Slash and Dash in Cyberland
A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High- Tech. By
Paulina Borsook, Public Affairs, New York, 2000, 256 pages, $24.00.
style est l'homme meme. -Buffon
About five years ago, wearing my "SIAM News columnist"
hat, I made my first, and to date only, visit to a prominent Silicon Valley
industrial campus. I lucked into a few moments with the CEO-since booted out
with a platinum parachute and subsequently rebooted elsewhere to still higher
glorious undertakings. I came home, wrote up my experience, and had it rejected
by my gentle editor. Well, I needn't have fretted about a possible information
loss. Paulina Borsook has done it for me, far, far better than I ever could, and
has set it all down in words that bubble and bite.
up for this book and you will enjoy a guided tour of Silicon Valley in its
zoological and ideological aspects. Borsook will guide you with knowledge gained
from long personal experience. She will introduce you to the geeks, the dweebs,
the cyber- and cypherpunks and coolies, the whackos, the programmer-droids, the
hackers, the ravers, the gilders, the anarcho-capitalists and crypto-
anarchists, the suits, the dealers in spook-spinoffs, the startup gurus, the
extropians, the polyamorists, the H-IB visa holders, the mech-warriors; above
all, you will meet the techno-libertarians who reside in this steaming,
turbulent, Darwinian, "red in tooth and claw" jungle of transient
ideas and products, where rugged individualism espouses new-age religiosity,
where opportunism breeds money and greed galore, where social and communal
disregard thrives. These categories
of individual may overlap.
this world, which with our silent complacency and our enthused shelling out of
bucks for its never-ending list of useful and never-to-be-used products has
permanently colored the 2lst century , fashioning everyone's future along
digital lines. You will enter a world that is largely hidden from the view of
the little school children who are herded into computer pods; a world that is
largely hidden even from us innocent applied mathematicians who do not yet worry
about copyrighting our 'products and branding them, like Texas heifers, with our
proprietary trademarks. You will enter a world with its own language, mores,
philosophy, its own self-delusions, its own visions of heaven and of hell, and
infinite amounts of self-replicating money, most of which sits there waiting to
be let loose, whether to create, to corrupt, or to be thrown into the trash bins
is a world of startups of which nine out of ten are said to fail, where
feature-creep can substitute for creativity, where hermetically sealed off geeks
produce large quantities of vaporware whose exhalations are changing our habits
and our language.
Paulina Borsook, a slash-and-dash-out-of-
breath-from-too-many-words polemicist/practitioner of the new-Net-style of
journalism/fiction, a Santa Cruz Californian, a feminist after her own fashion,
a former writer for Wired, and now something of a cult figurette, has,
among her best friends, some of the aforementioned geeks and libertarians. She
knows the taxonomy and the con- tours of cyberville like the back of her own
hand. And in this memoir, driving and seething with indignation, she has given
the back of her hand to its culture and its personalities. Her spotlight is
focused principally on a type she calls "the techno-libertarian," of
whom she gives an intimate and devastating portrait. Libertarianism being a
deeply held state of mind, if not a surrogate religion, such people and their
critics come in more varieties and Boolean overlaps than is now the case with
dry cereals at your friendly supermarket. Her characterizations must therefore
be understood as taxonomic idealizations.
I am a frequent writer and am thus alert to styles, I want first to write about
the prose style of Borsook and her netpeers. It is gushing, punchy, overheated,
colorful, graceless, redundant, unrelenting, drowning the reader (as does
hypertext) in facts, opinions, asides, and footnotes. Occasionally, Borsook
creates sentences so convoluted, so full of acronyms and nonalphabetic symbols,
that the ghost of Henry James himself would find difficulty in extracting their
meaning. Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at Stanford, opines that
"a new kind of writing that is quite literally unprintable" may be
emerging from the laptops of netjournalists and presumably diffusing to the
whole community of writers.
am not a follower of Rudolf Flesch (one of the early pioneers in the
mathematization of prose style), and I don't have available any of the
style-analysis software widely employed of late to analyze the speeches of
presidential candidates, so I cannot figure out how exactly to characterize
Borsook's style. One feature that appears on practically every page, standing
out like the proverbial fish in the milk pail, is long strongs of words
concatenated by slashes or dashes. Three examples:
"non-high-end/non-best -of -class/but -maybe-
with- quiet virtues of its own. .."
we-are-hurt-and-angered-by-what -it's-turning-out-to-be- but-there's-
no-greater-publication- on-the-planet-right-now reaction..."
