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Books

by Harry Vandervlist

Cyberselfish
by Paulina Borsook
PublicAffairs, $36.50

High-tech really does rule these days. Governments panic and bow down at the awesome sound of the holy words. "We promise to lower corporate taxes, repeal labour laws and subsidize infrastructure," they mumble, "in order to attract the divine favour of high-tech to our region." Any aspect of culture that attracts such mindless veneration requires a few good blasphemers, and tech is finally getting its share. In the tradition of Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil, former Wired editor and contributor Paulina Borsook adds a useful and entertaining contribution in Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech.

The word "romp" in the title is apt. There's no finely reasoned analysis in Cyberselfish, just a series of informed musings on its central question, which is this: why is high-tech culture so often linked with extreme individualism, opposition to almost any form of regulation, and a widespread failure to share (i.e. donate) beyond "less than one half the business norm of one per cent of pretax earnings"? Borsook's telling anecdotes and reflections draw on years of personal acquaintance with key figures, and alert attendance at arcane, cultish tech conferences. For Borsook, Wired magazine's decline from innovator to tech-biz hype rag was a formative disappointment. And clearly it's hard not to gain critical perspective when you're female, and a feminist, in boy-heavy techland.

Borsook makes good use of a couple of great academic studies which show that Silicon Valley was not a pioneering entrepreneurial creation, but instead developed as a highly subsidized, market-sheltered sandbox for an elite group of young white men from the U.S. Midwest. This group hardly reflects the whole human universe, yet Silicon Valley is often held up as a model for the 21st century utopia. What the actually very small and often paranoid culture of techno-libertarians doesn't get, says Borsook, is the value of "something larger, such as connection, commitment, a sense of reliability on the artifice of human society, intimacy and emotional interdependency, and the benefits of a generalized, free-floating social contract." The scary thing is that these guys remain so largely, maybe even wilfully, unconscious of their power and privilege, and have so much influence for now.

paulina b.

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