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A Critical Romp Through the Terribly
Libertarian Culture of High-Tech
by Paulina Borsook

Reviewed by Marina Malenic



by Marina Malenic

Technology issues writer Paulina Borsook's Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech is an elaboration on the author's 1996 Mother Jones essay "Cyberselfish." For anyone who's read both, the first thought that comes to mind is that there is little for a writer of Borsook's caliber to say beyond the confines of a five-page essay on any subject.

But unfortunately Cyberselfish, in its bloated 276-page form, was re-inflicted on the populace in the year 2000, when all of Borsook's tired arguments for bigger and bigger government could mercifully slip by unnoticed. Four years after the publication of her essay, half of her ideas are obsolete, while the other half are a broken-record defense of every variety of government spending and regulation -- and calls for lots more where that came from.

Borsook's assessment of high-tech culture is sloppy and oozes with gross generalities. She belittles what she sees as a "technolibertarian" culture of "geeks" that can be neatly divided into two categories: "ravers," or high-tech hippies in the John Perry Barlow mold who tell government to "Leave your laws off my body," in Borsook's elegant phraseology; and "gilders," cleverly coined to describe the miniature George Gilders running around in hightechlandia, presumably interested only in making a quick million or two.

Such stereotypes are characteristic of Borsook's work, as she would seemingly prefer to play wink-nudge games with her readers rather than do a reporter's work of familiarizing herself with the material she plans to explain. While she whines about the quantitative, mathematical minds of the "geeks" who have no sympathy for those who "lack the stamina... and psychological make-up necessary for success in that world...", her own work in the hardly quantitative world of journalism lacks any semblance of structure or discipline. Her slipshod, cutesy prose reflects her lack of standards:

Here I think of my sister: biology degree from Stanford, plus a masters in public health, one of those divorced-in-her-forties-with-two-teenagers-to-raise-while-trying-to-reenter-the-workforce sad stories, who grasps after any kind of health education job she can find.... [S]he has precisely the skillset (teaching, community service, environmental consciousness) that has little...value in our fabu hyperaccelerated crashboombang economy.

Like, you know what I mean?

The most blatant of her generalities is contained in her title -- that everyone involved in high tech is a libertarian. Her evidence for this assertion? Well, she grew up in Pasadena with kids whose fathers worked at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And she knows lots of computer scientists. Some of them are even her friends. That's how she knows.

Borsook does make one astute observation, which she can't completely be credited with, since others have made it before -- thus the slim possibility that Borsook may have read it somewhere. It is that libertarianism, like any other unwavering, fanatical devotion, is a religion of sorts. She recognizes that children in secular American suburbia who, in their undeveloped yearning for authority and guidance, in the guise of asserting their independence find the absolutist dogma of Ayn Rand a seductive overture to libertarian thinking. And while the introduction to Aristotelian logic is a valuable lesson, many new Rand initiates do not learn another of the Greek philosopher's important teachings. Namely, that man is a political, and therefore a social, animal. Although intelligent adults include a free-market orientation and respect for individual liberties in their personal political platforms, most grow out of Ayn Rand well before leaving high school, so Borsook's caricature once again misses the mark.

Indeed Borsook's amateurish labels move from exaggeration to outright invention. When she insinuates that her "technolibertarians" are Unabomber types, she ignores the fact that Theodore Kaczynski was an extreme environmentalist and, moreover, a Luddite who held few if any libertarian beliefs. Borsook's desire to paint everyone she perceives as a "right-winger" into a certifiable lunatic actually exposes her own Unabomber impulses. She explains in one passage that she is actually a Luddite environmentalist, and goes on to make remarks reminiscent of a notable manifesto called "Industrial Society and its Future" -- published in the Washington Post and New York Times in 1995 just before the FBI finally arrested Kaczynski.

On the less substantial side of things, another distraction to the reader is the excessive number of typographical errors in the book. Misspellings abound in the first few chapters, with the potential for the reader to stumble over a typo on just about every page. In a special postscript to the volume, Peter Osnos, publisher of PublicAffairs, notes that "PublicAffairs is a new nonfiction publishing house and a tribute to the standards, values, and flair of three persons who have served as mentors to countless reporters, writers, editors, and book people of all kinds, including me." He then lists the three, I.F. Stone, Benjamin C. Bradlee (former editorial leader of the Washington Post, whom Osnos credits with giving "the Post the range and courage to pursue such historic issues as Watergate...."), and Robert L. Bernstein (formerly of Random House and founder of Human Rights Watch).

It seems Borsook should not get all the credit for Cyberselfish. Without these three men, her caricature of people who work in the high tech industry would not have been possible. Congratulations to all involved in this enlightening enterprise.

Marina Malenic is assistant editor of The American Spectator.

(Posted 5/24/00)

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