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Saturday, August 5, 2000

CYBERSELFISH: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech
By Paulina Borsook
Public Affairs, $36.50, 277 pages
By Katherine Tarbox
Dutton, $27.99, 196 pages

As the Internet gets to be more and more the means by which we understand the world beyond the four corners of our collective head, books about what the Internet means proliferate like, well, the Internet.

The two books here considered are examples of just how far right and wrong this sort of publishing can go. On the one hand, Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech, is a sharp-witted, thoroughly competent attack on the cornpone Darwinism that drives the Internet's corporate agenda. On the other, Katie.com is a salacious -- though surprisingly dull -- therapeutic memoir of a young woman victimized by an Internet Lothario.

Cyberselfish's author, Paulina Borsook, was a contributing writer to Silicon Valley's bible, Wired magazine, during what the flap copy refers to as its "glory years." And yet Borsook's take on Wired's venerated subjects is anything but glorious. To wit: "Attending technical conferences and trade shows, getting to know and making friends with computerists, eavesdropping and reading, I was trying to make sense of the libertarianism I found all around. The belief systems I ran into were confusing, for this passionate libertarian population has for the most part experienced only good things, and not bad, from government. And they were disturbing, for beneath them I sensed nastiness, narcissism, and lack of human warmth, qualities that surely don't need to be hardwired into the fields of computing and communications."

Anyone who has spent even a modicum of time with people who actually care how computers work (as against their application) will feel an immediate shock of recognition. Affixing the political label "technolibertarian" (Borsook is careful to distinguish traditional libertarian ideas from the naked self-interest espoused in Silicon Valley) is perhaps a polite mask for a rawer truth, that the dot.com world is a haven for antisocial, criminally self-interested bastards. Borsook marshals plenty of evidence to make her case, from the "aggressive lack of philanthropy in high tech" to the prevalence of relentlessly self-justifying ideas on just about everything.

Her analysis of the Scrooge-like philanthropy of the Silicon Valley set is both brilliantly researched and, when speculating as to its sociological and psychological roots, insightful. Borsook points out that during a period of advancing prosperity, "the percentage of [Silicon Valley's] corporate philanthropy as measured in profits before taxes dropped from 1.14 percent in 1993 to 0.92 percent in 1997. . . . Unlike those who make their money from speculation, technologists feel they've created something concrete, so that no atonement (if that's what philanthropy is) need be made, no guilt money paid." (It's hardly cynical to suggest that, in the wake of the recent judicial ruling to dismantle Microsoft, that Bill Gates's newly minted philanthropic efforts have as much to do with a need to improve his public image as they do with altruism.)

Borsook is particularly acute when discussing the shortcomings of the high-tech sector's obsession with the notion of efficiency as the sole measure of what is valuable in a society. "But many human dilemmas (whether it's creating more equitable health-care or supporting a local dance company) don't lend themselves to notions of efficacy, either because they can't be solved quickly or obviously or because the end result isn't very measurable."

Perhaps the most distasteful of the "ideas" fashionable among these technologists is something called Bionomics -- described by Borsook as a "peculiar locus of fake-o biology, technology, and libertarianism." The idea is that the distribution of goods in any society is a consequence of iron laws of nature, the way, say, gravity dictates the movement of the planets. Bionomics is their way of saying that those who benefit from pumped-up prices for dot.com stocks deserve those profits.

It's the same sort of Procrustean conflation of morality and science that gives rise to pseudo-sciences like eugenics. Borsook puts paid to this twaddle in one neatly drawn sentence: "The next time you hear economics talked about in terms of niches and predators and evolution, know that what you're mostly hearing is the language of the free market, and not very much Mother Nature."

Further down the evolutionary scale, we find Katie.com, a waif of a book, one that packs all the power of a falling fly. Katherine Tarbox, now 17, has written an account of her Internet romance: she was 14, he was 41. As the book opens, Tarbox is a seemingly ultra-normal teenage girl. She swims for her school. She worries about her body while reading Marie Claire, Mademoiselle, Allure, Self and Glamour.

