© 2000 The Seattle Times Company
Arts & Entertainment : Tuesday, July 11, 2000
Author sounds alarm on 'technolibertarian'
by Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times staff reporter
A Critical Romp
Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture
by Paulina Borsook
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.,
Author Paulina Borsook has hit a cultural
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
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
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
"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
Government funded the Internet for years and provided the
economic shelter for decades that allowed for technological
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
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
"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
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."