"one of those divorced-in-her- forties-with-
two-teenagers- to-raise-while-trying-to- reenter-the-workforce sad
I suppose this is a kind of forced compactification
of ideas, an attempt to express in one neologism what the English language lacks
by way of a terse description for many current multi- dimensional,
polychromatic, digital experiences. It's algorithmic insofar as it sets up
standardized life categories. Mathematician Lewis Carroll (1832-98) went in for
this kind of blending. He called his simple compounds portmanteau words,"
and I would call Borsook' s polyhyphens "steamer trunks." They
certainly remind me of some of the endless Web addresses we all encounter, e.g.,
/paulina/virtual-romance.html, where you will find posted Paulina's ho-hum
romance -- possibly a satire and I missed it -- in which a female and a male
weep much more over equipment blues than over erotic e-feelings.
new compounds-"suck-uppy," "tech-rich," "cybergenerous,"
"jargon-osphere" -- can be expressive. Special terminologies and
arcane acronyms of the business salt and pepper her pages. This is inevitable:
Every specialty, every craft, is entitled to its nomenclature and generates a
characteristic style. All writers create personal vocabularies, sending the
spellers in word processors into convulsions; but they don't do it with the high
Borsookian frequency or with the intricacies of Joyce'sFinnegans Wake.
and there in this review, I've tried to imitate/parody this style. All right:
Language reflects life. Reciprocally, life creates
language, and as I read along, I wondered whether the prose style of this book
reflects the writer as an individual or the frenetic/symbolic talk of siliconsoc
as it gerbills along in the cube- cities of Siliconia.
tangentially, Borsook reveals little of her own life. In the 70s -- her
postgraduate years -- she was at Berkeley, "studying acting, grovelling at
tables, working for a peace group." She's a bit of a misanthrope. She
twists her knife into well-known cyberpersonalities. Thus, she calls one person
"a high tech grand high poo-bah and technology-sibyl." Three people
are described as "geeks" who see themselves as "warriors in a
Just War." Another is a "venture-capitalist poster boy ." Still
another is "the raver, Wild-West neo-hippie." It's not clear whom
Borsook respects. But fundamentally, she has a good heart, an eye for what is
phony or wicked, for which we can be thankful, and she loves humanity
is a self-confessed Luddite: "I am a Luddite in the true sense of the word.
I am not so sure most change benefits most people." She devotes two pages
to the dangers of de-skilling, but she is also a Luddite who sings a love song
to the late lamented Diconix printer of blessed memory that accompanied her as
she made her way through the wired Wired world. And, she writes;
"I'll remain one of the many whose heart was broken by the promise of this
let's hear Borsook's characterization of the techno-libertarians/siliconized
geeks. (In a bold act of data compactification, I'm going to call them TLs.)
Firstly, to avoid confusion, since there is a Libertarian political party in the
USA, Borsook points out that as regards politics, many TLs "may be
registered as Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, or as independents,
or may not have voted in years. ..."
their imaginative/professional lives, TLs have a tendency to be infantile-cyber-Tolkein-Peter
Pan-ish: "High tech is locked into a perpetual youth culture mind-set, even
if that doesn't match the actual chronological age of many who work within
prefer the world to be deterrninistic/algorithrnic in its essential nature, and
resent it when it's not. "Nerds are always looking for algorithms or
heuristics to model the world." Six pages discuss the extent to which
"TL culture is morbidly hypermale" and the frequency of
polyamory. TLs are averse to long
commitments: "From a purely socio-economic viewpoint, it's anomalous that
many cypherpunks are not married, have never been married, and have no
kids." Aaccording to their in-world joke, the good news is that the problem
is self-limiting -- the TLs may not reproduce themselves. Reciprocally, SilVal
companies are averse to long commitments to their TLs.
the drawers-of-water and the hewers-of-wood among them may not be able to afford
local housing, TLs really live in cyberland, which is located neither in Santa
Clara County nor in the clouds; hence, they have an attachment neither to cities
nor to the Planet Earth. "High tech has historically had a
city-loathing/urban problem- avoiding bias." TLthink asserts: "Homes;
who needs them except as satellite offices?"
are out-for-themselves solipsists flying the
I've-made-it-big-and-so-can-you-if-you-want-to flag. The TLZs
(techno-libertarian-zillionaires) are far less generous, proportionately, than
your average/run-of-the-mill homo sap. At best, TLZs are cheese-paring
micro-philanthropists; and when they do give a few millions away, their giving
tends to follow what Borsook calls the "cat-dead- rat" pattern. That
is, they give what pleases them, e.g., computer stuff, and not what the larger
community might itself think would be of profit.
are virulently antigovernment, except possibly when looking for government
contracts/bailouts/export licenses. They are antitax/anticontrol. "TLs are
sick of being reminded that the Arpanet, the precursor of the Internet, was a
government-funded research project... sheltered from commercial pressures... in
its first fifteen years.” They refuse to believe that the success of the whole
digital program/outlook requires a reasonably well ordered and governed world as
basic infrastructure; they believe, au contraire, that the meta-mediaroad is the
guaranteed road to such stability.
It is very likely that all the attitudes detailed
in Cyberselfish are changing, if only gradually. It is possible that what
Borsook describes is already ancient history.
Shall we read her book as a description of eco-webculture, simultaneously
enjoying it and shuddering, much as we now read the history of the French
aristocracy in the preguillotine days? And will future generations communicate
in silicon squeak even as old fogeys and antiquarians deplore the elimination of
the English curricula in which Hemingway and Mailer were once offered up as
paradigms of perfect prose?
J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an
independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island,
and can be reached at AM188000@brownvm.brown.edu.