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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)
July 30, 2000, SUNDAY

Techie philosophy doesn't compute

By Paul Rosenberg

Rosenberg, a writer in Los Angeles, is founder of Reason & Democracy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to diversity and; democratic values.

For those unaccustomed to it, it's difficult to define the strange amalgam of Ayn Rand and high-tech that is technolibertarianism, but nearly everyone who has followed political controversies on the Internet has encountered it in some form: an often shrill, sarcastic and self-righteous mindset, religiously pro-business and anti-government, whose adherents firmly believe that federal intrusion into online privacy is the defining civil liberties issue of our time. As Paulina Borsook puts it in Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through The Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech, "Libertarianism is a computer-culture badge of belonging, and libertarians are the most vocal political thinkers and talkers in high tech."

Ah, but why? How does an industry utterly beholden to government for its existence fall in love with a philosophy loudly proclaiming that government is inherently evil? How does an industry that's every bit as chance-ridden, unpredictable and fickle as the entertainment business come to embrace its wildly fluctuating box-office figures as immutable, rationally decreed divine law? Why would anyone over the age of 17 take Ayn Rand seriously as a philosopher? These are some of the questions one might hope Borsook would answer.

But clear-cut answers - which technolibertarians dearly love - are not what Borsook is about. Her critique produces a heightened awareness of contradictions, tendencies, yearnings and frustrations - a vivid, dynamic pastiche - but no final, all-encompassing picture and certainly not a paint-by-numbers mirror image of libertarian simplicity.

Cyberselfish unfolds as a critical voyage of discovery, revealing its subject only gradually, altering perspectives to highlight different aspects.

At the beginning, Borsook draws two important distinctions: first, between political libertarianism (a small minority position) and philosophical libertarianism (an omnipresent mindset writ large in Silicon Valley's appalling lack of philanthropy or involvement in civic affairs). Second, she distinguishes ravers (hedonistic lifestyle, 'keep your hands off my body' libertarians) from "gilders" (social conservatives enamored "with the spirit of enterprise and the spirituality of the microchip"). These two represent broad cultural clusters, blissfully ignorant of how mutually contradictory they are. It's enough to strike similar poses together, shaking their fists and spitting in the same general direction.

A common lingo also helps. Bionomics recycles the age-old economy/biology analogy with a new twist: the libertarian point that ecosystem evolution and hence the market is far too complex for any centralized control. "The economy is a rainforest" reads a bionomic bumper-sticker. Yet, Borsook asks, "What about the fact that actual rain forests are now being destroyed because of the free market?" Details, details . . . Almost casually pointing out such contradictions along the way, she traces bionomics not just as an idea, but as a series of annual conferences where it develops through almost metamorphic stages, and she's genuinely saddened at the final transformation into standard-issue libertarian mush under new ownership.

Each chapter provides unique perspectives, but the chapter dealing with Wired magazine is particularly poignant. Borsook was a top writer for Wired at its peak and was thrilled to be writing for a magazine that "understood to its spine that technology is culture," where founding editor-publisher Louis Rossetto gave her "permission to write without checking at the door all the rest of my experience, reading, and thinking." Cyberselfish was originally to be published by Wired's now-defunct book division. Borsook compares her relationship with Wired to a love affair, and herself, eventually, to Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, confronting a similar combination of philosophical and gender estrangement.

As a seasoned journalist, Borsook is a master of telling detail: She carries her refutation of the market's unfailing wisdom with her everywhere she goes - a 12-year-old Diconix printer that "inspires computer lust and admiration in everyone who sees it." It's quiet, compact, lightweight, near-zero maintenance, virtually indestructible . . . and discontinued ages ago, losing out to other, inferior machines. Yet Borsook deftly draws on a wide range of others' writings, from anthropologists studying Silicon Valley culture to philanthropy experts dissecting high-tech stinginess, to British writer-producer Simon Firth debunking mythic comparisons of Silicon Valley to Renaissance Florence and sociologist James William Gibson's Warrior Dreams, a book about post-Vietnam paramilitary culture with eerie relevance for some of the more troubling aspects of technolibertarian culture. Beyond that, Borsook weaves in deadly accurate cultural allusions ranging from several generations of science fiction masters to Max Weber, the original Luddites, Tolstoy, Yeats and Solzhenitsyn.

In short, her writing reveals the kind of far-flung, highly connected, context-bridging, polycentric organization of knowledge that high-tech hipsters constantly promise us. It's no news that Gutenberg and even Homer had infrastructure enough for such rich forms of expression. But it's fittingly ironic how effortlessly Borsook's method mocks such strenuous pretensions. By the end of Cyberselfish it's evident that the only way technolibertarians can keep their narrow-band philosophical filters in place is by utterly failing to absorb often contradictory information in any way remotely resembling the rich complexity they claim uniquely as their own.

paulina b.

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