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The grande dame of digital culture

Paulina Borsook has been writing about cyberspace from its earliest days. Liz Bailey talks to the author of Cyberselfish about why she thinks they don't make geeks like they used to

In the beginning, there was Paulina Borsook. That's neither an insult nor a crack about age it's a reflection of the fact that hi-tech culture has now been around just long enough to experience a generation gap. From its earliest stirrings, Paulina Borsook has been writing about it. So much so, in fact, that people in the industry who've only recently come across her work often ask, "Where did you come from?" to which she responds, "I've been here all along."

Borsook "sort of went underground" to work on her book, Cyberselfish, subtitled A critical romp through the terribly libertarian world of high-tech. "It was kind of strange because I've basically been professionally invisible for three years, and meanwhile, back at the ranch, there's been a huge change in hi-tech. A bunch of people have flooded into it who weren't there before, who did not read Wired in the early 1990s." In a world where a "culture of flip-and-flee" has eclipsed the long-term view, "someone who wrote about tech as opposed to about business did not make sense to them".

Writing for Wired in its heady early days, Borsook was in many ways anathema to hi-tech journalism: humanist, critical and, perhaps worst of all, female. Her ideas would often be ignored only to be taken seriously moments later when stated by someone male. "All this ridiculous behaviour that to me was so retro and 1993, particularly in a company and a culture that was seeing itself as so revolutionary and world-breaking."

When she interviewed Esther Dyson, she asked her how it felt being a woman in such a male-dominated sphere. "Kevin Kelly, the executive editor of Wired, sort of asked me, 'Who cares about this?'

"They didn't want women readers, and they didn't believe they had any. It was just this ongoing sexual-politics-of-Attila-the-Hun thing," Borsook says. "I've noticed in hi-tech, guys devolve to these really silly and inaccurate explanations of the sociobiological differences between men and women... like, 'women are a fundamentally different species'."

Borsook first "started knocking around hi-tech" back in 1981, at a software company in Marin County, California, complete with redwoods and coastline. "It wasn't Silicon Valley, but it was still hi-tech," she explains. In 1984 she began working for Data Communications in New York, a "stodgy but very respected" and fairly hard-core hi-tech publication, before returning to San Francisco in 1987.

Her educational background, though, isn't that typical of your average technology writer: she has an undergraduate degree in psycholinguistics with a minor in philosophy. She also has a master of fine arts from Columbia University. "That's a fiction thing," she says. "My MFA thesis was a series of interconnected short stories showing how the new technologies could form relationships" a novella called Love Over the Wires that was later published in Wired. She's also written a story called Virtual Romance, which is "about how one gets seduced into the pseudo-intimacy of online stuff. I was writing this in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I can promise you, nobody got it."

Her agent would send her work out. "I would get the funniest rejection letters: 'You're an OK writer, but who cares about what a bunch of geeks do? And these e-mail exchanges are highly unrealistic.' I was, like, excuse me?"

Cyberselfish, though not a novel, also isn't journalism. Call it gonzo anthropology, or ethnograpy. "Cyberselfish is a book-length essay," Borsook explains. "It is not an argument in the sense of Susan Faludi writing Backlash, it's much more like when Tom Wolff was writing From Our House to Bauhaus. I'm not building an argument in a policy-wonk sense."

Unlike most hi-tech journalists, whom she describes as "so involved in the ceaseless churn, the endless buzz of who's up and who's down, they can't see the bigger picture," a sense of time infuses Borsook's work. Cyberselfish observes today's hi-tech culture, identifying how and sometimes why today's techies -- technolibertarians, Borsook calls them -- differ from their 1970s "New Deal Democrat" predecessors. "I don't come to any single conclusion," she says, "but then again, that would be like saying, 'What causes counterculture?'"

Nevertheless, Borsook points a few fingers. She is irritated nigh unto rage that today's geeks have no understanding of the fact that "everything came out of government funding and everything was invented 20 years ago. We have modems because some government department gave AT&T some money for an early warning nuclear thing.

"Let's not even talk about the World Wide Web. Why did Tim Berners Lee invent this? Because he was wanting to support physicists at Cern. Where did Marc Andreeson come from? The National Supercomputer Center. It's just so irritating to have these people act as though they've done it all on their own. The microprocessor industry would not even have existed without the government."

And there's still nothing new under the sun. "Because in a lot of ways, if you look at what's going on with technology these days, everything was invented in the 1980s the visions of the future haven't changed in 20 years. There's been a little tweaking; the Pentium III is faster than the 286, but it's fundamentally not a different machine."

Today's techies are just different, Borsook claims. "The personalities of the people who actually were the real innovators the old Arpanet guys, Doug Englebart [who invented the mouse at Stanford Research Institute], someone such as Peter Neumann who runs the Risk digest are so different in character and personality from the people involved with it now, who are much more inclined to self-celebrate when they're not doing anything except coming up with a business play."

Northern California's hi-tech culture has, she says, ceased to be about innovation and creation, "and has become much more about the appeal to the institutional investor. The invasion of the MBA culture has grafted onto technology culture. These people have borrowed a lot of the same rhetoric: of innovation, of creativity, of building this emergent revolutionary global culture but that's not what's going on here right now."

Highly symptomatic of these changes is the fact that Wired, the flagship of the digital revolution, has gone from a magazine with a creative vision to "just another business-porn magazine", says Borsook. "There's nothing in the new Wired you couldn't find in any other magazine."

Lest you think we're well out of it here in Britain, Borsook warns, "I was in London in November. It reminded me of being in San Francisco in 1995, and it was not a good feeling.

"The hi-tech culture that's being exported now the sort of heroising, revolutionary-entrepreneur nonsense is much more the get-rich-quick, dot.com culture than the culture of the geeks who were bumbling around in the early 1990s trying to create something."

The invasion of MBAs has meant the homogenisation of society, culture and economic status in San Francisco. "You could look at people from Harvard Law School or Harvard Business School and say, 'Oh, they come from all over the world, and they come from different schools, and they have different ethnicities.' But the fact is, they have the same education, values and goals they are much more like each other than they are like anyone else."

Borsook continues to tread on toes at every turn. "I have this god-given ability to get on people's nerves. I don't try to it just happens? It's some ability to tune in on what a lot of people are thinking and feeling but aren't saying."

The geek response to Cyberselfish was one of pure outrage; Eric Raymond recently wrote a scathing criticism of Borsook on the Salon website which was entitled "Don't Tweak the Geeks".

Borsook responded to Raymond on Salon, but she's more amused than annoyed. "People sometimes don't seem to get that it's funny. They seem to be somewhat humour-impaired." In Raymond's case, she says, "He's jousting with his fantasy of me as opposed to the reality of who I am, what my work has been about -- some of my best friends are old Arpanet guys."

Borsook remains philosophical in the face of her geek critics. "They're proving the point of the book. For every mean remark I want to say, 'Thank you'."

'Cyberselfish' is published by Little Brown (11.99).

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