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Are we all
one part interview, one part commentary on Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp
Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech by Paulina Borsook
by Kevin Miles
Hackers, developers, nerds, etc. definitely have a culture unique to our own. We
code, we frag, we run Linux-but do we vote or even think libertarian? Palulina
Borsook, author of Cyberselfish, posits that as a culture, we are terribly
First off, we may need to answer a simple question: what the hell is
libertarianism? By simple definition, it is a political philosophy (and
political party) that advocates free markets and no intervention in people's
personal lives. Libertarians have their own political party, which is the third
biggest party in the US, at least according to them. Think legalization of drugs
and prostitution; think no taxes and no welfare state (that includes Medicare,
Medicaid, Social Security, etc.). Scary stuff, for many.
At least for Borsook, at any rate. During her tenure as a writer for Wired, she
covered the boom of Silicon Valley in the mid 90s. While at Wired, she realized
that something "was rotten in Denmark." In an interview with developers.net,
Borsook said she noticed that the magazine and the culture it covers is
"alarmingly" libertarian. Does this mean that we're all card-carrying
members of the libertarian party?
Not exactly, according to Borsook. "A lot of people are not explicitly
libertarian. It's more of a background religion that influences people's
worldview. It's a very simple and intellectually elegant worldview that can be
attractive to the developer brain. If you're sitting alone and you're banging
out code it tends to make you think that you're the master of your own destiny
and not dependent on anyone else."
This worldview is becoming pervasive, according to Borsook, because anything
Silicon Valley produces is ipso facto good. "Libertarianism is something
that the farther West you move, the more popular it is. The anti-government
mentality is engrained in the American psyche. There are large cultural trends
that have nothing to do with Silicon Valley, but high-tech celebrates
While not sharing Borsook's disdain of libertarianism, Eric S. Raymond, a
hacker/writer, also characterizes the open-source movement as implicitly
libertarian. "Most of it has the libertarian instincts without the full
ideology. Thus, for example, almost all hackers are First Amendment absolutists.
Most are not fans of the 'war on drugs' or victimless crime laws, and there is a
deep current of skepticism about government regulation in general. We have too
much experience of how badly politicians and bureaucrats can screw up promising
technologies to trust them at it," Raymond said.
Raymond, for the record, considers himself a libertarian and took Borsook to
task in an article
he wrote for Salon called "Don't Tweak the Geeks."
Paulina Borsook does not mince words while describing the failures of high-tech
or techno-libertarianism. It champions the self; or rather the coding, dotcoming,
chip-producing self over others. It fails to recognize the role of government in
creating the tech boom. "It's not like I want to collectivize farming or
anything, but I cannot understand why they were so libertarian-they were acting
like they did this on their own, and they didn't. They benefited from a huge
social and civic matrix, not to mention a government largesse."
Raymond contends the Internet was developed in opposition to government research
guidelines, and perhaps a further study of its inception is necessary, but for
now, the debate is muddled at best. While Al Gore didn't create the Internet,
the Department of Defense did fund it as a way to protect information from a
nuclear strike or terrorism by creating a crude network to distribute
information and data among college campuses and research labs. Borsook cites
government funding of the aerospace and tech industries, and the use of
government funds to create the Internet as proof that "the new high-tech
culture is not the same go-it-alone hero entrepreneurs they think they
are." At least for now, it looks like she is right.
You down with MP3? Yeah you know me!
I asked Rob Malda, founder of Slashdot.org, if he thought libertarianism was a
dominant undercurrent of hacker or high-tech political philosophy. According to
him, there is no dominant ideology. "I see libertarian ideas, but I also
see many ideas. Republicans e-mail me to [complain] that Slashdot is too
Democrat. Democrats [complain] that we're too Republican. Libertarians e-mail to
[complain] about everything," Malda said, with a grin accentuating the last
One thing we do see on Slashdot, however, is a lot of anti-Microsoft posts.
Malda sees some as anti-Microsoft, some anti-corporate, and some anti-success.
None of these sentiments really portend well for a formation of a libertarian
worldview, which would have nothing to do with breaking up a company like
Raymond is not convinced that this sentiment is anti-free market. "There is
unease about big corporations, but it doesn't stem from a rejection of free
market hackers and the managerial class that runs large firms, the
'pointy-haired bosses,'" Raymond said.
However, when observing the behavior on Slashdot, one of the "hot
spots" of high tech culture, we can observe a true anti-libertarian ethos.
