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Of greed, technolibertarianism and geek omnipotence

Paulina Borsook talks with Thomas Scoville about her new book, "Cyberselfish."

Of greed, technolibertarianism and geek omnipotence

By now we’re heard it so many times that even the most rabid technology boosters are weary of it: The geek wizards of the New Economy, aided by microelectronics, deregulation and free markets, have boot-strapped productivity through the roof and irrevocably improved life on earth. All hail the captains of digital industry, for they have done what government could never do: With nothing but pluck, vision and venture capital, they have conjured a better world out of thin air — on time, and under budget. If only government could be run like a cyber-business, we should all dreamily imagine.

As Paulina Borsook might reply, “yeah — right.” But then, she’s making a fine career out of challenging, rebutting, baiting and vexing the conspicuously libertarian technology community. Last year’s essay, “How the Internet Ruined San Francisco,” touched off a vintage Borsookian conflagration, unleashing a hell-storm of flaming responses across the Web from angry and aggrieved Northern California computer elites.

That was just the warm-up, it now appears. Borsook, who has been closely observing technology’s elites for two decades, has broadened her investigation with a volume of even more scathing ontological critiques. In her new book “Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech,” Borsook sounds a round challenge to the techie conceit of total autonomy. She asserts — among other highly flammable propositions — that decades of government funding for basic research, aerospace electronics, housing and higher education are conspicuously absent from the standard story of privatized technology heroics. She sees the prevailing libertarian ethos of Silicon Valley and the technology sector as merely a strain of geeky, adolescent narcissism masquerading — and dignifying itself — as politics.

It seems like you’re contending that technolibertarianism is a rhetorical projection of control-oriented, non-communitarian, arrested-adolescent urges of the preponderantly male geek technocracy. You document a collective, industry-wide failure to grow up and participate in society, as well as a culture that celebrates a massive underdevelopment of its humanity. Did I get that right?

Well, yes, I suppose. Though I should say this book was written over several years, and the culture has changed a bit over that time. One of the very recent changes has been that the übergeek libertarian culture I wrote about has been mated with MBA culture, which brings its own prejudices and religious beliefs to the party.

That’s an interesting melding: the masters-of-the-universe MBA culture colliding with awkward geek, “I don’t have the world’s best social skills” culture. But they love each other’s rhetoric and ideology and there’s a strange sort of symbiosis going on. Geeks and MBAs intrigue each other for complementary reasons: MBAs like being associated with the geek shibboleths of inventiveness and revolution; Geeks are attracted to the MBAs’ promise of making things real through the glamour of money. And both of them like money because it’s something that can be counted.

So now, when we talk about high-tech culture, a lot of what we’re talking about is really business-speculation culture, and a transplanted Midtown Manhattan advertising culture, or Wall Street financial culture. So, though we may use the words “high tech” these days to refer to this group, they’re not all the same kind of person — but they are finding lots of common ground.

Absolutely. I noticed that at some point in the mid-’90s, we got major culture-creep, when programmers and systems administrators all became covert stock traders on the Web.

Yes. It’s horrifying. [laughs] Because — and I’m not anti-technology or anti-geek — what is really best about these people is what I call their “curious child” quality — scientists have it — that kind of noodling around with code, and zoning out for 36 hours at a time working on something. That’s where the really good creative work can happen. But if you have one corner of your monitor that’s constantly watching the stock market, or you’re thinking about what sort of play you can come up with to impress the institutional investors, well, that’s not how really serious technology work gets done. That, to me, is kind of sad and scary, and — not to sound patronizing — but kind of a loss of their innocence in a way that I don’t think is good.

At what point did you decide you had to write “Cyberselfish”? What did you hope to accomplish in writing it?

I guess it’s because I had been writing so much for Wired and I had the usual love-hate relationship with the magazine that many of us did in the early days, which was that I loved that the magazine was so literary and so cultural and did new stuff that nobody else would have done, and placed technology alongside culture, and I was besotted with it.

