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Ex-writer for Wired sees selfishness in high-tech world

CYBERSELFISH: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech. By Paulina Borsook
Public Affairs,  $24.


FEW doubt that technological innovation will continue to drive the American economy and transform daily patterns of life, the recent drop in tech-stock prices notwithstanding. Much has already been written about the nation's high-tech leaders, but no other book has quite the perspective of this one.  Paulina Borsook’s “romp” offers a critical examination of the political culture and world- view of the computer geeks who have emerged in the last decade as the country's new power elite.

Borsook focuses most of her attention on California's Silicon Valley and the men and women who have made fortunes there. She finds that the Silicon Valley world- view "contains within it all different colors of free-market/anti- regulation/social Darwinist/aphilanthropic/guerrilla/new -pseudo-biological/atomistic threads." Her summary description of the Valley's culture is "technolibertarian." According to Borsook, nearly everyone connected with the high-tech industry is a technolibertarian of one sort or another.

The two main sorts are the "Ravers," characterized as neo-hippies who celebrate "drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll," and the "Gilders," social conservatives like George Gilder who have enshrined entrepreneurs as the true spiritual leaders of society.

While Ravers and Gilders have very different lifestyles, they unite in their belief that all technological innovation is good and all government regulation bad.  Sharing in these basic beliefs are other, more extreme groups such as “anarchocapitlalists,” who would have international corporations replace the traditional nation-state completely, and cyperpunks,” radical pro-privacy computer activists with the “paranoia, self-importance and displaced anger” of militiamen.

While never a "technolibertarian" herself, Borsook did have an insider's perspective on Silicon Valley while writing for the Wired magazine (described as the "Daily Worker for the libertarian technical elite") in the mid-1990s. She believes that Wired both reflected and helped shape the "libertarian and techno-utopian" culture of the high-tech industry.

The book is entirely negative in its description of that culture. The dot.com millionaires of Silicon Valley are portrayed as uniformly selfish, superficial and self-absorbed. Borsook charges that an infatuation with biological models has led many of them to believe they have achieved their position through a process of natural selection. This "survival of the fittest" mentality, she believes, is one reason high-tech leaders have so little sense of compassion or responsibility for those in society who have not been so fortunate.

In addition, members of this technology elite are cultural philistines. Borsook holds a liberal-arts degree from the University of California at Berkeley and went to work as a high- tech writer out of economic necessity. Her highly unflattering and often condescending portrayal of the nation's newest economic elite may reflect a bit of personal resentment at the success of those who are so obviously less clever and less cultured than she sees herself to be.

Borsook's political liberalism is even more offended.  She despairs for the future of the country as the power and influence of those who are virulently anti-government continue to grow. She warns that technolibertarianism poses a threat to the "unspoken cultural assumption that progress in our shared civilization was helped along by government programs supporting scientific research, public health [and] education."

Her "cyberselfish" have no more interest in supporting private charities than government programs. Borsook charges that high-tech leaders have been scandalously stingy in their charitable giving and in the time and energy they have devoted to civic activities.

While her figures are a bit dated, she is able to produce more evidence to support her charge of philanthropic cheapness than for many of her other claims. High-tech philanthropy often has meant giving away soon- to-be-obsolete equipment and software without provisions for upgrades or maintenance.

Borsook points out that donations of software can allow high- tech firms to take significant tax write-offs, especially when they use the list price ("which no one on Gaia's green earth has ever paid") in calculating the value of their contribution. As an example of this “soft money give-away scam,” she cites a 1996 case in which software giant Novel was forced to admit that a gift it had valued at $1 million had cost the company only $4,800.

There is no question that the prospect of a society run by the people Borsook describes is frightening. It would be even more frightening had she been able to present evidence that everyone connected with the growing high-tech sector actually was "ravingly anti-government, and tremendously opposed to regulation."

Democrat Maria Cantwell, the former Internet company executive who was just elected to the U.S. Senate from Washington State, hardly fits Borsook's technolibertarian stereotype. The last election, in fact, suggests that there is considerable political diversity within the high- tech community.

Borsook makes a good point in noting how ironic it is that people in high-tech should be philosophically opposed to government support given that the microprocessor industry grew out of government-funded defense and space research. The Internet itself would never have come into being without govern-ment support. She suggests that libertarians pause and consider where the nation's trained workforce will come from without public education and how property rights and contracts could be enforced without a formal legal system.

 Undoubtedly there are technolibertarians of the sort Borsook describes, but she provides surprisingly few concrete examples. Her characterizations are based largely on the impressions she formed while working at Wired -from passing comments of co-workers, anonymous postings on the Internet and her attendance at various conferences. Her basic thesis is not very convincing because she offers so little evidence the world she describes is really out there.

James D. Fairbanks teaches political science t the University of Houston-Downtown.

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