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Book Review: Valley Girl Sez: Libertarianism Sux!
by Donna Ladd
Thursday, August 03, 2000
Comments: 96 posts
A review of Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech
by Paulina Borsook
Public Affairs, 264 pages, $24

Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp
Through the Terribly Libertarian
Culture of High-Tech
Paulina Borsook must be your garden-variety libertarian geek's worst nightmare. She proudly calls herself a Luddite but can mix memes with the best of them; she skewers Silicon Valley from Santa Clara County outward (and with style); she is an uppity woman who knows how to hit below the belt, and draw attention doing it. And along the way, she can turn a gonzo phrase or two, and dish enough significant Valley dirt to make outsiders start jotting notes in their Visors about the dangers of "techno-libertarianism."

I wasn't so sure about Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech at first. As an "outsider" who comes at technology commentary from a cultural perspective, and who regularly gets flamed for favoring the e-rate and Internet taxation, and for questioning gods like Microsoft and Apple and even Napster, I craved a book like this.

The word "cyberselfish" captures so well the hypocrisy I have observed in the high-tech world in the last five years. And knowing that Borsook was a Wired writer in its rah-rah-tech heyday gave me further hope for an unflinching look at the arrogant world of high-technology politics. Borsook's polemic did not disappoint, although it took a little time to convince me she was doing more than showcasing her vocabulary, her rakish wit and her inside knowledge of what tech-freaks like to do in their spare time.

Valley archetypes on parade

She starts by describing the techie tribes -- cyberpunks (modern-day warriors), cypherpunks, ("crypto rebels"), nerverts (fetish, D&D-cum-S&M), extropians ("radical optimists) -- and their gods (John Perry Barlow, George Gilder, Ayn Rand and even Robert Heinlein). Thankfully, though, Borsook still has her eyes on the prize throughout her "romp" through the stereotypes (which are right on, by most accounts).

Borsook gives a quick lesson in Bionomics, the underlying theorem for Silicon Valley techno-libertarianism, as she disdainfully calls the no-regulation-except-when-it-helps-us technology mindshare. Bionomics, in essence, is a belief in "simple rules, complex behaviors" that promotes capitalism to the hilt, even in its most pitiless forms. It persists through today, she says.

"[M]ost guys for whom the system of start-up and cash-out works really well don't usually spend lots of time thinking about that system," is one of her incredibly obvious statements about the cruel underbelly of Silicon Valley. "It's a comfort to believe everything does best if left alone."

Borsook really struts when showing how the Valley grew from seeds of government largesse - government-backed bank loans for Valley homes, veterans' mortgages, Dataphone, ASCII, Arpanet, Internet-tax moratorium, H-1B visas, research-and-development tax credits and on through today. And she wallops the Valley boys for being too shallow, selfish and even socially inept to learn how to repay the community through philanthropy, a pitiful state she admits is changing -- albeit gradually and under duress.

To her credit, Borsook likes to give credit where it is due. She sings the praises of the long-giving Hewlett and Packard foundations and even T. J. Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor, who takes other tech companies to task for slobbering after corporate welfare, and has one of the more impressive Valley community-giving histories.

A high-tech Hemingway

Borsook does disappoint at times. Her writing, while following the gonzo-journalist tradition, can be just too Cartoon Network. I really never need to read the words "yes indeedybob" and the spelling "sooper." She is a bit too hyper-frenetic-Valley girl for a national audience. Her sentences are filled with parentheticals, asides, style experimentation and pop-culture references ad nauseum. Her cuteness exhausted me, like I had just finished a marathon of several Tom Robbins novels in a single sitting. One sentence:

While terrific at being at being the choleric punky watchdogs against governmentthat they are (one of my cypherpunk pals defined cypherpunks as 'radical pro-privacy activists.' So be it), cypherpunks, particularly in their acid-nightmares ofgovernment ninjas dressed in black bursting through their doors at 3 a.m., personifywhat the Jungians call the Shadow -- meaning, the dark side of stuff that you don'twant to deal with, the repressed, stunted and unexpressed aspects of personal andcommunity life.

