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Think like me

Does one viewpoint dominate the online world? Paulina Borsook thinks so, and Mike Holderness agrees
by Paulina Borsook, Little, Brown, $14.99, ISBN 0316847712

THE Internet is home to all manner of people and politics. Surely, no single way of thinking can dominate? Prepare to be unpleasantly surprised, says Paulina Borsook in Cyberselfish, as she takes a long look at what's going on in cyberspace. The unquestioning assumption that government is bad, free market is good sometimes seems to be an orthodoxy. For example, if you join in discussions on the Internet, you may be confronted by gung-ho gun fans. Gun control, they argue, is just government's way of maintaining a monopoly on force. Some have real-world influence. Many declare that they are libertarians.

What's one of those? In the US libertarians are free marketers to the bone: all government is an affront to them. A synonym for their flavour of libertarianism would be anarcho-capitalist: no ruler, freedom for capital. In Britain, it's different. Those fleeing the general anathema aroused by the word "anarchist" may call themselves libertarian- socialists and be understood. Britain and the US are, as ever, divided by a common language.

And this is the first difficulty with Borsook's Cyberselfish, subtitled "a critical romp through the terribly libertarian world of high-tech". The Silicon Valley culture she mingled with, one of belligerent individualism, is overwhelmingly an American phenomenon.

She infiltrates the world of Californian high-tech, and finds its population "suffering geek rage" at incomprehensible arts types with their "squishy emotions". So disconnected do they seem from others that they are lost solipsists--those who believe that there is no reality but their own perceptions. As a woman, she is appalled at some geeks' alienated anger against women.

She entirely fails, however, to make the most obvious observation. Obvious, that is, to a non-American. These anarcho-capitalists are taking the dominant politics of the US to their logical conclusion. Ronald Reagan's presidency set the seal on the notion that the free market is the only source of goods and services worth having. The role of government has been eroded until its only functions, it seems, are law and war. If that. Take this a step further. Reaganomics needs solipsists of the highest order: you have to be pretty immune to other people's points of view to cut back, for example, funding for education. And if you looked for a scientific model that reflected these ideas--or the nature of the "rational economic actor" in the discipline of classical economics--you'd have to reach back to the 17th century: Newton's planets rolling in solitary splendour or Boyle's particles in an ideal gas.

If you looked to modern science for inspiration, you could not claim the strict determinism of a Newtonian world view. Instead, the body politic would seem a complex network of power relations between individuals. Such a view might seek to understand how cooperation and mutual aid emerge in such networks, that they may be fostered.

This metaphor for society would be utterly unlike the libertarianism Borsook describes. But it would resemble the socialist anarchism of, say, Peter Kropotkin (Fields, Factories and Workshops, 1898). It's on the Web, too.

Mike Holderness

From New Scientist magazine, 15 July 2000.

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