Gannett News Service/Florida Today July 13, 2000
'Cyberselfish' examines the politics of
BY: CHRIS KRIDLER
When the most powerful business corridor in the
world is so single-minded in its politics, it
begs for examination.
Paulina Borsook seizes the task in pointed
fashion in "Cyberselfish: A Critical
Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech." Her
book, an amalgam of essays with titles ranging from "The Crypto
Wars: Cypherpunks, Digital Cash, and Anarcho-Capitalism, Oh
My" to "Cybergenerous," is an indictment of the
single-minded, fashionable "technolibertarianism" that
dominates the politics of Silicon Valley.
In its most simplistic form, one of her points
is: How can people so rich be so selfish?
In their cries for less government (or no
government), she suggests, technolibertarians
betray an utter ignorance of government's role in
the development of the Internet and Silicon Valley's startup culture.
Government contracts helped establish the first
technological businesses there; government
taxes, until they were slashed, paid for
excellent public schools that provided a well-educated work force.
Along with their espousal of libertarian
politics, she writes, the movers and shakers
in Silicon Valley actually have a profound lack
of interest in the mechanisms of government. That's leading to
myriad problems, one of which is that poor planning has left few
mid-priced homes available for the worker bees to live.
Borsook, a technology journalist for years and
one of the first writers for Wired, the bible
of high-tech culture, offers a unique insider/outsider
view of the Valley's incestuous society: Insider because
she's been immersed in it from the beginning; outsider because
she doesn't share the techheads' belief system.
And it is a belief system. Politics have become a
kind of religion, giving a holy mission and,
thus, validation to the lowly nerds who work
18 hours a day for slave wages. It's a male-dominated world
that's dismal for women, she says.
Wired magazine in its early glory days was the
perfect expression of the culture. She loved
it for its audacity but hated it for what it
Despite the wealth that's been pouring into high
tech, Borsook cites statistics that show
wealthy folks of the Silicon Valley give to
charities in smaller percentages than their neighbors who
make less money.
What companies give instead to schools and
nonprofits is barely helpful software and
computer equipment, then write it off on their
taxes at retail price rather than wholesale.
"Very much at play is the cat/dead rat
phenomenon," she writes. "To wit,
if a cat really loves you, it will give you
what it loves -- which is a dead rat on your pillow or doormat. Never
mind that you may not want a dead rat.
"And so it is in high tech: In a culture as
workaholic and self-validating and insular
and technology-besotted as high tech, nothing
could be finer to these valley cats than the gift of dead-rat computer
She reasons that there's a place for charity and
that a world without it would be a cold one,
Her argument is basically humanist, with a tinge
of the liberal. A self-confessed
Luddite, she's calling for balance, which is not
such a radical stance. She suggests that we have something to
fear from these extremists, who are, for now, rolling in cash and
Borsook is most effective in her criticisms of
Valley group-thinking. As
technolibertarians, she writes, computer geeks glorify themselves as
rugged individualists on the bleeding edge who don't need government help.
They think they're living out their lives as the lone pioneers of
cyberspace when, in fact, they are acting and thinking as a herd.
As depicted in the book, libertarianism gives the
multimillionaires a culture, a place to
invest their antisocial energy, conferences that
glorify the mechanization of humans. Net newsgroups celebrate a
kind of obsession with chaos, a longing for a cyberpunk world, a
delight in the idea that we may have a "survival of the fittest"
future (the geeks think they'll win, from Borsook's accounting).
"Bionomics" is the most blatant
expression of this aspect of
technoliberatarianism. It treats the economy as ecosystem, where
evolution promotes the strong and disposes of the weak.
Borsook points out flaws in the metaphor and
compares it with the sad truth of what's
happening in the real environment.
Sometimes she is funny; sometimes her logic is
fuzzy. You want her to take a breath, break
up a sentence, stop repeating herself. She
generalizes, too; she says libertarianism dominates the Net, but
at the rate that everyday people (rather than high-grade geeks) are
getting online, that has to be changing.
One might say Borsook's book lets us technolosers,
who haven't been making a killing in tech
stocks or a skyrocketing Silicon Valley
career, feel a little smug about ourselves. If we've been left
out of the revolution, at least we're part of life.
But her book goes deeper than that. The
revolution could bleach our lives of humanity
if technolibertarian values pervade society, she
warns. It's an unsettling argument.