But then I began to realize that they were deeply libertarian — which freaked me out; I didn’t know that going in — and I didn’t understand it. And any time I don’t understand something I have to write about it, like that old George Orwell notion of “I write to find out what I think.” This intersection of technology and libertarian philosophy and world view — really it’s not so much politics, but something else — was fascinating, and it just seemed worth a book.

I really intended the book as a tour guide to a subculture. It’s like, if you were an anthropologist from Mars and you were to come down to late 20th century earth, and you might look at a Russian Orthodox priest and a lay Unitarian gay community worker and those two people might think they’re really different from each other, but the Martian anthropologist would see two vague Judeo-Christian things that were more alike than not. With “Cyberselfish,” it’s really important that people understand that I’m talking about a spectrum of things — it’s subtle, it’s not just aimed at people in the Cato Institute or something. It’s really important to stress the number of times I’ve heard computer people say, “Well, I’m not a libertarian like that wacko over there, but I think the government is in people’s lives too much,” or “I believe in the free market,” or advance this fantasy that there’s no interdependency or no mesh and that somehow the government doesn’t make this a safe, reasonable place to live and make lots of money.

You write about the willful blindness by techies to the prior contributions of government and universities in creating the foundations of the Internet. In your own perfect hypothetical world, what kind of evil torture might you contrive to open their eyes?

I want to say something like an “It’s a Wonderful Life” kind of scenario: “Look, Jimmy Stewart — what would it be like if you hadn’t lived!” I mean, you’d have to think of something like that, because, the problem with the Internet example, and all the other examples in the book — there’s nothing new in there, I’m just pulling it all together — is that the really important thing to remember is the Internet/ARPANET was sheltered from having to make any money for, like, 15 years. So how can you give people an image of what it would be like to live in a world without economic shelter of any kind?

What would it be like to live in a world in which there was never a time-out from the philosophy and pressure of the marketplace? It’s kind of like trying to explain to people the notion of prior restraint, or how their world is impoverished by the absence of something they’ve never seen. And that’s a very hard thing to do, and since I’m not fundamentally sadistic, it’s hard for me to come up with a torture.

There seems to be this hidden assumption in geekdom that cleverness at coding must naturally generalize to all other areas of knowledge — as if being a good hacker qualifies geeks to be philosopher-kings as well. Would you agree? Where do you think this feeling of intellectual entitlement comes from?

I would totally agree, but then again I must be a little bit fair — there are lots of doctors and lawyers and other people who think, well, if I ran the world, I’d know what I was doing. I think perhaps that in the geek world — because you’re basically always creating a system that will work and respond, you’re creating little, bounded universes all the time — I think perhaps it’s more tempting to think that this kind of general omnipotence can extrapolate out from that. Because [as a programmer] you’re often being brought in to solve a problem — whatever it is — and even if you solve that problem poorly, or with unnecessary complexity, the fact is that you’re confident in your skill set as a problem-solver. So why wouldn’t that extend to everything else?

If the shakeout of the dot-coms continues as we’ve seen recently, if more companies die off or are eaten by larger companies, and the prevailing technolibertarian meritocracy pose becomes less and less tenable, do you think the rhetoric within the industry will change? As the losers file for protection or seek government intervention, do you anticipate a, shall we say, softening of the libertarian hard line?

I’m very, very curious to see what happens — whether [technolibertarians] are going to hew to the social Darwinist line or maybe be more intellectually honest, and say it’s more a matter of luck — but I don’t see that happening in high tech.

It’s a lottery — it’s a less rigged lottery than other things, but it is still a lottery — so, I’m going to be very curious to see what happens when people want to say, “It’s not fair, it’s not fair, my company never IPO’ed, but my friend’s company went public six months ago, and he got his money out and I didn’t, and it’s not fair.”

So, it’s going to be hard to tell because — you know the notion of cognitive dissonance — it’s like some chiliastic cult that thinks the end of the world is going to happen, and then it doesn’t happen, and their fearless leader comes up with an explanation of why the end of the world didn’t happen. This ideology is so pervasive and largely invisible that I’m not going to say yes, they’re going to have a more sober and mediated view of human life because of witnessing a NASDAQ wobble. I could hope that might happen, but I’d be reluctant to predict it.

