A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech
By paulina borsook
Copyright © 2000 Paulina Borsook. All rights reserved.
1 Bionomics in Your Daily Life.....................................29
2 The Crypto Wars: Cypherpunks, Digital Cash, and Anarcho-Capitalism, Oh My...........................................73
3 Wired: Guiding the Perplexed....................................115
5 But How Did This Happen?........................................211
6 The Thrilling Conclusion........................................253
Bionomics in Your Daily Life
Early one evening in mid-1993, I was having dinner with a friend, Dan Lynch, at San Francisco's Embarcadero Center. Created in the 1960s to be the Rockefeller Center of the West, the Embarcadero Center is a nouveau prestigious white-collar address close to the Financial District (the City's equivalent to Wall Street/midtown Manhattan) and to the wharves, San Francisco's ancestral source of commerce. The happy background thrum of knowledge-worker money aside, the setting for our meal was fitting because Embarcadero Center's particular form of celebratory Christmas decoration every year-outlining the buildings with electronic lighting devices-makes them look from across the Bay in Berkeley like CAD/CAM schematics for skyscrapers.
My dinner companion was one of the real fixer/handler/macher/ know-it-alls of Silicon Valley, who had been one of those old-time SRI/Arpanet/Internet forefathers. Although he hadn't yet in 1993 cashed out for the second time, he was the founder of Interop (the first trade show devoted to the commercialization of the Net), the cofounder of Cybercash (an early electronic commerce venture), and board member of the Santa Fe Institute (complexity, chaos, and all that jazz). This varsity-string I-get-around high tech guy was sort of double alpha in brains and dominance (and wit, too), who dresses like the manager of a lumberyard. The only way you'd have known he was worth kazillions of dollars would be from the newish Lexus he always drove and the casual mention he made of the places he owned in Los Altos Hills, Napa, and Tahoe.
Among the reponses he gave to the question I asked him of what he was up to next (once you stop having to work for survival, you have to figure out what to do with your life that provides meaning) was his modest mention of an interest in economics. I found this curious, for I wasn't in the habit of thinking that powernurds, even one as broadly thoughtful as this one, cared much about larger social issues, or about slippery, badly defined philosophical attempts to understand human behavior, particularly a subject that notoriously suffers from physics envy and a lack of hard replicable data. In other words, most guys for whom the system of startup and cash-out works really well don't usually spend lots of time thinking about that system. It's losers of the game, or maybe those who are outside observers of it, who usually have the time or interest to Go Analytical/Meta.
It was Bionomics that Dan Lynch was talking about. He sent me a copy the very next day of Michael Rothschild's eponymous book (Bionomics: Economy as Ecosystem) and invited me to attend the first Bionomics conference a couple of months hence in San Francisco. Rothschild's original subtitle for his Bionomics was The Inevitability of Capitalism, and the beginning of the book's ascent into larger view came from a favorable review in the August 19, 1991, issue of the Wall Street Journal. After this, folks from Newt Gingrich to the editorial staffs of Fortune and Forbes became similarly entranced.
John Baden, a free-market environmentalist, wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
Occasionally a book signals a fundamental shift in the way people should think about economics. Such a book integrates important and disparate findings into a new perspective.... Mr. Rothschild ... offers a fascinating and highly creative alternative to the way conventional economics views the world.... The paradigm laid out in Bionomics harmonizes liberty, prosperity, and integrity.... Mr. Rothschild has it right.
Baden, though, was both sorta right and sorta wrong, about Bionomics. It turns out that many mainstream economists, Nobelists among them, have been operating for years on the assumptions that devotees and new readers of Bionomics believed were new and unique. Concepts such as the importance of technological change in driving economic growth has been central to the work of Robert Solow, and there's even an entire branch of economics, called evolutionary economics, where, according to MIT professor Paul Krugman, economic theory has looked like evolutionary theory for a very long time. But then, popularizers, like blondes, maybe do get to have more fun: Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul) got a lot more celebrity and return on his investment than his mentor, James Hillman, who had been cranking out his sensible, slightly dysphoric small-press Jungianism for decades before Moore wrote his bestsellers.
But Baden was right in that Bionomics was the right book for the right time. The ideas and metaphors of Bionomics were supremely adapted to high tech culture and were most timely as geeks and Net entrepreneurs were coming into cultural dominance as never before. We all want better ways to understand ourselves and to better articulate what we believe we are doing.
