Santa Cruz Sentinel
Sunday, August 6, 2000
Santa Cruz Writer takes
aim at high-tech culture
by Chris Watson
anyone outside of high-tech, prospers in Silicon Valley these days seems a
It's not just the high cost of living in Silicon Valley
that makes it such a formidable place.
The issue is more insidious, according to Paulina
Borsook, author of "Cyberselfish: A Critical I Romp Through the Terribly
Culture of High-Tech."
The issue is a cultural, almost a religious, one - either you
believe in the power of technology and free markets to solve the world's ills
through social Darwinism, or you thrive at the mercy of the technolibertarians
who may or may not share their good fortune with you.
Unfortunately, the author writes, "the Darwinian
struggle isn't necessarily about the triumph of the best, but the survival of
the most marketable."
Borsook, of Santa Cruz, who was a contributor to Wired
Magazine in its formative days, believes that the "religion" of
techno-libertarianism has greatly, perhaps unduly, influenced the valley
From her journalist's vantage point - formed during her
hippie days at Berkeley, where she earned a BA in psycho-linguistics, at
Columbia, where she earned an MFA, and at Wired Magazine, where she viewed that
rarefied Boy's Club through female sensibilities - Borsook sees a culture that,
unless modified, will continue to exclude (make extinct?) non-believers.
"I'm disturbed by the techno-libertarian belief that if
you can't quantify something - the subjective, the artistic, the squishy -
that it doesn't exist," the author said last week.
Techno-libertarians, Borsook writes, believe in the power of
the individual to change the world. They are rabidly anti-government and believe
that their success has little to do with blind good fortune and everything to do
with their personal abilities.
"The notion that if one is rich, one must be smart,
however fallacious, is deeply embedded," Borsook writes, adding,
"...the brushing off of philanthropy by high tech
rests on the presumption that people will always be well, will always
be able to purchase what they need, will have easy access to any cultural
artifact they value, will never be disabled, will always be able to work, will
always have put enough money away, will have job skills still in demand, and
will never need to rely on the freely available community-supported institutions
not previously thought about such as a community or Medicare-funded hospice for
someone they love - or perish the thought, for themselves..."
Borsook will be at the Capitola Book Cafe on Wednesday to
talk about these, and other, ideas.
Some critics, however, think Borsook's rant is way off the
mark. Curiously enough, you can read many of these criticisms at the author's
Web site at cyberselfish.com
"I was positively vivisected on slashdot.com; they
called me a debutante," she chuckled. "It's obviously not polite to
attack another person's religion. If you do, you're a heretical apostate."
Some critics, Borsook added, see her as an apologist for the
Nanny State. But that, she said, is far from the truth.
Instead, Borsook styles herself a small libertarian. She
believes in the decriminalization of drugs and sex, and likes it best when
government stays off her back.
But she also believes, she said, that not all government is
bad, and that community programs actually support high-tech infrastructure.
In support of that idea, she points to a recent story in the
San Francisco Chronicle, wherein Indian engineers said they enjoyed working in
this country because of the government-sponsored infrastructure of good roads,
schools, lack of fraud, etc.
When pressed, even her critics allow that, if Borsook shows
some biases in her thesis, they are outweighed by her insights.
Since she began writing the book, Borsook said, there has
been one big change in Valley culture, namely the immigration of MBA
Contrary to what you might think, she said,
techno-libertarians aren't becoming more business-oriented. Instead, the suits
are becoming more techno-libertarian.
"Silicon Valley is totally in bed with Wall Street and
with the government, although they still see themselves as outlaws,"
Borsook said. "They like to see themselves as apart from this reality, as
outside the normal churn of society, and it's nuts.”
All you have to do to understand her point is consider the
Microsoft anti-trust issue.
"As soon as the industry has a problem with some
predatory business practice, they go running to the government," she said.
A densely-written series of essays on everything from
Bionomics to Wired Magazine to guerrilla cypherpunks, "Cyberselfish"
was partly modeled, Borsook said, on Susan Sontag's seminal book "Illness
"That book models how to explore an idea that's so
common to people (e.g., seeing AIDS as a metaphor for promiscuity, cancer as a
metaphor for repressed feelings, etc.) that we take it for granted and never
Happily, "Cyberselfish" is being appreciated by the
type of people Borsook hoped would read it.
"Some people may not want to hear what I
have to say, but everyone outside the industry - those who stay on top of
current events, the public affairs crowd, those mostly over 30 - see the book as
a useful field guide."