Book Shopping
Copyright 2000 The Seattle Times Company
Arts & Entertainment : Tuesday, July 11, 2000

Author sounds alarm on 'technolibertarian' cultural influences
by Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times staff reporter
A Critical Romp
Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture
of High-Tech"

by Paulina Borsook
PublicAffairs, $24
Paulina Borsook reads from her book at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Elliott Bay Book Company, 101 S. Main St., Seattle, and at 7 p.m. Thursday at University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle.

Author Paulina Borsook has hit a cultural nerve.

Her book, "Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech," is a witty and mordant examination of, and ultimately, diatribe against, the "dangerously naive" and "downright scary" social and political culture of Silicon Valley.

It's also a warning shot of what Borsook thinks Seattle - and the nation - could become.

Published merely a month ago, the book is already drawing rants and raves from readers and critics.

"Finally someone says it!" writes one visitor to Borsook's "Cyberselfish" Web site (and, of course, there is a Web site for the book.) "Nowe (sic) that wew (sic) know the prob (sic), hope we can still save society!"

Plenty more people, though, are flaming her roundly around the Web.

"Obviously you don't know what Libertarianism really is," says another visitor to her book site. "If you did, you wouldn't be writing this tripe. . . . You're the one contributing to the downfall of society basing your worldview on your `feelings.' "

Borsook, 46, is used to this sort of reaction to her works. A free-lance writer based in Santa Cruz, Borsook's pointed, ironic articles, which have run in everything from Mother Jones to Wired (where she was a regular contributor), chronicles the Silicon Valley technoculture and the effect it's having on society at large. Recently she was named the 13th most powerful woman in technology by the AltaVista portal.

What she's most concerned about is that "since people so admire Silicon Valley and all the money made there, they're exporting the ideology," said Borsook in a phone interview. "We want to get as rich as these people so we want to ape their behavior and beliefs."

And what are these beliefs that Borsook believes to be so dangerous? It boils down to a political culture she calls "philosophical technolibertarianism" - a world view that is "ravingly" anti-government and anti-regulation.

"It bespeaks a lack of human connection and a discomfort with the core of what many of us consider it means to be human," she writes.

"It's an inability to reconcile the demands of being individual with the demands of participating in society, which coincides beautifully with a preference for, and glorification of, being the solo commander of one's computer in lieu of any other economically viable behavior."

It's a supremely ironic, not to say blind, position, Borsook contends, since "no society has benefited more and suffered less from government actions than high-tech and I could not figure out why these people were acting like this."

Government funded the Internet for years and provided the economic shelter for decades that allowed for technological innovations.

Borsook chronicles the various causes and manifestations of the technolibertarian viewpoint, from an underlying belief in free-market capitalism as ecosystem (akin to social Darwinism) to Wired magazine as both a reflection of and a guide for the libertarian mindset.

She looks at the bizarre intersection of MBAs and techno-geeks who previously had nothing in common now joining together in worship of the dollar and a belief in the evils of government intervention.

It's a picture, really, of an adolescent culture, disdainful of parental authority, scornful of other mindsets, quick to jump on the next big thing without reflection, she says.

And it's a culture that rewards entrepreneurs: the type of personality that "needs little downtime, which must be narrowly focused and not prone to self-doubt, which will do all and anything to succeed, which tirelessly and compulsively must act like the greatest salesman in the world."

This sort of mindset, of course, is nothing new - America has always celebrated the Henry Fords and Nelson Rockefellers. What is new, Borsook says, is the extent to which this belief is entering the mainstream.

"Everyone in the world now believes they should act like this," she says. "In the past, entrepreneurship wasn't held up as the only good, the only career path worth having."

Seattle, for some reason, has managed not to fall headlong into this belief - yet, she says. It merits very little mention in the book - perhaps because Silicon Valley has for decades had an underlying libertarian strain that Seattle hasn't.

"Maybe it's the good Scandinavian ethic," she says. "Or it's that you guys had timber, salmon, Boeing, Microsoft. So as a community, you're better equipped to deal with huge, 100-pound gorillas in the room. Silicon Valley's only been here about 30 years and only in the last five years has it kind of swamped everything else in the region and we kind of don't know how to deal with it."

That may well change as the number of high-tech companies in the Northwest expands and the high-tech ethos spreads.

"There's something about your culture that trumps the libertarian culture so far," she says. "But only so far. As this attitude gets exported, that may well change. You have to think about how to make your culture persevere."

Whether you agree with her or not - and there are plenty of people who believe that Borsook is either off the mark or that she's sounding too alarmist a bell - her book is eliciting attention.

"I'm just doing pattern recognition," Borsook says. "I hope people will see the pattern in their lives. And I hope they can then counteract that - that people will recognize that just because it's making so much money doesn't mean the rest of the culture is good."

paulina b.

  Contact the author

  Leave A Comment
Cyberselfish 2015
Looking Back

Website restored and maintained by Sleepless Media