Book Shopping
Cyberselfish: Technolibertarianism
News Posted by Hemos on Tuesday August 08, @10:22AM
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.
author Pulina Borsook
publisher PublicAffairs, 05/2000
ISBN 1891620789
pages 256
rating 8/10
summary A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech
reviewer Adam Brate

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 here."

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 libertarian?

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.

More On The Linux Wrist Watch | AT&T Labs Backs Publius, A Freenet-Like System  >

paulina b.

  Contact the author

  Leave A Comment
Cyberselfish 2015
Looking Back

Website restored and maintained by Sleepless Media