Biology Is Destiny
Bionomics borrows from biology as opposed to Newtonian mechanics to explain economic behavior, describing the way the world works in terms of learning, adaptation, intelligence, selection, and ecological niches. It favors decentralization and trial and error and local control and simple rules and letting things be. Bionomics pays homage to Friedrich Hayek, one of the residents in the traditional libertarian pantheon, who believed that only free markets can lead to freedom (been to China lately?) and that command and control (all government intervention of course irresistibly leading to Stalinesque collectivization of farms) leads to serfdom.
Bionomics, reduced to a bumper sticker, which, yes, you could occasionally actually see on cars when driving around the Bay Area, states that "the economy is a rain forest." The Bionomics argument goes that a rain forest ecosystem is far more complicated than any machine that could be designed-the idea being that machines, and machine-age thinking, are the markers of Bad Old Economic thinking. No one can manage or engineer a rain forest, and rain forests are happiest when they are left alone to evolve, which will then benefit all the happy monkeys, pretty butterflies, and funny tapirs that live in them. In our capitalist rain forest, organizations and industries are the species and organisms. Although if a corporation is the analog for, say, an individual tapir, then what is the rain forest analog for an individual person? A mitochondria?
What about the fact that actual rain forests are now being destroyed because of the free market?
To extend the metaphor, economic life flourishes when technology marches on, accelerated by competition. Here, innovation equals genetic mutation, and competition equals natural selection. So, of course, government regulation must equal messing with the rain forest's natural progress. Never mind that people have been messing with ecology (acting like big bad government) since forever: controlled burning to increase forest health or, oh, even doing things like farming. And that, actually, many healthy ecosystems remain in a fine state of balance and relative stasis, organisms having for the most part maximally optimized their environments, with relatively small amounts of oscillation, churn, and evolution-until something drastic happens. The dinosaurs did have a pretty good, and varied, run, you know? At least until the death-star comet hit ...
Regardless, the intersection between Rothschild's libertarian economic theories and high tech turns out not to be as random as I had thought that night over dinner in San Francisco's Financial District-nor its spreading out into the larger world so magical. In spite of his de rigueur East Coast establishment credentials (MBA and law degree from Harvard, stint with the Boston Consulting Group), Rothschild had been involved back in the late 70's and early '80s with an early software success, Micropro (which brought you that early success/early obsolescence word-processing program, Wordstar). There, (1) he saw that people were madly rushing to pay for elusive, information-based intangible goods, that is, revisions (revs) to software, and (2) he came to the attention of the venture capitalists (VCs) on the board of the Marin County startup, in particular, Arthur Patterson. Patterson, part of longtime VC powerhouse Accel Partners, was instrumental in handing out Rothschild's book as the 1990 VC firm's Christmas gift to the folks they thought mattered.
Lynch read the book, glommed onto Rothschild when he was a speaker at a Sand Hill Road meeting of the Western Association of Venture Capitalists a few months later-and The Bionomics Institute was born, along with its annual conference, its Web site, its "Vitamin B: Your Daily Dose of Bionomics" (a daily bit of inspiration, whether a quote from elsewhere or an original in-house observation, was made available on the Bionomics Institute Web site or delivered fresh to your email address), and its software startup, Applied Bionomics, Inc., (now called Maxager). Lots, though not all, of the conference attendees and speakers have been associated with high tech: They perhaps make up the single biggest chunk of adherents.
A typical Vitamin B:
Evolving slowly in relatively protected isolation, Hawaii's flora and fauna are reminiscent of traditional industries: heavily protected by tariffs, regulations, old-guard owners and other well-entrenched interests. Archaic technologies and business processes abound, similar to the unique life forms that inhabit the Hawaiian islands. Unlike Hawaii, however, traditional industries are not scenes of pastoral richness. More often, they exhibit class divisions and crusty resistance to anything that threatens the established owners. Yet the path of their establishment, and the dynamics of their demise, are strikingly similar. (James Moore, December 1995, Upside [a monthly magazine targeted to Silicon Valley's business elite])
You can argue the biological metaphor both ways: If shelter creates unique beauty in nature, there also might be examples in economics. Sports Illustrated didn't turn a profit for Time, Inc. for years, but because it was sheltered by its parent corporation, it was given an opportunity to flourish-and is now doing very nicely, thank you.
Or you can argue that removing shelter in nature does bad things: Rats that escaped from ships starting in the nineteenth century have wreaked havoc on Hawaii's bird population, which had not evolved defenses against such predators. There is also the matter of how indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere sublimed almost out of existence once they were exposed to microbes (smallpox, influenza) they had been sheltered from. In terms of shelter in the business world, Wal-Mart, with its predatory pricing, can run locally owned businesses out of the shelter of their own home towns, thus creating a more uniform retail monoculture worldwide. Or you can agree with Moore up to a point, by saying shelter in nature can be good but sometimes bad and sheltering companies can be bad but sometimes good; yet they can both end up on the ash heap of history-and so your point is? This Vitamin B, like so much of the Bionomics argument, sounds great but tastes lighter and lighter the more you look at it.
