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June 22, 2000

Accusing Silicon Valley of a Heart of Coal


By Paulina Borsook
(Public Affairs, $24.)
Paulina Borsook is fed up with Silicon Valley. But the area's instant millionaires and outrageously priced houses are not the reason for her fuming. It is the ideology behind the technology industry that really has her miffed.

Those emotions come screeching through in Ms. Borsook's book, "Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech."

Ms. Borsook, a journalist and former contributing writer for Wired magazine, has written an irreverent (and sometimes incomprehensible) rant on what she sees as the hypocrisy of today's technology leaders. They don't like big government, they don't like regulation, and they wish that Uncle Sam would just leave them and their market-driven economy alone.

Yet, as Ms. Borsook points out over and over again, government money and federal regulations have made Silicon Valley what it is today. Federal grants sponsored university research that has been translated into scores of Internet and computer products. Regulations have ensured that the banking system is "relatively fraud free." And the defense industry, don't forget, brought the Internet into existence in the first place.

"Government," she writes, "has made Silicon Valley a fine and dandy, safe and regularized place to make scads of money." Internet moguls who do not realize this, Ms. Borsook writes, are nothing better than "privileged spoiled teenagers." To those who are tired of the hype emanating from Northern California in the past five years, the Bay Area bashing in "Cyberselfish" may be a welcome relief.

The book also presents an insider's view of how high-tech culture has evolved in the past decade. Ms. Borsook, who lives in Santa Cruz, has been observing and interacting for years with the area's computer programmers, software engineers, cryptographers and venture capitalists.

One chapter focuses on Wired and the personalities that gave the magazine its libertarian bent. The chapter also reveals some of the frustration felt by women who wrote for Wired in the mid 1990's, women who bemoaned how a magazine that considered itself in the vanguard could in fact be nothing more than a geek's twist on the old boy network.

But if you plan to accompany Ms. Borsook on this 256-page romp, be prepared to take a deep breath. Reading the book is like charging blindly through an obstacle course. Paragraphs are filled with so many asides, hyphenated words, parenthetical clauses, dashes and asterisks that you are left virtually panting at the end of each sentence. That is, if you get to the end of the sentences at all.

Here, for example, is Ms. Borsook's argument against a free-market society in which feeble people are pushed aside without any consideration of their potential as creative human beings:

"The hypersensitive maladaptive no-commercial-potential individuals, the runts of the litter, and the defective members of the species can -- because as humans and not planaria we can value things not just of momentary food/shelter/mate-status-enhancing enticement -- create the best of what makes us remotely human."

Have you given up yet?

Her arguments, too, require some patience. The apparent selfishness of the technology community is at the heart of the book, so Ms. Borsook tries to paint a picture of dot-com billionaires keeping all their money to themselves. Yet in reviewing data on philanthropy in Silicon Valley, she leaves questions dangling and relies on what seems to be less-than-rigorous research.

For example, she writes that in the mid-1990's, the percentage of corporate profits devoted to corporate philanthropy in Silicon Valley dropped. But she quotes statistics collected in 1997 and earlier. What has happened in the past three years, when many companies became even more flush? If recent statistics were not available, surely an analysis of companies' annual reports could have helped fill in the blanks.

The drop also raises questions.

Ms. Borsook writes that 1.14 percent of profits in 1993, and 0.92 percent in 1997, were used for philanthropy. That does not sound like a steep decline, but there is no way to imagine otherwise because readers are given no points of comparison in other industries.

It turns out, in fact, that corporate contributions, as a share of earnings, have been declining for a few decades among United States companies. Data from The Conference Board, a nonprofit research group, shows that the numbers dropped from 2.36 percent in 1986, the highest percentage in the past 50 years, to 1.1 percent in 1997. So, yes, Silicon Valley companies look slightly stingier, but the drop may be the result of larger national trends not related to libertarianism, like the research group's finding that companies are starting to give more non-cash gifts.

Ms. Borsook makes other arguments that sound more solid. The software industry, she writes, often congratulates itself for donating thousands of packages of software to schools and nonprofit groups. Yet the donations are often no more than marketing drives that come with a bonus: they provide companies with useful tax deductions.

Beyond the impossible sentences and undeveloped arguments, the book does raise broader questions that are worth asking about the libertarianism of the high-tech industry. If the ideology behind American corporations becomes more and more libertarian, if voters agree that Internet companies should be left alone and then decide to apply that concept to other corporate interests, what does that mean for the social institutions that make up our communities? Will people turn further and further away from schools, from hospitals, from less-than-computer-literate people who need a hand?

Ms. Borsook does not have the answers. But at least she raises the questions. "We can only marvel," she writes, "and be afraid."

paulina b.

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