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Tech Culture

If you've ever known a geek, or even been one, you'll want to read Cyberselfish. Paulina Borsook provocatively examines how workers in high-tech--from marketing Barbie bunnies to dot.com millionaires--display a soulless libertarianism far beyond the political and verging on the religious. Here she tells Amazon.co.uk Cyberculture Editor Liz Bailey about virtual romance, business porn and the ideas that shaped her book.

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Amazon.co.uk: When did you first come into contact with high-tech?

Paulina Borsook : I grew up in Pasadena, California, and I've lived in the Bay Area off and on since 1973--most of my adult life. I first started knocking around high tech in the early '80s. It wasn't Silicon Valley then but it was still high tech. I worked at a software company in Mill Valley, which is a beautiful suburban county just north of San Francisco. I didn't study high-tech at university. My undergraduate degree is in psycholinguistics with a minor in philosophy, and then I have an MSA from Columbia's writing division, school of the arts. That's a fiction degree.

Amazon.co.uk: Have you written any novels, then?

Borsook : No. My MSA thesis was a series of interconnected short stories showing how the new technologies could form relationships. I was writing this in the late '80s and early '90s, and I can promise you, No Body Got It.

My first published story is called "Virtual Romance". It's about how one gets seduced into the pseudo-intimacy of online connection. Both "Love Over the Wires" [fiction Borsook had published in Wired] and Virtual Romance have been anthologised and reprinted. They've had a life of their own: they're minor modern classics of a very small kind.

I would argue that my novelistic or creative impulses underlie all my writing. Cyberselfish is a book-length essay, it is not journalism. This is gonzo anthropology: it is not an argument in the sense of Susan Faludi's Backlash. It's really much more like Tom Wolfe writing From Bauhaus to Our House or writing about the Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. It's ethnography.

Amazon.co.uk: You say that a shift occurred in the people working in high tech, from "New Deal Democrats" when you were growing up, to the current crop of technolibertarians. Why did that happen?

Borsook : I don't come to any single conclusion in the book, but then again, that would be like saying, well, 'What caused the counterculture?'. I think a lot of things played into it. For example, Silicon Valley culture rose post-Watergate, post-Vietnam. Also, the western United States are very different from the eastern. There is this attitude of, 'Put in the roads, bring in the schools, bring in law and order and give us power, then get the hell out of town.'

The invasion of the MBA culture has grafted itself onto technology culture. The MBAs have borrowed a lot of the same rhetoric--of innovation, of creativity, of creating this emergent revolutionary global culture--but that's not what's going on here right now. It's really about the business deal, highly speculative, the culture of flip-and-flee, which is very much like the Liar's Poker culture Michael Lewis writes about.

Amazon.co.uk: Do you feel a bit like a lone voice in the wilderness?

Borsook : I've come up with a term for all these business books: business porn. Emotion porn is Harlequin romances, and action porn is Tom Clancy novels. Business porn is this very repetitive, you-know-the-plot, it's-all-going-to-go-the-same-way kind of book. The reading experience is voyeuristic. None of them say anything new, they're self-celebratory and not even particularly useful.

In a way it makes you feel lonely. Four or five years ago there were more books like mine and Techgnosis.

Amazon.co.uk: How did you get into writing about tech?

Borsook : I was living in New York and I got a job at a magazine called PC Junior--the PC Junior was a sort of stillborn, disabled PC IBM. I then went to Data Communications in 1984. I was working at this very bits-and-bytes, stodgy computer publication that was really respected, and thrown into this hard-core culture of networking which was regarded as a mixture of black magic and plumbing.

Amazon.co.uk: What made you come back to San Francisco?

Borsook : I was there for three years, and I really wanted to come back home. I became the west coast bureau chief on a magazine, and then in 1989, I quit to go freelancing. I'd always had these artistic pretensions. I didn't want to be editor of a monthly magazine, not a mainstream journalist. I freelanced my way through graduate school writing for high-tech corporations and writing for every computer magazine you've ever heard of and some you've never heard of.

Amazon.co.uk: Where does your family come from originally?

Borsook : My family story's the typical eastern-European-Jewish-fleeing-religious-persecution thing. I am half-Canadian, though. To people in the UK there's not much difference between an American and a Canadian, but there are huge differences. In a funny way I think it shaped a lot of my thinking. Canada has a more benign culture than the States, a more civic society.

paulina b.

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