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Are we all libertarians now?
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 libertarian.

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 them."

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 sentence.

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 Microsoft.

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 stream.

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 more sense.

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.
paulina b.

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