Do you know any women technolibertarians? How do they justify/explain the wild gender-skew of technolibertarianism?

I do know some women technolibertarians, and — just like there are women fans of Ayn Rand. Rand was so violently anti-female in so many ways, but I guess that’s OK with some women. They really have no explanation for the gender skew. I have to a make a distinction here, though: When I talk about technolibertarianism, it’s a spectrum with a whole range of people along that spectrum, and among the really hard-core technolibertarians there are really very few women. But in the more moderate, free-market-works-for-everybody, it’s-a-meritocracy, self-reliance-is-best crowd, there are more women. They are not that different from, say, the women attending business school. Business school is also a world that skews male, but doesn’t skew as madly.

Much of the most stinging indictments of “Cyberselfish” spring from your examination of philanthropy — or shocking lack of it — in the tech sector. Technology seems to be a game for young, unattached males, who typically seem to strongly discount their own mortality. Do you see any coincidence that Bill Hewlett and David Packard — now deceased — were major exceptions to the stinginess of the industry, particularly in advanced age, when their mortality was clearly presenting itself? And how do you account for the Gates Foundation?

Now that Hewlett and Packard are gone, it’s not like you see anyone else stepping forward to fill their shoes. What we forget is even though there are all these 20-year-olds worth zillions of dollars on paper, there are many people in the Silicon Valley in high tech who are way over the age of 25. And nobody is stepping forward.

There’s a story about Bill Hewlett’s response to all these great initiatives to teach entrepreneurial skills to the disadvantaged, et cetera — all that Way New Philanthropy stuff — and he said, “Yes, but first you have to feed them.” In other words, this whole notion of compassion and caring and that there are human problems that can’t be solved but just require care or even money, gets lost.

I also think it’s an interesting hypocrisy in high tech — which I don’t get into in the book, but something I’ve been thinking about a lot — it’s kind of a two-tiered thing, which is that the classic charitable act in high tech is to do a Web site for a nonprofit, or donate computers or whatever, and that’s fine, but the winners in high tech measure each other with money — like, “Money is OK for you and me, but those other people over there, they’ll get whatever technology we want to tithe.” So there’s a weird disconnect between what they really value and what they’re trying to tell everybody else is valuable.

Bill Gates has obviously been giving away a lot of money recently. And I think what the Gates Foundation is doing is laudable. But again, I think that technology and tech culture start in the Silicon Valley. Microsoft is kind of a planet unto itself, and though it plays a major economic role in the computer industry, Microsoft doesn’t inform the culture of high tech anywhere near in proportion to its size as a company. And again, very few are following Gates’ lead — certainly no one with the stature or clout of a Hewlett or a Packard. I just don’t see anybody else saying, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great to make a billion dollars and give a bunch of it away.”

I think you’re going to ruffle more than a few feathers with “Cyberselfish.” As a recovering nerd, my intuition is that you’ve shined a light into a dark, uncomfortable place in the collective geek subconscious — you seem to have psychoanalyzed the industry, and found it to be a raving narcissist. And — as in the case of most narcissists who receive unsolicited analysis — the industry will certainly respond bitterly. Aren’t you a little worried about being buried in geek ire?

I’m anticipating it. It’s one of the things I lie awake at night staring at the ceiling and thinking about. Unlike many writers who have fantasies of ending up on bestseller lists, I worry about the amount of flaming e-mail I’m going to be getting — I’m basically a very nice girl, and don’t really understand why everybody gets so upset with what I do. One aspect I’m coming to see is the line between people who are genuinely interested in the world we’re living in, and seem to be really hungry [for my work] because I seem to be articulating some of their unease, and the techies [who] are just going to ignore me, or flame me, or write me off as a flaky girl and what does she know anyway? But that’s the risk I took writing this book. And the other risk I took, well, I have this day job writing about technology, and it’s like that Julia Phillips book, “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again.” But whatever part of me thinks you should speak the truth to power — and I’m not an activist per se — well, I think you have to write the truth as you know it because that has some social value. And I just couldn’t turn my back on that.

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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