Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly
Libertarian Culture of High-Tech
by Paulina Borsook
PublicAffairs, 2000. 267 pgs.
Reviewed by Bob Murphy
[Posted July 21, 2000]
Every generation has its defining moment, when the
Manichaean unfolding of history lets the good guys gain the
upper hand. These moments may be tumultuous political
upheavals, such as the New Deal or civil rights protests.
But they also consist in the publication of literary
treasures, such as Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin or
Sinclair's The Jungle. Cyberselfish, the
latest masterpiece by Paulina Borsook, will one day surely
be placed in this latter category.
True to her concern for "the vulnerable, the ones
who weren't able to cash out, those whose skillset or native
endowment doesn't fit well into the shiny happy new
information economy" (37), Borsook's work entertains
without even being opened--as the marketing hustlers
like to say, "no purchase necessary."
Indeed, the man of modest means may derive a pick-me-up
simply by picking up Borsook's book. The front cover
features a stunning red backdrop--which can only be an
allusion to Poe--and the mesmerizing image of a hideous pair
of glasses (complete with Scotch tape on the frame), which
breaks all the rules by not even being centered in
To speculate on the meaning of this is perhaps as
foolhardy and blasphemous as proffering explanations of
Marx' law of surplus value, but in any case the present
reviewer feels the off-center placement is symbolic of how
'skewed to the right' such "technolibertarians"
appear to the rest of us.
But when one turns to the back cover, well! Here
Borsook smuggles an attack that would astound a Trojan. The
benighted boob, fresh from his oh-so-difficult job shuffling
papers in the office, will no doubt take the critics' praise
(as if Borsook needed promotion) at face value.
This Anglo-Saxon balding male--anxious to get home, crack
a Bud Light, and watch John Rocker pointlessly throw a
little white ball really really fast, only to have it tossed
back to him so he can do it again--will read that Borsook is
"agreeably caustic," "eloquent but vaguely
irritated," "[s]cathing but not incorrect."
He will swallow whole the claim that Borsook "oozes
style and an authoritative voice that lets you know she's
probably read more books than you."
The very idea that Borsook would consent to such
crass corporate cookie cutter compliments, to such an
irrelevant understatement as the last quote--akin to
presenting an atheist with a Testament and the admonition,
"He's probably seen more lepers than you"--is
frankly insulting. Such shameless salesmanship--which has
given us commercialized Olympics and the choreographed
spontaneity of Woodstock '99--is clearly a satire, plucked
from Borsook's prodigious arsenal of literary devices.
Borsook is just having fun with the reader, and has
obviously ghostwritten these 'reviews.' The chosen few of us
who get it, who recognize her subtle ploy, feel a
rush of righteousness that this reviewer has not experienced
since he first chained himself to an old-growth redwood.
Whatever we may long for, the sad fact is, we still live
in a world dominated by cost-conscious capitalists, and this
reviewer's employers are no exception. As such, he cannot do
Cyberselfish the justice it deserves, and regrettably
must restrict his attention to the two sections of the work
where he feels most competent.
(Incidentally, the present writer was initially inclined
to suggest this latter approach to Borsook, but then
realized upon further reflection that such a superlatively
cosmopolitan lady as our author needs no lecture from him
on the virtues of experimentation.)
Borsook's first target is Bionomics, the spawn of
apologist Michael Rothschild:
Bionomics [describes] 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 interventions of course irresistibly leading to
Stalinesque collectivization of farms) leads to serfdom.
Borsook's brilliant analysis stands on its own and so no
comments will be offered and so we move on:
Bionomics 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
What about the fact that actual rain forests are now
being destroyed because of the free market? (32)
Although it borders on sacrilege to deconstruct Borsook's
prose, it is the responsibility of the present reviewer to
point out all that has been packed into this brief snippet.
The capitalization in "Bad Old Economic thinking"
is an ingenious attack on the deploring tendency of the
technolibertarians to eschew serious debate and instead
construct simplistic straw men.
Borsook's references to tapirs and mitochondria showcase
the incredible breadth of her knowledge--indeed, she has
read many books. Our author first explodes the Bionomic rain
forest analogy with a neat reductio ad absurdum.
(Which prompts the tantalizing question, What is the rain
forest analog for Cyberselfish? This Borsook does not
specify, but given her concern for the environment, it would
no doubt be biodegradable and make excellent fertilizer.)
After this stunning jab, Borsook finishes off her Bionomic
opponent by placing the final sentence quoted above as a
paragraph unto itself.
The tender reader may feel that Borsook's scathing
attack, though not incorrect, is a bit too merciless.
But this is not at all the case. For these self-styled
freedom lovers--where "freedom" is used in an
incredibly Victorian sense, of course--are not blissfully
ignorant of the utter absurdity of their position. When the
plight of the Amazon rain forests is pointed out to them,
they bravely maintain that South American countries are not
examples of what they 'mean' by "free markets" (as
if issues of social justice revolved around semantics!).