Lynch says that the fit between Bionomics and high tech is intuitively obvious, for "computers embody learning mechanisms. There's the great belief in trial and error. You see it in rev after rev of software. You don't have to wait for evolution: you see it." Rothschild would agree, for in high tech, what he calls "super-accelerated capitalism, you see in two years what you might see [in other venues] in 20 or 30 years."
Evolution of product lines, competitors driving each other from market niches-these metaphors conform to day-to-day high tech reality. Thomas Kuhn (who popularized the notion of paradigm shifts in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) has argued that the same idea occurs to lots of folks more or less at the same time (was it a Russian, a German, or a Frenchman, precisely, who invented the internal combustion machine? was Wallace or Darwin more properly the dad of evolutionary theories of natural selection?). It might be argued that if Bionomics hadn't existed, someone else would have had to invent it.
The notion of "memes," and how they spread, might provide a handy explanation. A notion created by British sociobiologist Richard "selfish gene" Dawkins, a meme signifies an intellectual construct, paradigm, or cultural commonplace that propagates like brushfire or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or fashions in footwear. Virus transmission is often invoked as a metaphor to explain the spread of memes. "Information wants to be free" is the first part of a famous remark made by Whole Earth Catalogue founder/Global Business Network totem Stewart Brand, where he also added, "and information wants to be expensive." The comment has been misunderstood and mutated into the meme that might be stated "information has a way of getting out there in spite of attempts to contain it-and of getting reproduced for free"-a ubiquitous idea much beloved by raver technolibertarians. Even more fundamentally, the meme that models human thought processes on computing (the brain is a big computer, with different kinds of storage and processing capacities) is an example of how the meme of computation has entered into contemporary thought streams. The appeal of the Bionomics meme is that it cuts through all that messy icky maddening complexity that's the Real World: It's a comfort to believe everything does best if left alone.
So Lynch himself contributed to the spread of the Bionomics idea by buying and handing out enough copies of Rothschild's book that the publisher finally decided to go into a second printing (new cover-in the greater Bionomics community there is prestige in having a copy of the book with the earliest cover). He says with pride that the fact that so many people now take Bionomics ideas for granted is proof of his success as a popularizer.
In a case of parallel evolution, former Wired executive editor Kevin Kelly produced a 1995 book, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, about a similarly Bionomics-esque cosmology-and theoretically totally independent of Rothschild's work. Kelly argued that economic life has grown too large and too complex to be managed and that borrowing from biological thought, through such naturally occurring models as genetic algorithms and flocking behaviors of geese, would provide more useful tools to organize economic and social activity. Kelly was smitten with many of the concepts of Bionomics and was fascinated with notions of evolution and the beauties of decentralization. Like many of the speakers at Bionomics conferences, Kelly dwelled on outcomes of actions made by particles, molecules, cellular automata, and Internet routers. Kelly's view of the ideal-world-to-come is scarily de-individualized and overautomated, a view that lurks beneath much Bionomic and technolibertarian speculation. In any event, as these things tend to work (great minds thinking in the same channels, small minds thinking alike), Kelly ended up as the keynoter at the Third Bionomics Conference.
Red in Tooth and Nail
One of Bionomics' libertarian catchphrases is "simple rules, complex behaviors." As Steve Gibson, former executive director of The Bionomics Institute (TBI), put it, "tinkering with monetary policy to affect the economy is an example of machine-age thinking. Global liquidity flows make financial markets respond instantly and viciously." To bionomicians, all the foofaraw about what the Fed is going to do next is beside the point.
Bionomics is a great system for the top percentiles, the endlessly entrepreneurial, the happily workaholic. But where in this ecosystem is there room for other kinds of species? What about the vulnerable, the ones who weren't able to cash our, those whose skillset or native endowment doesn't fit well into the shiny happy new information economy? Here I think of my sister: biology degree from Stanford, plus a masters in public health, one of those divorced-in-her-forties-with-two-teenagers-to-raise-while-trying-to-reenter-the-workforce sad stories, who grasps after any kind of health education job she can find. She has at times had to resort to selling flowers at BART stations to prevent her house from being foreclosed. In other words, she has precisely the skillset (teaching, community service, environmental consciousness) that has little bionomic value in our fabu hyperaccelerated crashboombang economy. These jobs have gone away, or hardly pay a living wage. And I hate thinking about the skilled blue-collar workers I know (for the foreseeable future, unglamorous but necessary functions such as installing sound electrical wiring and plumbing still need to be performed) who struggle to support their families. It's hard to see what adaptation or evolution functions here: Although you might develop new ways to better teach first-generation immigrants about prenatal care, the need to teach prenatal care, and the substance of it, will not suddenly evolve into something else.
