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Technology and Society

Title: Cyberselfish
Author: Paulina Borsook
Publisher: Public Affairs
Copyright: 2000
ISBN: 1-891620-78-9
Pages: 276
Price: $24.00
Rating: 87%

In Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech, Paulina Borsook tries to make sense of the radical free-market ideology that permeates the Internet and Silicon Valley, the Mecca of the networked world. Her book is an entertaining read, particularly her critique of the cutthroat social atmosphere engendered by all-out economic competition, but her failure to clearly articulate an answer for why high-tech entrepreneurs generally hold such strong libertarian beliefs is surely a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

The first part of the book provides the underpinnings of technolibertarian philosophy, which treats the economy as a rain forest in which species live, compete, adapt, and die. Borsook quotes some text from the Bionomics Institute which illustrates how the group's views border on religious writ and provides snippets from other writers (like former Wired executive editor Kevin Kelly) that argue for a world of drones and a few leaders, as in Kelly's book Out of Control. Later chapters chronicle the author's experiences as a female in Silicon Valley, specifically at Wired magazine in the early days. I can't critique those bits - they're interesting reading and jibe with similar accounts I've heard in person and read elsewhere.

One quick nit on writing style. To show how technolibertarian rhetoric, particularly that of the Bionomics Institute, seems sillier the more you read it, Borsook changes from her normally breezy writing style to a more traditional expository voice. An unfortunate side effect of that style change is that her own writing in other portions of the book seems less credible. A cosmetic difference only, but one to be guarded against.

The main thrust of Cyberselfish is the author's search for the origins of technolibertarianism. Much of Borsook's argument is informed by AnnaLee Saxenian's Regional Advantage, which compares the difference between Silicon Valley and the East Coast's faded high-technology hotspot centered on Route 128 near Boston. Unfortunately, Borsook leaves out two of the most important reasons Saxenian puts forward for Silicon Valley's success: knowledge sharing among company executives and employees. The East Coast corporate environment has been, until very recently, a set of insular companies fighting to keep their knowledge and plans a secret (i.e., the best plan is the one no one else understands). I can vouch for this atmosphere first hand - I worked at the McLean, VA, offices of The MITRE Corporation, a Route 128-based research firm, for four years.

The West Coast mentality is different. While Silicon Valley firms certainly go to great lengths to protect their intellectual property, it's also true that executives, at least those from smaller firms, will get together and discuss issues and technologies that concern them. Another reason for a high rate of knowledge transfer in the west, Saxenian argues, is that Silicon Valley workers change jobs every two years, a much higher rate than on the East Coast. I wish Borsook had dealt with these points, though neither of them disproves her thesis; after all, very few species are made up of solitary predators, no matter how high-tech entrepreneurs envision themselves. It takes a village (pack, pride, gaggle, whatever) to make things work.

Finally, Borsook tries to come to grips with the origins of technolibertarianism, but ultimately throws up her hands, saying

So, the sources of technolibertarianism remain a sweet mystery of life, as strange and singular as the feeling, after World II, that European countries should begin to divest themselves of their colonies, or the late 1990s return of ghastly 1970s fashion. Some might blame it on an educational system that values money and skills-training over the teaching of humane values. But nobody can know; we can only marvel and be afraid.

My own, admittedly simplistic take on the source of technolibertarianism goes back to biology. High tech leaders found an environment in which they could prosper and are doing their best to preserve it. A lightly regulated and taxed economic milieu is most consistent with their wants and desires, so they adopted libertarianism. Now that they have a stranglehold on technology development and lots of ready cash, they can take strong steps to protect their biosphere.

--Curtis D. Frye, Editor and Chief Reviewer of Technology & Society Book Reviews

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