Pass me a shot of Stoli. That there is some piece of writin'. As I heard advised by some stodgy fashion doyenne years ago, the author could do well to back up from the mirror and lose at least one accessory.

Luckily, the language smoothes out a little as you go, or you just get used to Borsook's Clever New Material World (she likes random capitalization, too.) Then you can add some vermouth to your vodka and enjoy Borsook's enlightening expose of the boys of Silicon Valley.

And she does mean the boys -- the "adolescents," in fact. Thankfully, in an Internet world filled with paranoid men who lash and bristle at any mention of anything remotely feminist, Borsook aims between the eyes of high-tech chauvinism. We all know it: Technology is largely a boys' world, and Borsook believes most silicon alpha males would like to keep it that way -- or at least limit it to women with Seven-of-Nine Borg sex appeal. She argues that women are leaving the tech industry at twice the rate of men precisely because its smirky techno-libertarian devotion turns them off.

Most of Borsook's geeks-are-pigs comments, though, are shielded in the chapter about her previous employer, Wired magazine. Borsook does call the early, pre-Conde Nast Wired the "Daily Worker for the libertarian technical elite" and accuses it of light censorship. Yet she still seems bedazzled with Wired's early power to speak to a burgeoning, albeit morally challenged cult of nerds, giving them the ultimate media-soaked revenge.

Geeky and introspective

In the end, after repeatedly stooking techno-libertarians' crass brand of social Darwinism, Borsook shows she is no fan of stupid government, either, apparently realizing that Santa Clara County does not hold the patent on selfish hypocrites. (Like, say, Republicans skewering the Justice Department for trying to guard the free market from a lecherous Microsoft; like, say, President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno leading the charge for a doomed Communications Decency Act.)

Borsook ultimately reeled in my vote -- for her store of sheer knowledge, her compassion, her estrogen-soaked balls. She expounds what most of us, save the most zealous, know already: There is a place for government (ensuring competition, enabling universal phone service, educating kids and future American tech workers, protecting the environment). And she knows government should not lurk in other places (the war against drugs and prostitutes, reading our e-mail, censoring the Internet).

Most importantly, Borsook warns that while newbies of other political persuasions are invading high technology, techno-libertarianism still endangers community, compassion and small bookstores. "The you-can-count-on-it libertarian presence in high tech is as persistent as the presence of pro-lifers at a Republican convention," she writes in her conclusion.

Borsook's crowning achievement: Showing you can be a geek and still question high-tech's blind, libertarian religion. Yes indeedybob.

Donna Ladd writes about technology and politics for the Village Voice, Salon, Feed, Working Woman and the Silicon Alley Reporter. E-mail her at donna@shutup101.com.

Related Links
For information and reviews of Borsook’s book, check out Amazon.com. Visit the official Cyberselfish home page for excerpts from the book and information about the author. Brad Wieners comments on Borsook’s book in Salon.com. Twilight of the crypto-geeks: Ellen Ullman considers. Read an article by Borsook about how the Internet has "ruined San Francisco."

Are Borsook's criticisms of the Silicon Valley set on the mark? How rampant is techno-libertarianism? What is the role of government in addressing Information Age issues? Is the high-tech world too much of a boys' club?

Below are the last ten comments in chronological order.
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8/8/00 1:03:22 PM Mopmap   
At one point during my college career, I lived in a dorm apartment with three other women. We got along fine, and it would have been ruined had we had to be self-conscious about our sexual "identity" or if we had to get married in order to room together. And being the Christians that we were we would not have turned a child away from our door; we would have been horrified at the thought that we could not be good parents for him; and if there were a question of adoption the issue would not have been having to go through the process but that the process wasn't substantive -- i.e., the formalities had no substance.