One of my total-doll hypernerd friends-who jokingly says "I'm a computer scientist. How can I help?" and it's only half a joke, for he truly would dash to the assistance of anyone who asked-has gone from elite science/technology establishment to elite science/ technology establishment. He's the sort of Big Brain whose friends tend to get to choose between professorates and executive positions at startups. As compassionate and considerate a human being as you could ever hope to find, when we were arguing about age discrimination in high tech, he made a comment that went something along the lines that if there really were value in old COBOL programmers (COBOL being the programming language of the mainframe era), then obviously there was a niche there and the natural dynamics would take care of it and soon there would be a startup that would venture this. High tech, of course, doesn't generally value experience and age; my friend was missing the point that an old COBOL programmer might be capable of programming in newer languages or might bring wisdom to contemporary technology problems.
His idea was as logical, but as preposterous, as asserting that since baby boomers, the biggest blip in consumer-demo models, are aging, then fashion designers are going to suddenly start creating haut couture for, and feature models disporting, bodies that in another era would have majorly relied on girdles. True, there was some flare-up in demand for older programmers because of Y2K problems. Even so, Y2K didn't create a full-employment act for older programmers, whether or not they knew COBOL.
For my hypernerd, honey-bunny-baby of a centurion of high tech, who has tons of friends who in their middle thirties can decide to cash out and never work again, who has friends who do have their very own private residential helicopter pad, and who himself chooses to live a life of voluntary poverty and simplicity (a studio apartment and no car with a salary that could comfortably support a family of four anywhere outside Boston, New York, or San Francisco) but could opt for big bucks any time he wanted-for him, thinking biologically makes sense. It's rather like the picture you'd have of the wondrously efficient meritocracy of the music biz if all the musicians you knew, or you yourself, were the sort of player who got featured at Tanglewood, or were asked to sit in on sessions with Brian Eno. Everyone would seem to be doing well, and some stupendously so; you simply wouldn't see or know the equally talented but obscure/unlucky musicians who had to consider themselves lucky if they had steady gigs playing in the cocktail lounges of airport Holiday Inns. And as for the street musicians you sometimes walked past, who were really good, you just might be inclined to think there was something somewhat defective about them.
In the rarefied heights of my friend's high tech alpine meadow community, the glacial melt makes for enough clear drinking water to go around, and the pica population lives in harmony with the bluebells.
Contrast my sweet computer scientist friend with the son of the man my mother employed as a gardener for years, someone not so biologically fit in high tech's ecosystem. Offspring of a tight-knit hard-working immigrant family, he miraculously went off to college (California State University-Los Angeles, though; not Carnegie-Mellon), where he earned an undergraduate degree in computer science. Alas, he could not find work in his chosen field-Cal State-LA not being one of the prestige schools that high tech so heavily recruits from-so went to work in his father's gardening business. Not that there's anything less than honorable about gardening, or going into the family business. However, high tech propounds the myth that if you become One of Us, then prosperity and ease necessarily await, and what's more, that everyone is equally moldable into what high tech demands-which is like saying everyone can be a wizard chess player.
Flatlanders, or the less elite, are, then, not so ecologically favored. Their choices are more limited, or are made for them by others-though maybe that's always the definition of the hidden injuries (if you are not found bionomically fit) and entitlements (if you are) of class. Bionomic fitness might also simply be an expression of nothing more than the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States and worldwide, as that gap reveals itself among the computation-intensive class.
As another member of the international high tech elite conspiracy (well, not a conspiracy, but a loose consortium of like-minded folks) said in an interview with anthropologists from California State University-San Jose (what you might call field notes from the belly of the beast):
If I can get more done I can make more money by working more; that's OK because you've made the choice to do that and the purpose is that maybe some day you'll be able to do something with that money. But that's a free choice and some people consider work entertaining. Those who want to play more can work less because they'll get their work done faster, so they can have more free time to do things they feel are more worthwhile than working.
In actuality, though, this kind of Milton Friedman-esque choice is something most people in high tech don't have: Most can either string themselves out with work (but maybe they can't, if in addition to quant skills they are not endowed with tons of stamina and little need for down time, either physical or psychological), which can be exhilarating in the short term, deadening in the long term, or find themselves not very employable. Some, true, do have the option to knock themselves out for the duration of a contract-and then, say, take off for a tour of Bhutan, Mustang, and the archeological treasures of Turkey. But that's an elite Young Person's option, the option of no need for constancy, some steadiness in your life. It doesn't work well with family life, or with wanting balance in your life.
