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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, strongest desires?

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 libertarian."

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 technology."

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.

paulina b.

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