who now makes a living writing on the Internet, I thought re-examining the series could say something about just how much the Internet has changed. If it didn’t, I’d at least patch that infuriating hole in my memory, and maybe remember why my 9-year-old self had fallen so in love with this book.
The only problem was that the series had vanished, and I couldn’t remember any titles. Every now and then I would fruitlessly Google; I thought maybe the series was called “cyber kids,” but otherwise I was lost. After more than a year of searching, some special combination of “cyber, kids, space shuttle, nineties” and God knows what else turned up a Reddit post by another old fan.
The book I remembered was actually called The Great NASA Flu, the third in a six-book series featuring the Cyber.kdz—it was that unique spelling that had doomed all my earlier searches. The Cyber.kdz were six teenagers and a tagalong younger brother; living around the world but connected by the Internet, they fought crimes, from eradicating that NASA-threatening virus to confronting hackers running a grade-tampering scam at school. They even had less computer-related exploits, like thwarting tree poachers on the Amazon, and investigating an art theft at the Louvre.
The Reddit post thread included a link to the official site: Not only is it still up and running, but it’s a time warp to the ’90s. Considering how many sites from the Web’s early days are either gone or modernized, it was the virtual equivalent of discovering a ghost town. Even better, it featured sample book chapters, along with a glossary of the kdz’s slang. From “Frisbee” meaning “CD-ROM” to “Take a drive for a spin” referring to searching a database, the jargon is gloriously ’90s. (Feel free to take the quiz.)
Predictably, the slang sounds hokey today, but looking at the website, I remembered why the books so appealed to me. The stories—written in a mix of chats, emails, journal entries (not blogs; those didn’t exist yet), and regular prose—hold up surprisingly well. (As far as the technical details are concerned, the characters might as well be speaking Shakespearean English: Deeder, the kdz’s Dutch representative, brags about his 200 MHz dual Pentium, a computer that would be incapable of reading this article.) To my 9-year-old self, the kdz were cool. Though it would be a couple of years before I signed up for a gaming forum and started to get Web culture, I liked playing with computers and had seen my dad use the Internet. To someone on the outside looking in, a secret international club of cyberkids who fought crime wasn’t just something awesome that I wanted to do—it was plausible. As mundane as it sounds today, the idea of using email to talk to a friend on the other side of the world was new and exciting. Kids in Holland are into computers, just like me!
Years later, after the euphoria had worn off, I thought: Who better to offer insight into the cyberkdz than the writer who had briefly made me so enamored of them? I emailed the author, Bruce Balan, but I didn’t expect a response; his sporadically updated personal site looked as timely as the official kdz site, and it had a warning that he often went months without answering emails. But I got a friendly reply within three hours, and with it came a weird sense of glee. I was emailing with the guy who taught me how cool email could be!
A secret international club of cyberkids who fought crime wasn’t just something awesome that I wanted to do—it was plausible.
Balan told me he’d been a programmer, an early technology adopter who moonlighted as a children’s writer, and he’d found himself teaching his fellow writers about computers and encouraging them to get websites to promote their work. With the Cyber.kdz series, he wanted to be the first to write an epistolary email book. At the time, Internet use was still limited to the tech-savvy, but his idea was rooted in everyday tropes he figured kids would identify with. “I was on Compuserve early, and that’s when I started to get the idea for Cyber.kdz,” he says. “The forums were like clubs, and kids love to be in clubs. I started to think about what that would be like in a connected world. I loved the idea about kids connecting from far away.”
Balan wrote his Cyber.kdz proposal in 1994, when pop culture largely portrayed the Internet as a nebulous tool for weirdos and lowlifes. But he thought the Internet would inevitably connect everyone, not just techies. And so, his kdz were more down-to-earth—sure, they battled poachers, crime rings, and terrorists, but they also talked about school and family problems. One of the kdz, Becky, was really into reading, just like me as a kid. And one book dealt with cyberbullying and Becky’s hesitance about sharing her picture online—it’s the kind of plot point that makes the series a weird mix of prescient and silly.
Even the dated slang has a bit of truth to it. The Internet does have its own weird language, so reading Balan’s books is like looking at an alternate vision of the Internet that never quite came to pass. For his part, he just figured that a group of teens needed their own vocabulary. “Anyone in any organization has their own jargon. And kids love slang. I made it all up.” He says he’s not a fan of most Internet slang, and he’s particularly bothered by the ubiquity of “fail”—“especially when it is used on stupid videos where people are actually just having accidents and not failing at anything. A couple of years ago my wife pointed out that I had used the word as slang in Cyber.kdz. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself.”
Tragically, we don’t still refer to the money we spend on our Internet connections as “playdough.” But that epitomizes how the ’90s portrayed the Internet—mostly insanely, but with hints of what was to come. Balan even notes that he’s proud of another piece of kdz slang: “drivel,” which refers to “99% of what passes through the net.”