What's tacit in much of this biological-economic language (and I don't mean in only that which is officially sanctioned by The Bionomics Institute, but in the similar-sounding patois that is uttered throughout high tech) is, as in any culture, a bias toward certain kinds of genotypes/phenotypes.
The entrepreneur personality-which needs little downtime, which must be narrowly focused and not prone to self-doubt, which will do all and anything to succeed, which tirelessly and compulsively must act like the greatest salesman in the world, which by definition is workaholic, which risks (and maybe devalues) family life and health-thrives in this ecosystem. "Succeeding in technology is like being a 911 operator or a doctor in a triage unit," said Jon Carter, a recruiter at the Palo Alto headhunting firm Egon Zehnder International, quoted in a May 7, 1998, Wired News story. It brings to mind Yeats's "Second Coming": "The best lack all conviction/The worst are full of passionate intensity."
In the realm of people, the Bionomics worldview evokes a question I had as I watched the hostile-takeover world of the 1980s: Why is it not okay for a company that's doing fine by its customers, employees, community, and stockholders simply to be left alone? So what if it merely performs well but not optimally? Where is the place for the non-high-end/non-best-of-class/but-maybe-with-quiet-virtues-of-its-own company? Of the company that doesn't optimize for fleeting shareholder value but for other qualities? Say of creating goods that last, of treating both employees and customers well? In economic life, perhaps it's a laughable question, of whether aggressive buyers of corporations should leave good-enough companies alone, but what happens when this same Darwinian logic is applied to kinds of people as well as kinds of companies?
Where the biological logic really falls apart is that often what's maladaptive in one circumstance is supremely adaptive in another (sickle-cell anemia, not useful to the organism in North America, was quite valuable in Africa by providing partial resistance to malaria). If you maximize all the time for what's biologically fit at the moment, you lose out in the long run. For example, those inclined to mood disorders (depressives and manic-depressives) famously abuse substances, themselves, and others; blow opportunities that come their way; and don't go for the main chance. The culture of optimism that Wired and other technology business-porn magazines have promoted suggests its opposite: the medieval Christian sin of accidie and anomie. If you're dysphoric and critical, lack that Coué-like/W. Clement Stone positive mental attitude, you're a morally blighted enemy of progress. It's magical thinking: If you think good thoughts about the future, it will be a good future! Clap your hands if you believe in faeries!
Yet so often the downers are the folks who create and perform that which over time we come to value most: from the printmaking/natural history pioneering of John James Audubon to the writing of Virginia Woolf to the politicking of Lincoln. The hypersensitive maladaptive no-commercial-potential individuals, the runts of the litter, and the defective members of the species can-because as humans and not plenaria we can value things not just of momentary food/shelter/mate-status-enhancing enticement-create the best of what makes us uniquely human. Creative endeavors of all kinds don't necessarily stem from being efficient economic units/agents.
Artists (I use the term broadly, regardless of mode of expression: words, images, sounds) suffer from depression at up to eight times the rate of the general population; scientists seem to suffer from it at half the rate. It's not that I am arguing with sniffy superiority for the delicate sensibilities of People Wearing Black over People Wearing T-Shirts that read "In this era of digital Darwinism, some of us are ones. You're a zero." It's that the bionomic worldview presents a reverse discrimination that says the not functionally optimized (up and productive and making economic sense at the moment) are invisible or useless. It's not that this is stated anywhere; it's just that it's implied everywhere.
Every once in a while you come across something that allows you to acquire some of the knowledge you would have been looking for if you could have been the fly on the wall you've always wanted to be on. It might be listening in on the deliberations of the membership committee of an exclusive club (Skull and Bones? Or The Jonathan Club? Santa Monica's ultra WASP exclusive beach club) so that you could actually come to understand how it decides who to accept and who to reject. It could be the discovery of the documentation depicting how the Pentagon was lying about the effectiveness of the military operations in Vietnam. It could take the form of finding the articulation of a prejudice you had long suspected, just as Henry Ford was sure he had found proof of the perfidy of the international Jewish banking conspiracy when he came across "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the phoney-baloney document that's been floating around forever that demonstrates conclusively how those nasty miserly Jewish international bankers control the lives of decent, Christian, god-fearing folk.
