A review of Cyberselfish: A
Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech
Valley Girl Sez: Libertarianism Sux!
Thursday, August 03, 2000
Comments: 96 posts
by Paulina Borsook
Public Affairs, 264 pages, $24
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."
Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp
Through the Terribly Libertarian
Culture of High-Tech
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com.
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
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.
to view the full comment history.
your comments] [View
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
8/8/00 2:13:29 PM Charles Taylor firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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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