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Santa Cruz Sentinel
Sunday, August 6, 2000

Santa Cruz Writer takes aim at high-tech culture

by Chris Watson

That anyone outside of high-tech, prospers in Silicon Valley these days seems a miracle.

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 Libertarian 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 culture.

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 business-types.

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 as Metaphor."

"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 question it."

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."


paulina b.

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