In my incarnation as fly, I found a comely wall to land on when I came across in the January/February 1998 Cato Policy Report an excerpt from the essay "Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?" (which first appeared in 1986 in The Future of Private Enterprise [Georgia State University Press]; reprinted in Socratic Puzzles [Harvard University Press, 1997]), the triumphant confirmation of my libertarian fears. Written by primo libertarian Harvard philosophy professor Robert Nozick, the piece gives his explanation of why what he calls intellectual wordsmiths are so often disgruntled, resentful, envious anticapitalists. He asserts, rightfully, that poets and journalists and many academics and those of similar ilk are really ticked that "a capitalist society rewards people only insofar as they serve the market-expressed needs of others; it rewards in accordance with economic contribution, not personal value."
Yes! The libertarian knows the price-of-everything-but-the-value-of-nothing argument writ large! I would disagree with Nozick's contentions that workers in visual media don't share these discontents (performing artists aren't even mentioned in his essay), for although many visual artists, whether cynically or sincerely, promote and market themselves, I've never met any who would take the philosophical position that the market efficiently recognizes aesthetic value. Perhaps it can over time, but that time period can in some places be centuries (Mendelssohn rehabilitated the reputation of Bach, T. S. Eliot the Metaphysical Poets-a delay of several hundred years in the value chain). What sells and what doesn't, and for how much and when, is precisely as irrational as notions of taste and beauty and as marginally predictable as the luck of a blackjack player. True, some artists have a gift for being famous or a genius for self-promotion. But that's not the point.
I would affirm that yes indeedybob there are values the market can't compute or dictate (why else do people want to work for relatively little money at places they consider cool, whether at a nonprofit or at MTV?). I don't think it is just wordsmiths who hold this position (I think of scientists who work for love of the beauty of what they discover, for far less than what they could earn in the private sector); but it's probably true that those more versed in dealing with the unquantifiable say there can be value in the immeasurable-or, at least, immeasurable by obvious market means.
The "Communist Manifesto" has it right: What it calls bourgeois capitalism "has resolved personal worth into exchange value and, in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom-Free Trade." Marx and his pal Engels had other relevant things to say about the spread of global capitalism (much more accurate for the description of what is happening at the end of our own century than at the end of his). That crew was far better at analysis of how capitalism works than at coming up with policy-wonk recommendations. But, then, Marx was yet another member of Nozick's resentful underpaid wordsmith class.
In any event, Nozick's essay blames it all on school and goes on to explain that verbal sorts who did well there just can't get over the fact that other kinds of people get better rewarded by society, such as those with substantial (but not overwhelming) bookish skills along with social grace, strong motivation to please, friendliness, winning ways, and an ability to play by (and to seem to be following) the rules. Such pupils ... will be highly regarded and rewarded ... and they will do extremely well in the wider society, as well.
In other words, your future sales manager is likely to be more capitalism-friendly than, say, Pauline Kael in training might have been (given all the fine things that '80s-and-'90s-style capitalism has done for the movies, that wouldn't be too surprising). But, then, student body presidents, whether as kids or when all grown up and having left that honor behind, probably have different internal markers of success than those less other-directed. And Nozick ignores the plethora of writers and pundits who do whatever it is they do for the money, for that success in wider society. But whether what they do is work they are proud of, or whether it is work of lasting value, is not factored into the libertarian equation.
Nozick further posits that numbersmiths, "quantitatively bright children, ... do not receive the same ... attention and approval ... as do verbally bright children ... and it is apparently these rewards that especially shape [the wordsmith's] sense of entitlement." And so, numbersmiths tend to be far less anticapitalist. I can't speak for conventionally recognized verbal acuity leading to a sense of entitlement, nor for the wiseasses who are not rewarded for their verbal felicities. Certainly, lots of smart talkers get ahead, become well-placed lawyers, businesspeople, and college professors (like Nozick himself). But I think that even if the letter of his argument is wrong, the spirit of it may be right: Humanities geeks are more likely to be squishy-liberals and snail-darters. It's like the argument for wilderness: It has value precisely because you can't put a dollar value on it.
Chances are most technolibertarians haven't heard of Robert Nozick, much less read him. But chances are also good that most would agree with his bias toward valuing people who acquire MBAs and away from people who write little novels of the emotions. Money is something you can count; the value of human subjectivity you can't. Technolibertarians wouldn't really know how to grok a less quantitative/algorithmic weltanschauung. It's C. P. Snow's two cultures antipathy taking a form he hadn't quite imagined.
And many technolibertarians would probably concur with Nozick's conclusion that poetasters are nothing more than sore losers. I've heard it myself from technolibertarians on the Net, who, engaging in schadenfreude, claim I am only annoyed with them because of my own sour grapes. No, it's not that I denigrate their success; it's mean-spiritedness and hypocrisy and cognitive blinders I can't abide. Which Bionomicians as people are no more guilty of than anyone else; but may be guilty of as ideologues ...
