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Published Sunday, May 28, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News

Digital Darwinism/Paulina Borsook describes the philosophy that makes Silicon Valley heartless

CYBERSELFISH: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech

By Paulina Borsook
PublicAffairs, 256 pp., $24


YOU know the type. You may be the type.

In Paulina Borsook's ``Cyberselfish,'' the type is the technolibertarian, a homegrown Silicon Valley creature whose ideas, Borsook argues, have become more mainstream.

Borsook's book is a 256-page rant sounding the alarm about the prevalence of technolibertarian thought, even among those who say they aren't technolibertarians.

Borsook describes Silicon Valley's special home brew: Take the libertarian mind set, combine it with a belief in the super individual (the entrepreneur) and throw in an outsize faith in technology as the answer to most social ills. Presto, you have a technolibertarian who thinks the government is dumb and that those who don't succeed don't deserve to.

How do you know you are a technolibertarian? If you believe life operates much like a computer or a living organism, with winners and losers sorted out by natural selection and survival of the fittest. The market efficiently decides what to value. And you believe this is how it should be.

Technolibertarians also believe in less government, writes Borsook, except when they need government for things such as fighting Microsoft. And they tend not to make charitable contributions. It's not because their money is new or they are too busy. Those are just excuses, writes Borsook. The real reason they don't give as much is because they don't have much sympathy for the less fortunate who don't or can't solve their problems quickly.

Beyond the writings of Ayn Rand and the Reagan years, Borsook describes how one root of technolibertarian thought began at Biononics conferences in the early 1990s and slowly filtered into the mainstream. In 1991, Michael Rothschild wrote ``Biononics: Economy as Ecosystem,'' which set off a round of conferences. ``Economic life flourishes when technology marches on,'' writes Borsook. ``Here innovation equals genetic mutation, and competition equals natural selection.''

The cult hero of technolibertarians is the entrepreneur, a personality who needs little down time and must not be prone to self-doubt. It was a person glorified in Wired magazine, which began to publish in 1993. It became the technolibertarian's Bible, says Borsook, who wrote occasionally for the magazine.

The magazine broke the publishing mold but ended up uncritically presenting the technolibertarian point of view in writings by George Gilder and others, Borsook says.

Contrast technolibertarians with technorealist, an epithet Borsook gives herself. In a document she and others wrote in 1998, they listed some beliefs countering the libertarian mind set: Wiring the schools will not save them. Technologies are not neutral. The Internet is revolutionary but not utopian. The government has a role to play on the electronic frontier. Not really radical stuff. But Borsook says she and her colleagues were roundly criticized.

Borsook is at her best when she takes aim at the technolibertarian mindset.

``It bespeaks a lack of human connection and a discomfort with the core of what many of us consider it means to be human,'' she writes. ``Computers are so much more rule-based, controllable, fixable, and comprehensible than any human will ever be. As many political schools of thought do, these technolibertarians make a philosophy out of a personality defect.''

But Borsook ignores much contrary evidence of technolibertarianism. One key example is the rise of organizations such as TechNet, a bipartisan group of executives. Granted, the group has lobbied for business interests, but it has also worked to pass a ballot initiative making it easier for local governments to pass school bond measures. That doesn't seem like technolibertarianism to me.

And Borsook's rant form of writing doesn't always work when dealing with philosophical ideas or even descriptions of events. Borsook has a tendency to introduce an idea while criticizing it, making it hard to know exactly what she was criticizing. People aren't really introduced or explained. It's almost as if Borsook is having a one-way discussion with Gilder, Rothschild, Louis Rosetto (the co-founder of Wired), and the reader is trying to catch a little of it.

I could complain more about ``Cyberselfish,'' how Borsook has so many asides that her asides have asides. Or how she describes in one place that her technorealist document is a manifesto but later exhorts readers, ``Please don't call it a manifesto.'' Please don't bully the reader.

But this is a book of its time, especially for those who work or are interested in the cultural changes brought by new technology. Pick up ``Cyberselfish'' between typing e-mail or going to tech parties. Read a few sentences. See if you find yourself anywhere in there. Or someone you know. Borsook's book is a call to grow up, to leave behind as a phase the ``scary psychologically brittle, pre-political autism'' known as technolibertarianism. Then, go out and party. 

Michelle Quinn is a staff writer for the Mercury News.

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