Balan’s books were largely sold through Scholastic book fairs, which was where that space shuttle cover first caught my eye. He also gave readings and talks in schools and libraries, which gave him a good look at how people viewed the still-new Internet. “I had a whole spiel that I sometimes used to teach kids, parents, and teachers about the Internet. I had kids holding pieces of string between them and playing the role of domain name servers and email servers while other kids were messages traveling along the strings asking the servers where to go.”
He found that his readers grasped the concept pretty quickly, but some booksellers weren’t as enthusiastic. “Barnes and Noble refused to place a nationwide order because, and this is a direct quote, ‘Kids who are into computers don’t read,’” he says. “At that time, if B&N didn’t carry you, it was impossible to survive. I went crazy when I heard, as I knew reality was just the opposite. All the kids I met that were into computers were the smart ones who loved to read. There was a disconnect between many adults and the way kids used computers and the Internet.” So a book series about the Internet struggled in part because a brick-and-mortar store wouldn’t endorse it. He wrote six books in about a year, but the series was killed and fell out of print when his publisher was bought out.
But he was right about that disconnect between adults and kids, at least in my case. I was into computers, and I loved to read, but most of the books in the school library felt old-fashioned. The Hardy Boys and the Boxcar Children were fine, but they didn’t live in the modern world. Even contemporary series, like Goosebumps and Animorphs, treated modern technology like an afterthought, as did many teachers—I loved screwing around with school computers, playing games and drawing in Kid Pix and otherwise just seeing what neat things I could make them do. Yet even though we had a computer lab and dedicated computer classes, most of our teachers never quite seemed to get why we wanted to spend so much time on them, so they told us to turn them off and go do something else. But the kdz got the appeal: They were modern teens who had the freedom, both on their computers and offline, that I wished I had.
That disconnect between adults and kids online still exists, of course. Balan’s kdz would be adults now, and it’s impossible to imagine today’s teens identifying with their email-based adventures. “I’ve always viewed emails as a letter that gets there really fast,” he says. “But I’m incredibly old-fashioned. In fact, over this past year I’ve been floored to find out that email is already old-fashioned! It was a shock to communicate with some 18- and 20-year-olds and find out that if I sent them an email, they probably wouldn’t see it for days or weeks. They only have email accounts so they can sign up for their social media accounts.”
Balan’s own relationship with the Internet has changed just as dramatically. Once on the cutting edge of it, he now only uses it for email, weather, research, and a little news. He and his wife have been sailing the world since 2005 (appropriately enough, he was in Malaysia when he told me about his globe-trotting kdz), and Balan initially found himself without access for months—although those periods are rarer now as the net continues to expand around the world. Outside of occasionally updating his sailing site and keeping an eye on his ebooks that are about as far removed from the kdz as you can imagine (one’s about sailing, the other a magic hippo), one of the first authors to have a website now barely has an online presence at all.
“This is one of the most surprising parts of my life,” he says. “I have a very limited relationship with the ’net now. I don’t do any social media. I love the fact that the ’net can give me heaps of weather information quickly. I love that I can use Google for research or simply satisfying curiosity. But I am actually much happier when we are at sea and don’t have a connection. I’m much more at peace when I am away from the pull of the Internet—the news, the instant-ness of it. It has so little to do with real life, while being out at sea on a sailboat has everything to do with it.”
“This is one of the most surprising parts of my life. I have a very limited relationship with the ’net now. I don’t do any social media.”
Balan’s work remains a fascinating snapshot of how we used to view the Internet, even as the Internet itself has allowed the Cyber.kdz to fade into obscurity. If you dig deeply, a few interesting relics remain: a Facebook fan page with a single lonely like and Amazon reviews from the late ’90s written simply by the generic “A customer,” as well as a 61-member fan-created Yahoo group that once served as “a hangout for Cyber.KDZ fans around the globe !!!” Early group messages from 1999 and 2000 are enthusiastic—the fans arrange chats, talk about school, and make fun of the underwhelming nonevent that was Y2K. Balan himself once dropped in to say hello, in an early example of online fan engagement. But by 2001, its members started to drift away, and the group was eventually taken over by spammers—who themselves gave up on it by 2012.
And as more time passes, the Internet will continue to forget the time when we thought kids would be emailing each other to coordinate their battles against nefarious hackers. The 9-year-old kid content to endlessly read about the Internet despite barely knowing what it was now spends all day working on it. And while he enjoys it just fine, the novelty has long since worn off.
Most of what made Cyber.kdz so compelling to me as a child has actually more or less come true: I have friends and collaborators around the world and, just like the kdz who helped one another through personal problems in between their crime-busting duties, I know I can count on them for an ear. But I’ve been using the Internet for so long that it now just feels utilitarian, and the strongest emotion it gets out of me is usually either irritation at a particularly loathsome troll, or annoyance when my connection goes down. Revisiting the Cyber.kdz and reaching their author on a boat on the other side of the planet made me take a step back and realize that my 9-year-old self was right to be awed by how powerful the Internet is, even if no one’s calling Java-based programs “percolators.”
Illustration via Max Fleishman