Change Is Good
What does make sense to technolibertarians, instead of a world where money is poorly correlated with value, is a delta-world (change of a certain kind defines certain units of scientific measurement) that maps onto engineering reality (you fix the bug, improve the product, bring out a new model). The delta-world is one of management by quarterly reports, Web Weeks, and day-trading. Whether this maps well onto all aspects of human breathing or striving is something else.
Virginia Postrel, longtime editor in chief of Reason magazine, sort of the Nation/New Republic/Atlantic Monthly of libertarianism, gets at this delta-world ideal in her "Dynamism, Diversity, and Division in American Politics" speech, which she delivered at the Fifth Annual Bionomics Conference in 1996-and which was subsumed in her 1998 book, The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict on Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. She made good points about how the Jeremy Rifkins and Patrick Buchanans of the world have more in common with each other than, say, with their more obvious political allies. She sees folks like Rifkin and Buchanan as agents of stasis who either long for a fantasy past or want to plan (code for control-freaking/bureaucratizing/anti-individualist acting) for a better future; on the other hand, agents of dynamism believe in the complex ecology of human beings ... preferring decentralized choice.... They are open-ended.... Nobody-no individual, no governing group-knows enough about a society to manage it in detail.... Dynamism is harder to understand than stasis.... It is the product of millions of unplanned choices directed by no central person or organization.... Popular culture ... religion ... the family ... they are complex systems that do not stay put, spontaneous orders subject to no one's control.... Dynamic systems not only accommodate diversity; their flexibility allows them to accommodate external change. They are resilient. When the world changes, they permit many small-scale experiments, increasing the chances of success and decreasing the consequences of failure. They allow fine-tuning.
It sounds great. Who would not want to be on the side of dynamism? Wired magazine celebrated its sixth anniversary with an entire issue devoted to the proposition that "Change Is Good" (emblazoned on the front cover). Myself, I'm so glad that I live in an era of photocopiers, laptops, call-waiting, Telfa pads, Advil, and narrow-spectrum antibiotics.
But I don't think all change is good, or without cost. I am a Luddite-in the true sense of the word. The followers of Ned Ludd were rightfully concerned that rapid industrialization was ruining their traditional artisanal workways and villages, creating nineteenth-century local environmental disasters and horror-show factory working (and living) conditions for family members of all ages. For decades, the displacements of the Industrial Revolution sent hundreds of thousands of people to lives of penury, starvation, disease, and despair in the slums of big cities. The Luddites were early labor and ecology activists, upset not so much with technology per se but with technology's destructive effects to their bodies, to their children, to the places where they lived, to their ability to make a sane living. And, in a sense, they were early protesters of de-skilling.
De-skilling is not a purely late-twentieth-century phenom (where reliance on computers means that people with less skill and knowledge-who can be paid far less-perform previously more-skilled jobs). Considering the failure of so many modern buildings (in design, execution, defect of materials, workmanship), isn't it worth questioning whether kids straight out of an architecture program, slaved to CAD/CAM workstations and paid relatively little, are doing as good a job as the senior architect, who has knowledge not so containable in commercial software, they displaced? So the Luddites smashed mechanical looms, the symbols and agents of their oppression, and have had an unfair bad rap ever since as loons and barbarians. Not to romanticize the agrarian past, but much of urban and small-factory-town life of the Industrial Revolution was very much like that of Blake's dark Satanic mills. Technology and trade marched on and global empires were created; monopolies arose; it all sounds familiar.
Yes, a middle class sprang from this industrialization, and it certainly made possible the improved standard of living a century later for North Americans and Western Europeans; but that dynamism of the nineteenth century was hardly without grievous cost. In this model of how the world works or should work, there's the spirit of Lenin: In regard to revolution, you have to break eggs to make an omelet. Or maybe the model is biological: Nature has her own cycles of creation and destruction, and who are we to argue?
Like the Luddites, I am not so sure most change benefits most people. Postrel's spectrum from stasis to dynamism (with sense and sensibility heavily weighted on one side of that spectrum) ignores all the largely invisible stable societal structures (just to name two: (1) public investment in sanitation, education, and public waterways; (2) changes in common law that made it legal for women to vote and own property) that make all this dynamism productive and possible. Contrast this with the lack of centralized authority that was so dreadfully inconveniencing in the recent unpleasantness in the Balkans. The changing world Postrel refers to often changes for the better because its governments change.
