Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly
Libertarian Culture of High-Tech by Paulina Borsook (PublicAffairs,
Paulina Borsook is a self-described feminist, humanist
and luddite. She was also a contributing writer to Wired
magazine back when its flashy design and free-market
fetishism were defining the zeitgeist of the emerging new
Not surprisingly, she did not like what she saw there.
The techies she encountered were, and are, "violently
lacking in compassion, ravingly antigovernment and
tremendously opposed to regulation," Borsook writes in Cyberselfish,
a scathing new survey of Silicon Valley attitudes. "And
like privileged, spoiled teenagers everywhere, they haven't
a clue what their existence would be like without the bounty
showered on them."
In other words, the industry is crawling with
libertarians. Borsook finds this surprising, given that
Silicon Valley has been the beneficiary of almost ceaseless
government munificence. How did an industry invented by the
government and flooded with workers trained at public
research universities (or private ones fueled with federal
dollars) develop such disdain for Washington? Finding the
cause of this apparent disconnect is the major challenge of
the book, and Borsook makes a game attempt, drawing on
everything from ethnographic studies to the anecdotal
evidence of her own dating experiences.
Some of her conclusions are simple: The Web, for example,
gives isolated libertarians everywhere a chance to coalesce.
Other points are more interesting than they are convincing.
Borsook argues that many "techweenies" have
trouble dealing with the inexactitude of human interaction
and prefer the predictability of the well-conceived
algorithms in their daily work with computers. They turn to
libertarianism as a way to weed out the "quirkiness of
humans" via greater and greater reliance on technology.
Well, OK. But wouldn't that apply equally well to state-run
societies? Mussolini's fascism, famously, got the trains to
run on time.
Eventually, Borsook concludes that the "sources of
techno-libertarianism remain a sweet mystery." Given
the difficulties of capturing any zeitgeist – much less a
heavily politicized one – that's an understandable
statement, if somewhat disappointing after nearly 300 pages.
More troubling is that Borsook succumbs to the same
tunnel vision she finds in her subjects. Disdain for the
government is not remotely unique to Silicon Valley, nor is
it relegated only to heated discussions of objectivism. For
better or worse, America has a long tradition of bashing the
state – from the Boston Tea Party to Barry Goldwater to
Bill Clinton's declaration that "the era of big
government is over."
But is government-bashing really the same as
libertarianism? It seems unfair to count all people who
mildly disdain government as part of a pervasive
"libertarian culture." Take, say, a freelance
musician in New York who eventually takes a "real"
job and is shocked to see how much of his paycheck goes to
Uncle Sam. Is he a libertarian because he wants to keep more
of his cash? Hardly.
Most people want the benefits of government without
paying for it, but that doesn't make libertarians of most
people; it only makes them hypocrites. True libertarians
don't want any benefits at all.
That doesn't mean Cyberselfish isn't an
impressive, intriguing effort. Borsook performs a real
service in exposing Valley denizens as self-absorbed
money-grubbers. She might really have been on to something,
though, if she had turned her sights also to Wall Street,
Main Street and the rest of America.