Local Author Paulina
Borsook's Critical Look at High Tech Politics
WHEN GEEKS RULE THE WORLD
Interview by Asher Brauner
Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High
By Paulina Borsook/PUBLIC
Paulina Borsook will
read from her new book at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Friday,
January 12th, 2001, at 7:30pm.
Popular perception holds high-tech as
the place to find glamorous innovation,
spectacular profits, the lure of freedom from oppression through better
computing, and cutting-edge cultural cues - tomorrow's zeitgeist, downloadable
today. Santa Cruz-based author Paulina Borsook shatters this perception
in her new book, "Cyberselfish", a blistering critique of the hypocrisies
and failures of the high-tech world.
With twenty years of experience as a
journalist of the high-tech world, most notably
as a contributor to "Wired" magazine, Borsook freely grants that her
book is a "romp." What it lacks
as an academic treatise it more than makes up
for as a highly readable, hilarious, grumpy, personable series of insider
anecdotes and highly informed opinions.
"Cyberselfish" suggests that
geek culture is dominated by what Borsook calls "technolibertarians,"
an angry army of programmers who are spiteful forwards government,
disdainful of have-nots, disgusted with anyone backward enough not
to use the latest edition of software, enraptured with the right to bear arms,
resentful of any limitations on speech, pointlessly greedy, and thoroughly
High-tech is so influential in the
U.S. today, with its financial and cultural
clout growing daily and Santa Cruz a part of the growing sprawl of Silicon
Valley, I thought it would be a good idea to sit down with Borsook for
Asher Brauner: To what extent
is technolibertarianism so unique? Many Americans
are convinced that government doesn't do much except bother them.
Paulina Borsook: The difference
is that usually one can at least understand that
hostility to government is rooted in real frustrations of unemployment or
poverty. No sector of society has suffered less yet benefited more than high-tech.
There's a great tradition in high-tech of socializing the risk and
privatizing the profits. I grew up around an earlier generation of mission-to-Moon
type engineers. No matter their political bent, they shared a
perception that government could do great things.
AB: People don't just welcome
politics for the fun of it. They do it to solve
problems. Is there a common threat to tech folks so grave it would make
them truly organize?
PB: The government is their
threat, coming at them in black helicopters with ninjas.
The irony is that while these First Amendment warriors were so busy -
rightly - fighting the threat of government shackling of Internet communication,
they missed the threat from private capital. I'm amazed by what
people will endure as employees or consumers - email monitored, drug testing,
customer personal information gathered and sold. What is more conformist than
cubicle culture? These self-styled technowarriors are all wearing
product-launch T-shirts, and social deviance consists of putting an action
figure on the terminal.
AB: Deconstruct the following
T-Shirt: "Will Code for Chinese Food."
PB: It's the romanticized
programmer workaholic way of life: get into the zone
for twenty hours and get food that comes in a box. And it's about loving
to do this stuff so much I'll do it all night if you just feed me.
AB: Of course the phrase
"Will work for X" is based on actual hungry, very poor
people. I see this shirt as accumulating enough irony to shield oneself from
an unpleasant situation.
PB: They wouldn't see it that
way. They believe anyone can succeed in the new
knowledge economy, so if you're not, it's your own fault. The idea of human
vulnerability just doesn't make any sense to them. There's this amazingly
mindless insistence on, "I worked really hard, I deserve what I get,"
with no idea that not everyone's got your skill set, or other people work
hard, but are compensated less.
AB: What's going to happen to
all the people you term "getrichkwik.com" in a few
years when they don't have the billion bucks they expected?
PB: Severe disillusionment.
It's already starting to set in, but if you watch
these people during the Nasdaq wobbles, you'll observe this cognitive dissonance
that says, "That person over there is failing, but it would never happen
to me." A sense of personal immunity pervades.
AB: Based on not much.
PB: If they're young enough,
they've never known anything but a boom market, no
thanks to the business-porn media. We're becoming Argentina - extremely wealthy
upper class, huge underclass, middle class withering away, but as a culture
we are so identified with the rich, we don't acknowledge failure as human.