Which brings up a subject/object confusion that percolates throughout much of the discourse of high tech: the misapprehension that because computers and communications technologies change quickly (at least in terms of speeds and feeds, bits and bytes; whether they actually work faster, given their increasing overbuilt complexity, is another matter entirely) and because most white-collar and some blue-collar work now makes use of them in one form or another, the erroneous conclusion is drawn that this same white-collar and blue-collar work, and the enterprises and industries they are part of, must also be changing as rapidly. Wrong. It's like saying that since today's automobiles weigh less than the ones built in the 1970s and contain lots more electronics than the ones built in the 1970s that they must routinely travel much faster than 1970s cars-say, 120 mph, not 60 mph-or routinely get 60 miles per gallon, instead of 30, which we know not to be the case. They may have more microprocessor-based gizmos in them, but that by its lonesome is not that big of a change over previous generations of automobiles.
The computer-productivity paradox, as it is commonly called, describes the very disconcerting finding that with all the paradigm-shifting empowerment of the individual/middle-management genocide that distributed data processing has rained down on us all, by most measures there hasn't been a productivity gain. Yes, people can now do, but may also be expected to do as part of their job, things they couldn't before, but that's too long a side issue to get into ...
In Paul Krugman's terrific January 22, 1998, column for the Microsoft-owned online publication Slate, called "Entertainment Values/Will Capitalism Go Hollywood?" he explains that Yesterday every industry was going to look like automobiles, and every company like General Motors; today every industry is going to look like software, and every company like Microsoft .... Even though information technology may well be the driving force behind future economic growth, it's very unlikely that the information-technology industry is ever going to be more than a fairly small share of the economy. In its day electricity changed everything, too, but there was never a time when most people worked for electric utilities or even for employers who looked anything like electric utilities.
Nevertheless, Kevin Kelly's New Rules for the New Economy, first appearing as an article in the September 1997 issue of Wired, came out as a book in the fall of 1998. These rules rely on a whole bunch of biological metaphors as belly-flopped onto the scripture of high tech business. Aside from bobbing requisite curtsies in the direction of Peter Drucker and Alvin Toffler, Rules Boy Kelly describes the circumference of what he calls the Network Economy-which looks a lot like an exploded version of the electronics industry. The rules, in turn, are a lot like his "Nine Laws of God," with which he concluded Out of Control (his previous book), and are guides for his idea of what neobiological civilization ought to be. Kelly has a bad case of the delta blues.
Which means I must bring up another of my friends, this time a libertarian eco-warrior. With multiple degrees in chemistry from Good Schools, he's made a career of working for the good (an internationally respected nature organization, a public-interest law firm filing claims on behalf of atomic/radiation survivors, etc.). And he struggles and struggles to reconcile his anarchistic, government-despising political impulses with the global depletion and degradation he is familiar with factually as a scientist. For what he sees is that transnational corporations are beholden to no communities but their stockholders; and the work he and others try to do on behalf of the environment doesn't fit for the most part with the libertarian worldview he holds. If corporations have no obligation to conform to the dictates of a governing body, most can't be bothered to do well by doing good. He hates this contradiction, as he must. My friend is also a secular humanist with a tinge of the woowoo; in other words, he has no religious faith in the conventional sense.
Compare my friend, who is a practicing biologist, but an agnostic, with Kelly, a lapsed Catholic, born-again Evangelical, who can operate on faith when facts don't support him. My friend would much prefer to hold onto a worldview as espoused by people like Kelly, but his real-world day-to-day experience of the intersection between the natural world and the corporate one gets in the way.
It's not surprising that Kelly is an admirer of the late Julian Simon, the libertarian right's stalwart against what they believe is environmental alarmism-in other words, the "false" environmental concerns about overpopulation, habitat destruction, and catastrophic trashing of complex ecological cycles, which stand counter to the blooming, buzzing, budding, dynamic, don't mess it up by touching it, economic models. And when you read through Kelly's works, if you are, like me, not a professing Christian, you begin to feel you are running up against a universe bounded by a faith you may not share, particularly in his brushing aside of environmental issues as so much noise. I am not a theologian, but it seems to me that in Kelly's change-is-good/all-is-well thinking about the world (he has very much taken to heart the words of his mentor, Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue: "We are as gods and might as well get good at it"), there is a Christian belief in the bounty of the Lord's Creation and that the Creator will provide and that nothing bad can happen without there being a Divine Providence behind it, though we, as poor mortals, may not understand.
True, the Black Death resulted in a major reforestation of Europe and helped bring about the demise of the feudal system, but not before a lot of collateral damage. And a bit earlier, the mass extinctions 65 million years ago in the age of dinosaurs seemed to help along the development of mammalian species. But I don't think these are scenarios most of us would look to as exemplars of how we want our world to work.
To enjoy listening to Kelly's gospel-influenced delta blues, you may have to buy into some leaps of faith you hadn't bargained for. Biology as metaphor can take under its wing credos that are as backward-turning as they are forward-looking.
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