Posted by Hemos on Tuesday August 08,
from the no-it's-mine! dept.
Adam Brate, Slashdot reader, sent us a review of Cyberselfish:
Technolibertarianism, a book which takes a look at the "cyber"
culture, and what it means. It sounds interesting, although perhaps a bit
off-base - comment below if you've read it.
||A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian
Culture of High Tech
I heard about Cyberselfish
when driving around Vermont Memorial Day weekend from used bookstore to used
bookstore. The NPR station was broadcasting an interview with Cyberselfish
author Paulina Borsook, a writer who worked for Wired
during its glory years. I was put off by the book's wretched title, but
engrossed by the subject: the powerful undercurrent of libertarianism that flows
through high-tech circles. I have been astounded but not amazed at the deeply
adolescent and peevish libertarian attitudes that so many techies cling to, from
gun worship to fear of governmental Internet regulation. Listening to Borsook
speak intelligently and cogently about technolibertarianism made me want her
book very much.
This month I garnered a copy of Cyberselfish, and I'm still appalled
with the title (which comes from an eponymous
essay for Mother Jones she wrote
in July 1996, when such cyberlanguage wasn't so cybertrite). Cyberselfish
is a book-length essay, in fact a somewhat thinly edited series of linked
essays. There's a rush of immediacy and wit; for a random example, "Polyamory
is the preferred term of art; it's gender-neutral, where polygamy and
polyandry are not, and allows for all persuasions of partner choice
(gay/straight/bi/it depends)." With the freshness and informality comes
flaws. There is too much repeated material in the book. It's clear that essays
written at different times have been cobbled together. Reading the book straight
through is like reading some multi-volume series straight through, in which the
characters and history are rehashed at the beginning of each book.
Cyberselfish looks at a few specific examples of technolibertarianism
in depth: Bionomics, cypherpunks, Wired
magazine, and Silicon Valley's impressive lack of philanthropy. Each time
Borsook exposes the compassionless, fearful, posturing, politically myopic core,
without dismissing the good aspects of the high-tech culture and individuals.
For example, she thinks fighting for privacy rights is good, but obsessing about
it and descending into rabid, paranoid ranting on alt.cypherpunks is scary. She
moves smoothly from the historical to the academic to the personal, deliberately
exposing her own frailities and biases while she examines those of others.
To give a deeper example of the content of Cyberselfish, Bionomics is
the use of biological (and particularly Darwinian) metaphors to describe
economic processes, as popularized by Michael Rothschild (Bionomics:
Economy as Ecosystem) and then the The Bionomics Institute (TBI). Borsook
convincingly points out through both empirical observation and reasoned analysis
that Bionomics boils down to economic libertarianism, where government
involvement is wrong and the most cut-throat, efficient and entrepeneurial
businesses are the best. Ecological metaphors are used in Bionomics only when
they're useful and sexy: The ecosystem of Hawaii was used as a metaphor for the
fragility of protected industries. Under Bionomics logic, Hawaii's beautiful,
lush, peaceful ecosystem is to be derided. Bionomics uses metaphors to draw
syllogistic conclusions. Doing that can be powerfully convincing but amounts to
hand-waving and emotional appeals. Borsook cuts through the smoke and mirrors.
After a few years, the Bionomics Institute conferences were (literally) taken
over by the Cato Institute, the premier
libertarian think tank in the nation. The annual Bionomics conterences began in
1993. The 1997 conference was the Cato/Bionomics Conference; 1998, the
"Annual Cato Institute/Forbes ASAP Conference on Technology and
Society." TBI morphed into software-startup Maxager,
which intends to offer Bionomical tools to companies. Borsook wonders what
meaning can be ascribed to the success or the failure of the company. If Maxager
fails, is it because it wasn't Bionomically good enough, or just because of the
many uncontrollable factors that cause the vast majority of startups to fail? If
it succeeds, does it validate Bionomics, or just the good connections the
founder has with Silicon Valley venture capitalists?
The other chapters are just as interesting. Cyberselfish sharply
describes all the archetypes of the technolibertarians, from the neo-hippie
polyandric Burning Man attendee to the
Lexus-driving, 100-hour-a-week, plugged-in entrepeneur with a sprawling bungalow
in Santa Clara county.
One of the most crystalline passages in the book describes Eric
Raymond's leaking of the Halloween
Document, written by Microsoft program manager Vinod
Valloppillil. The two clearly have vast ideological differences, the
open-source cowboy and the Evil Empire functionary, but they're both hard-core
libertarians, an entirely unreported fact. In Borsook's words, "It was
rather like discovering that both a liberal and a conservative senator had both
acquired their law degrees from Yale: no news
As I said before, the book is somewhat haphazardly put together, and nearly
every sentence is to some degree contentious; even someone who agrees with her
basic position will find reason to quibble. Cyberselfish doesn't come
near to answering all the questions it raises. Borsook doesn't really tackle the
paradox that "libertarians celebrate the cult of the individual" but
Open Source celebrates the collective. What does it mean to be an Open Source
I personally think it's somewhat unfair to attack those flaws, as they're
inexorably part of Cyberselfish's loose, immediate, opinionated, and
conversational style. It's kind of like how Slashdot's open forums allow for a
review like this and the inevitable "hot grits" responses.
Purchase this book at fatbrain.
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