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June 26, 2000

Discontent Provider

A former writer for Wired asks, what do techies really want?

By Gordon Young


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Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech by Paulina Borsook (PublicAffairs, $24)

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 economy.

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.

paulina b.

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