That Borsook has neglected to even bring up this silly
rebuttal is an example of her under-appreciated compassion.
Unfortunately, Bionomics is not the only refuge of
today's incipient fascists. A more virulent strain of
egoists has arisen:
"Anarcho-capitalist," which is how many
cypherpunks describe themselves, is as hardheaded as it
gets. This dimly veiled social
political and economic philosophy (with Nietzsche crawling
around somewhere inside there, too) was first articulated
by economics professor Ludwig von Mises in the 1920s and
1930s, echoed later by economist and Mises student, Ayn
Rand-follower Murray Rothbard-and portrayed in sci-fi
writer Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh
Mistress, which posited a utopian society based on
libertarian, Nietzschean ideals. (97-98)
This reviewer must confess that he finds the sheer wit of
this passage to be simply impenetrable. Based on his meager
studies, he had never made the connection between
libertarianism and Nietzsche. He was rather sure that the
reactionary Ludwig von Mises had ridiculed anarchists as
hopelessly na´ve, and that the exasperating Murray Rothbard
had referred to the products of the information superhighway
as "mindless pap."
Alas, sometimes our author's sarcasm--though always a
delight--makes it difficult to distinguish historical
revisionism from hilarious hoaxes. He will of course
diligently watch C-Span's "Book Notes," and
perhaps ask Borsook herself at the next AIDS rally, but in
matters such as these, she usually adopts the stance of the
magician with regard to his tricks. No doubt these apparent
antinomies will occupy economists and philosophers no less
than biblical scholars attend to the exact circumstances of
the death of Judas.
This cruelly meritocratic world-to-come described in
cypherpunk postings is reminiscent of 1950s science
fiction. In these yesterday's tomorrows, the males with
superior intellect, as measured in rocket-scientist terms,
ruled. (In current terms, benefiting hugely from cash
sucked from high tech entrepreneurial activities,
generating untraceable untaxable financial reserves and
tweaking the global monetary supply through anonymous
transactions.) And incidentally, in these Good Societies
of the future, the ruling males also scored with the
initially reluctant biology-officer bodacious babes.
Aldous Huxley, writing years before, commented obliquely
on a society of the future based on Nietzschean ideals in
Brave New World (the genetically determined top-drawer
alpha males were explicitly assigned foxy females)-but
Huxley wrote his book as a cautionary satire. In the same
way that the more you run away from something, the closer
it gets to you, Huxley's teaching story about a land of
ultimate government control doesn't look so different from
the cypherpunk social-Darwinist promised land of total
libertarian freedom. (98)
After reading this passage, one is immediately struck by
the usage of the always amusing
it-doesn't-take-a-rocket-scientist genre. The admirable
alliteration serves to foreshadow Borsook's seamless
transition to a compassionate commentary on the sexual mores
of the technolibertarian:
[I]t's anomalous that many many cypherpunks are not
married, have never been married, and have no kids..
Katherine Mieskowski.called the people who manifest [the]
convergence of computer nerd and weird sex "nerverts."
When I read her column I knew exactly what she meant, for
I have run into nerverts many times. Mieskowski got a
nervert practitioner to explain this connection between
whacked-out sex and nerditude.. This is not to say that
all nerds lack social or courting skills..But a strong
intersection exists between nerds and fringe sex, just as
a strong intersection exists between nerds and neopagans.
The emphatic empathy of this passage is typical of
Borsook's work. She is a spoofing and witty and clever and
sarcastic and creative and energetic writer, who no doubt
spent her entire adolescence brimming with anticipation for
the day when our sick culture would finally appreciate these
traits. (A glance at the author's stunning picture on the
book jacket confirms this conjecture.)
We treat the reader to one final gem:
As the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) of the
technology community-more outrageous than most,
articulating the funnest, extremest, most
organize-to-smash-the-state notions of how the world
should work, will work, once their anti-good-boy vision
comes to pass-cypherpunks express and inform the ethos of
the rest of the technolibertarian community. And the
original cypherpunk manifestos and newsgroup
postings...coalesced a political way of being, a coherent
adversarial pose for being a hardheaded geek. (97)
Here we have Borsook at her finest, exhibiting an
effortless marriage of poetry and political commentary not
seen since Bob Dylan's "Hurricane."
Believe it or not, there's more where that came from.
Borsook never lets up, filling all 267 pages of Cyberselfish
with her uncanny wisecracks and wisdom. The work will serve
as an excellent introduction to the new reader, although one
cannot help but blush when making such a presumptuous
recommendation. (Which of the Bard's plays 'ought' to be
read first?) And the devoted fan, who has grown up on a
steady diet of Borsook's contributions to Wired, Newsweek,
and Salon, will have only one thing to say after
reading this book: She's still got it!
Bob Murphy is a summer fellow at the Mises Institute.
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