While Raymond contends that Microsoft should be handled by the market, most want
to see it broken up and then dance on its ashes. Many want to open the source
code to Windows by fiat-not a very libertarian position. Raymond points out that
"Even non-libertarian hackers have little faith in the will and ability of
DOJ to bridle Microsoft without botching the job."
While there may be doubt about the efficacy of government, that does not mean
that there is a general consensus to abandon the USS Joel Klein. Borsook
correctly rejoins that "Libertarians tend to be very free-market, but
that's what creates the Time Warners and the MPAAs of the world." For the
record, hackers don't like the MPAA or Time Warner.
To be fair, developers definitely see good guys in corporate America. Nobody
shed a tear when Andover.Net purchased Slashdot. No one cried foul when Red Hat
started shipping a version of Linux and charging for it. IBM is receiving good
press for its promises to offer more machines running Linux.
However, the community supports distributing copyrighted songs through
peer-to-peer networks like Napster. Borsook believes that this contradiction of
a libertarian worldview and high-tech support for open distribution of propriety
works highlights the problem with the culture. "Underneath it, there's a
contempt for artists. They feel that musicians should do this for free, for
love. But then they expect to get paid for their programming day jobs,"
Borsook said. "There's a weird contempt for products of the mind that
aren't software. The libertarians often champion the open-source service model,
but it can't be applied to the artist." Indeed, once the technology becomes
more ubiquitous and it becomes easier to transfer MP3s to your car, Walkman or
friend, "fair use" might bankrupt some artists. Freedom to speech is
not an absolute-you can't say "I'm going to kill the president" or
yell "Fire!" in a crowded building. Coding is no different. You can't
write code to destroy someone's hard drive---or perhaps, an artist's revenue
Libertarians might say that MP3 distribution falls under a benevolent "fair
use"-or if they're more honest, decry the use of Napster and its ilk to
distribute proprietary MP3s. Yet, most developers are not saying this. Metallica
is not very popular right now in Silicon Valley. In general, hackers want their
MP3s come hell or high-water. Thus, it is not so easy to call them
libertarian-and then bash them for it. It might be best to just do the latter.
Passing the Buck[s]
Philanthropy, or lack thereof, is one of Borsook's biggest gripes in
Cyberselfish; and ultimately undercuts her argument. She contends Bill Gates'
generosity is an anomaly in a sea of "me-firsts" that view the world
as a winner-take-all affair. Unfortunately for her project, she's wrong.
First of all, The United States, which is generally more libertarian than
Europe, contributes more to charity than any other of its democratic-socialist
counterparts. According to a study by the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit
Sector Project, 73% of Americans donate money to charity, compared to
approximately 40% from Germany and France.
Moreover, even if the high tech culture is decidedly libertarian, its vanguards
certainly are not the selfish unconcerned citizens unwilling to contribute to a
good cause. Steve Case of AOL has donated $200 million dollars to various
charities. Jim Clark recently gave Stanford a $150 million thank-you-note for
use of their labs in creating a Silicon Graphics computer chip. Even dotcommies,
like Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar, have pledged more than $4.2 billion of his
wealth. These are the titans of industry that once secure in their wealth,
donate millions. It may have taken some time, but in a world where some of their
wealth fluctuates by hundreds of millions of dollars, prudence makes a little
The evidence is not just anecdotal, either. According to a study by US Trust,
which was cited in a Time article,
charitable giving by the rich has increased by 60 percent from1993 to 1997. Time
even saw fit to proclaim this a new, golden era of philanthropy, with Silicon
Valley as its vanguard, in the cover story of its July 24th issue. Either these
captains of industry are not libertarian, or perhaps the high tech flavor of
libertarianism is more benign than the "plague" Borsook insists it is.
Yes, she does use that metaphor in Cyberselfish.
It's all about Ideology
Of course, Borsook's worldview about techo-libertarianism undoubtedly colors her
work. While she is no communist, and is probably more sympathetic to
libertarianism than many others would give her credit (she adamantly points out
that she does not believe libertarianism itself is narcissistic) there is still
an implicit bias working. She is convinced that the free market does not work
all the time, which is fair enough-but that does not mean that the debate is
finished and we should open our arms to the interventionist state. Too often,
libertarians, myself included (that's my fair disclosure statement) make
assumptions about the "wonders" of the free market. Our ideology
serves as shortcut to help us deal with information: we accept the good news as
true and criticize or disavow the bad. Just like Borsook's critical romp.