Yet we know there are many failures out there. I wanted to do a story about
the failures. I've been a journalist for twenty years, I know how to root
around for a story, but no one would talk to me, not even off the record,
for fear of jeopardizing their resume. So that became my story - that
in this perverse sub-culture, failure's not O.K. unless it's spectacular.
If you didn't go to the right schools, if you didn't crash at a high-profile
startup, it is not O.K. to fail.
AB: You talk a lot about
Silicon Valley, but is the mindset really geographic?
PB: Silicon Valley matters more
in terms of culture than any other place in high-tech.
But it's migrating already. When I spoke in Seattle a woman spoke up
and said she worked at Amazon.com and she volunteered tutoring kids, etc.,
and I said, "I'm glad you're a good person, but that doesn't change the
fact that Amazon doesn't have to make a profit because it relies on bloated
stock and never collects taxes and your local independent bookstore is
going out of business for doing the right things."
AB: Sitting at a terminal all
day can't really define a sub-culture.
PB: The essence of this
sub-culture is this: simple rules for a complex world.
Computing is based on explicitly stated, comprehensible, repeating rules.
Humans, on the other hand, are complex, unpredictable and flawed. That's
what technolibertarians cannot seem to understand. But this is not the
only model of a culture one could imagine resulting from the fact of computers.
Imagine the same person saying, "I'm going to use these skills to become
a technocrat, make government more efficient."
AB: What does the influx of
Silicon Valley overflow hold for Santa Cruz's future?
PB: What I always loved about
Santa Cruz was its diversity, truly different kinds
of people doing their own thing, and now I'm afraid it's being absorbed
by this monoculture, and all the interesting people are being forced
out. Add that to skyrocketing rents, home prices, even worse a commute
on 17, downtown offices dominated by one industry. Doesn't look good.
AB: What values are
technolibertarians transmitting to their kids?
PB: The mindset goes like this:
if it can't be quantified or monetized, if
it hasn't been tested in the free
market, it doesn't exist or have any value.
A lot of these people have a fundamental parsimoniousness of the soul that
can be kind of creepy.
AB: But you could be describing
the wealthy in any occupation.
PB: Not with this level of
hypocrisy. They consider themselves very nouveau business
people, but their habits are very traditional: they want the Stanford
MBA, not the online MBA, they insist on face-time instead of letting
employees telecommute. Meanwhile the same startup that throws $100,000
product-launch parties argues that your local nonprofit ought to have
more strict accounting. And there's a nauseating narcissism: if it isn't
high-tech, it has no value or doesn't exist, and anyone who doesn't participate
in it is a higher form of insect. And they love copyright law dearly,
but who do they think enforces laws? And their supposedly liberating success
is predicated on a slave class: the guy driving the forklift at Webvan,
the contract worker with no benefits doing data entry for Apple. They
view themselves as daring, on the fringes of the empire, yet no one is more
the darling of Wall St. So where do they get the feeling they have been so
AB: You're linking a particular
mindset and world view to an occupation. All those
who work at a computer have no values?
PB: That's an exaggeration. I
know very many sweet geeks who are as admirable
as people in any walk of life. But the culture surrounding them is this
bottom-line, flip-and-flee, global monoculture attitude. It's fascinating
that immigrants from other countries adopt these attitudes within
six months of landing in Silicon Valley.
AB: The amount of energy that's
been put into Open Source software is fascinating
- thousands of programmers online working to improve the same code
for no personal benefit. It looks to me like the opposite of libertarianism.
PB: Open source is lovely. It's
very communitarian, each person showing off by
pounding away at the code together. But a lot of the open source people remain
technolibertarians by day and have this terrific hobby by night. The fact
that it is a cooperative effort that does not take place in a physical community
in a specific time and place means that no real or positive sense of
community can form.
Asher Brauner is a
staff member at Bookshop Santa Cruz anmd the author of Love
Songs of the Tone-Deaf.