By Jabari Asim
a senior editor of Book World.
Tuesday, June 20, 2000; Page C03
A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture
of High Tech
By Paulina Borsook
PublicAffairs. 276 pp. $24
We know what the chic geeks of the cyber age look like.
At least we think we do: Surely they must be those
laptop-toting Bright Young Things we see in ads, beaming
their megawatt smiles from billboards, TV screens and
magazine pages as they hawk everything from online trading
to Oldsmobiles. We know what they do, too--at least we think
we do. Not the specifics, perhaps, but we're certain that
their wizardry results in wireless phones, hand-held games
and all the other candy-colored gewgaws and gizmos we've
discovered we can't live without. But what motivates these
brilliant folks to such dazzling displays of creativity?
Other than beaucoup stock options, what are their deepest,
Paulina Borsook has the answer, or at least she thinks
she does: They vant to be alone. Apparently Bright Young
Things crave a little solitude--well, a lot of solitude--in
which to perform that magic that makes life easier for us
mere mortals. They especially want the government to grant
them plenty of space to do their thing.
Borsook, who has been writing about high technology for
much of her career, has spent a large portion of that time
in the depths of Silicon Valley. That Northern California
enclave is where Bright Young Things, often armed with
business, computer science and engineering degrees, go
prospecting for IPO gold. Borsook's investigations there
have led her to conclude that where geeks are concerned,
"the attitude, mind-set, and philosophy is
Although the Cato Institute (a well-known libertarian
think tank) does have ties to the region, Borsook sees
Silicon Valley's brand of free-will philosophy as more
social and cultural than political. In a series of connected
essays addressing, among other topics, a business theory
called bionomics, privacy-obsessed "cypherpunks"
and the early days of Wired magazine, Borsook describes the
thinkers and doers of the Valley as mostly male, socially
retarded, immature, confused and lacking "empathic
imagination." She claims to understand the prevailing
anti-government ethos (which doesn't apply to anything
involving Microsoft's struggles with the Justice
Department), attributing it to the feds' "mostly awful
handling of free speech and privacy as these relate to
However, she contends, "that government has had
anything positive to do with any of these structures, checks
and balances that influence so much of how we live and work
(and how high tech so flourishes) is invisible to
technolibertarians." In fact, they can become downright
irritable if pushed on this point. The author somewhat
gleefully reports that "technolibertarians are sick of
being reminded that the Arpanet, precursor to the Internet,
was a government-funded research project."
Borsook believes that geeks' social inadequacies are at
the root of much of their behavior, such as their relative
stinginess. The boys who make our toys apparently are
pathetic when it comes to philanthropy. According to Borsook,
"personal wealth in Silicon Valley grew by $100 billion
from 1991 to 1998--but the attendant regional United Way
annual goal remains at $25 million." She cites a survey
indicating that few of the newly gilded have plans to give
more in the future.
Borsook often asks pointed, relevant questions and offers
learned observations that could be useful to those of us
who've observed Silicon Valley from afar and yearned for a
little illumination. Which makes it all the more frustrating
that "Cyberselfish" is so blasted unreadable.
Borsook's language strains between the high jargon of a grad
school thesis and the insider lingo of a specialized trade
journal, burdening the narrative with a patched-together
quality. There are a few gems: "Cypherpunkery's vision
of personal power is very, very bewitching. It gets rid of
the wimp within." But they get lost amid lines such as
"Technolibertarians wouldn't really know how to grok a
less quantitative/algorithmic weltanschauung." Readers
unversed in either high tech or New Age will come to a
complete halt when they run into this: "Which
illuminates again the nerd underbelly that is an inclination
towards the human-transcending and the synthetic-universe
preferring." Does Borsook mean to say that the nerds in
question don't like to face reality?
It's hard to tell whom she hopes to reach with this book.
Given all she's explained about popular attitudes in Silicon
Valley, folks there are unlikely to be moved. If it's
general readers she's after, she should have included more
sentences that are generally understood.
Finally, despite their vast wealth, Capitol Hill lobbying
and growing campaign contributions, the wizards of Silicon
Valley are still a relatively small and slightly mysterious
group. How will their libertarian bent affect the rest of
us? Borsook concedes that she doesn't really know. Her
fellow citizens--as long they have shiny new toys to buy
each season--probably don't care.