Katie soon takes up a cyber-affair with "Mark", who turns out to be a less attractive version of that farmer who stalked Anne Murray. Whoops. After an extended courtship on the Internet, Katie agrees to meet her paramour at a hotel in Dallas. He isn't quite what she had in mind. "Mark was tiny. And he was the scrawniest man I'd ever seen." Katie's mother comes banging on the door and interrupts the proceedings, just as Mark is about to have his evil way. Katie discovers Mark is 41, not 31, as he had claimed in his e-mails, at which point Katie begins her rise from naif to avenging angel.
Of course, there's a trial by fire. Katie is vilified by friends and family for allowing Mark (whose real name turns out to be Frank Kufrovich) to take advantage of her. In the course of her "growth", there's a telling moment that reveals a lot about Katie and the sort of therapy-think that informs this kind of book. "I had thought all along I would be perfectly happy with him just pleading guilty. But now the time was here, I realized that I wanted more, something that was practically impossible. I wanted Frank to understand the magnitude of his actions, that his crimes were truly wrong not just because of the law."

The misplaced notion that a wrongdoer will eventually realize and fully repent his deeds is explored in J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace (though to mention that superb novel in the same space as Tarbox's shallow confessional is, admittedly, literary sacrilege.) Coetzee gets at the essential craziness of the view that for there to be a just resolution to a criminal action, the accused must understand the essential, the absolute fact of his or her guilt. Coetzee's protagonist, a professor, is facing sexual misconduct charges. The university committee presiding over his case asks him to admit not only his guilt but his repentance as well. To this he responds: "I won't do it. I appeared before an officially constituted tribunal, before a branch of the law. Before that secular tribunal I pleaded guilty, a secular plea. That plea should suffice. Repentance is neither here nor there. Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse."

Katie.com is guilty of many sins -- it's a dreadful book -- but this same error is chief among them. Tarbox's relentless effort to have Frank repent so that she might find "closure" leaves the interesting questions raised by her case -- how best to balance community standards and freedom of speech on the Internet -- unanswered.
Douglas Bell is a contributing editor to Shift magazine. His first book, Run Over: A Boy, a Truck and His Mother, will be published next spring.


If the libertarian fantasy is that we only participate in those freely chosen associations of our own liking and ignore the rest, then there's no need to preserve the commons -- even out of enlightened self-interest. If you don't anticipate ever relying on it yourself, then there's no need to support it. Such a society doesn't even attempt to protect its weaker or less lucky or commercially viable members, the very people who sometimes, in the long run, contributue the most. The list of penurious painters and musicians with health problems who have created the stuff we value and enjoy is way too long. The same is true of inventors as opposed to marketers. But then, how many people like this are very visible in Silicon Valley?

-- From Cyberselfish by Paulina Borsook


"Genuinely skillful use of obscenities is uniformly absent on the Internet."
-- Karl Kleinpaste

"The Internet is like a giant jellyfish. You can't step on it. You can't go around it. You've got to get through it."
-- John Evans

"Whom computers would destroy, they must first drive mad."
-- Anon.

"The Internet is like a vault with a screen door on the back. I don't need jackhammers and an atom bomb to get in when I can walk through the door."
-- Anon.

"I worry about my child and the Internet all the time, even though she's too young to have logged on yet. Here's what I worry about. I worry that 10 or 15 years from now, she will come to me and say, 'Daddy, where were you when they took freedom of the press away from the Internet?' "
-- Mike Godwin

"Cyberspace: A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation."
-- William Gibson

"Human beings are human beings. They say what they want, don't they? They used to say it across the fence while they were hanging wash. Now they just say it on the Internet."
-- Dennis Miller, comedian, TV personality


The Sixth Language: Learning a Living in the Internet Age, by Robert K. Logan, Stoddart, 318 pages

University of Toronto physics professor Robert Logan studies the relationship between language and the Internet, tracking down the foundations of human development -- speech, writing, mathematics, computing -- and showing how these have brought us to the beginning of a new era. He describes a world in which everything, especially learning, is fluid: Skills must be constantly updated, and institutions that rely on industrial-age thinking will not prosper.

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