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Gannett News Service/Florida Today July 13, 2000

'Cyberselfish' examines the politics of Silicon Valley


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 espoused.

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 equipment."

She reasons that there's a place for charity and that a world without it would be a cold one, indeed.

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 influence.

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.

paulina b.

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