8/8/00 2:13:29 PM Charles Taylor charleswt@my-deja.com   
I suspect that a good percentage of the targets of Borsook's "libertarian" epitaph may not have any better idea of what libertarianism is than she does. She is calling anyone she perceives to be selfish and self-centered libertarian regardless of what their personal philosophy may be—if they even have one. I guess she would argue that their attitudes and behavior make then, at lease, fellow travelers. :-)

8/8/00 2:16:19 PM Hungry   
AlanH, MM and TomC: So basically your arguement is that with a week government, someone else will do the oppressing. While that can be true it does'nt give the government a pass to do all the oppressing it wants (as you seem to argue). Government oppression is worse (especially with large states) you can move away or otherwise escape private oppression (especially if you are armed to the teath). As to blue laws, I grew up under one of the remaining ones (sense repealled), it was ignored and/or worked around with no problem (sunday beer at restarants etc). AlanH: Which word did'nt you understand? What part budgets and priorities is a problem for you? Do you think if faced with tight budgets cops would spend the money foolishly?

8/8/00 2:19:19 PM Stevo   
I'm still not sure "statist" (as a term descriptive of an advocate of the State) is intrinsically any more insulting than the terms "communist," "socialist," "capitalist," "anarchist," "Baptist," "prohibitionist," "abolitionist," "rightist," or "leftist." Such terms rankle people only when someone else uses them in the context of , "This is what my opponent is, and I disagree with it." It's not the term itself that annoys you, but the fact that someone else dares disagree with the philosophy it names ... However, any libertarian who reflexively lashes out with the label "sheeple" deserves to be called on it. Just as any anti-liberterian who reflexively lashes out with the label "selfish" deserves to be called on it. Fair's fair.

8/8/00 2:23:16 PM Stevo   
As to whether the U.S. was formerly more libertarian than it is now, it's going to be hard to pin it down in terms of pro-freedom "attitudes." Maybe a more objective measure of the size of gov't spending would be a comparison of the levels of gov't spending (local, state and federal) of the past and present, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of GNP. Adjusted for inflation as necessary, of course. Anybody happen to have those figures? (Charles Taylor rushes to the keyboard...)

8/8/00 2:25:44 PM Stevo   
Whups. I meant to say "Maybe a more objective measure of the size of gov't would be a comparison of the levels of gov't spending" -- not the tautological "Maybe a more objective measure of the size of gov't spending would be a comparison of the levels of gov't spending..." (Duh. Ya think?)

8/8/00 2:28:05 PM alanH   
Hungry: living just outside of Washington DC, I can absolutely attest to the fact that a monetarily strapped police force can and will spend money foolishly. Having lived in NYC, the same thing. It seems to me too, that you are making an argument that when the money is tight, governmental agencies will become more efficient, which would seem to indicate you think that they can perform their functions well. As for your earlier post, I'm just not clear on what you were trying to say. And as for governmental oppression, who's giving "the government a pass to do all the oppressing it wants"? Oppression as defined by you? I'd much rather be living here than in Somalia, where your "private oppression" is the rule.

8/8/00 2:29:24 PM alanH   
Stevo: why would government spending be the prime indicator here? Why wouldn't it be what laws were on the books?

8/8/00 2:30:46 PM Stevo   
Last comment: Actually, when I read the title of this article, I thought it was an attempt to mock Borsook's critique as shallow. I was surprised to read that the reviwer actually agreed with Borsook. .... Then again, per standard journalistic practice, the person who writes the headlines probably isn't the same person who writes the articles and reviews. Maybe somebody else was getting their licks in? (Cyberspace is _crawling_ with techno-libertarians, dont you know...)

8/8/00 2:33:16 PM Stevo   
Alan, spending would be an indicator of how much resources were actually controlled by the government, as opposed to the words the legislators put to paper, perhaps rarely if ever to be acted upon.

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