Paulina Borsook Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian
Culture of High Tech.
New York: Public Affairs Books, 2000. cloth, 256 p., ISBN 1-891-62078-9,
Public Affairs Books: http://www.publicaffairsbooks.com/
Earlier this year Dutch media activists organized a conference entitled
"Tulipomania" in Amsterdam. It was meant to be a critique of the
so-called "new economy" which CEOs, such as John Chambers of Cisco,
say is a matter of survival for any business (or perhaps any country) that wants
to be around in 2010. There were economists, venture capitalists, anarchists,
activists, artists, cultural critics, and community organizers taking part in
this event. During the planning I suggested to the secret cabal of organizers
that Paulina Borsook would be a good addition to the program. Borsook had
written a number of pieces for Wired, knew the industry, and had strong views on
the kind of society that was emerging in this Mecca of high tech
entrepreneurship where she and I live - if you count Santa Cruz as an extension
of Silicon Valley. She has written extensively on a variety of technical topics
in her long career that started out with a degree in psycholinguistics from
University of California, Berkeley, and like "most liberal arts
flakes" (including me) wound up working with computers.
Borsook was unable to attend the "Tulipomania" conference because
she was on a book tour for Cyberselfish, so I tried to fill in and present a
personal view of the problems in Silicon Valley - which regions hoping to
duplicate the growth and wealth might not realize. In short, income disparity,
dwindling middle class, expensive housing, and growing traffic problems were
just a few of the issues I covered. When I returned home I found a copy of the
book waiting for me. Her thesis is that a philosophy and belief system is
causing some of the problems.
I took her book with me on a trip around the world that included Ecuador,
Mexico, Japan, Hong Kong, South Africa, and Boston as places far from Silicon
Valley but certainly touched by the technology, the ideas, and investments, and
the aura of this part of the United States. These places have enormous problems
of their own, some of which may be solved with the help of information
technology, but many of the problems are about government and governance: how
groups of people make decisions and act to benefit (theoretically) a whole
country. Unless they have migrated back home, you don't find many
technolibertarians in other high-tech areas of the world.
Borsook says that Silicon Valley's high-tech community is a "hotbed of
libertarian political activism" which is characterized by a distrust of
government, a love of laissez-faire free-market economics, social Darwinism, a
lack of philanthropy (in spite of all the new wealth), and sort of rebel on the
frontier mentality that cannot empathize with the needs of others (or even their
point of view).
Borsook writes well, with a revealing amount of detail about the cultural and
intellectual descriptors that define her targets. It is very much a book about
the San Francisco Bay Area and the influential and mostly male sector of high
tech society. So many of the references are particular to heavy Internet users
that it seems her editor sent the text back with suggestions for footnotes (or
better yet, a glossary) so that readers might not get lost. This includes items
such as "The Borg", "open source",
"self-organization", "beta" testing, and "EFF."
The editors seemed to have missed quite a few typos. I found three in the first
25 pages. They also might have reined in Borsook's frequent use of long
hyphenated phrases such as the following: "But most programmers I know are
of the just-give-me-a-few-more-hours/days/ line-of-code-and-I'll-get-it-right/
The chapters cover the various technolibertarian sects and movements. She
spends more than 40 pages on the Bionomics conferences she attended from 1993 to
1996. This belief system was one responsible for the rapid diffusion of
technolibertarian beliefs throughout nerd-dom. Bionomics compares ideal
capitalism to a rain forest which flourishes most when left alone. Economic
activity is evolutionary, rather than like a machine which can be tuned and
tinkered with for maximum performance. It also tends to treat those who do not
succeed in a narrow realm of technological competence and financial reward as
defective. As befits an area where technology projects begin with a t-shirt
design, Borsook mentions one that says, "In this era of digital Darwinism,
some of us are ones. You're a zero." She goes after a number of
personalities and celebrities including Kevin Kelly, John Perry Barlow, and
especially George Gilder, the Reagan policy guy who has made fast networks
(fiber to the Big Guy in the Sky) into a part of the Christian cosmology (TeraBeam
me to the heaven, o Lord). Her characterizations are wickedly pointed, and
perhaps this is because of her love-hate relationship with Wired, for which all
those men wrote and still write.
I went to the coming out party for Wired, oh so many Internet years ago. I
was surprised that everyone (except Kevin Kelly) wore black, and they weren't
Amish, Hasidic, or undertakers. I even wrote a couple of short pieces but then
became disenchanted with their style, content, and point-of-view. Only after
reading Borsook did I fully understand why I felt so uncomfortable thumbing
through an issue after 1995. Borsook describes how the libertarian politics of
Wired came from the guidance of its founders, especially Louis Rosetto. I was a
fan of Rosetto's failed Electric Word that predated Wired, but I found the lack
of any critical stance about technology to be one of the shortcomings of Wired.
Borsook analyzes many of the issues in the first two years to explain the
tunneled vision Wired had of what it was successfully selling to the
Borsook has a wonderful phrase for Wired and its imitators which now, under
new management, it is imitating: business porn. I can never look at another copy
of ASAP, Fast Company, or Business 2.0 without thinking of this term - whether
it's a fair charaterization or not. Her most personal wounds seem to be over the
old boys clubishness of Wired and its ignorance of the role of women in the high
tech revolution or just the data processing blast furnaces of IT departments
around the nation. She says of the women at Wired, "We were feeling
something like the woman who enters into a passionate relationship with a
charismatic man, only to discover with horror that our concerns were not his
concerns and that who we were and what we had to say weren't valued."
Another chapter targets the cypherpunks, cryptography, and digital cash. As
an attendee of the early Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conferences where
crypto devotees (both three-letter-agency guys and their opponents in
cyberspace) gathered, I think she paints an accurate picture, but like the
Bionomics story, this seems a bit old. It is not that we should not look back
and search for the vectors and hot spots which caused a disease to spread, but
this would have seemed fresher had it appeared in mid-1998 instead of two years
later. Perhaps the queue for the printer at Public Affairs Press slowed down the
publication. Or perhaps it is because I myself tired of CFP after a few of the
conferences and that I had already read some of Borsook's rants online in places
such as David Hudson's now discontinued Rewired (www.rewired.com).
I did enjoy the chapter on cybergenerous, part of which had been published in
the new San Jose Mercury News style supplement, S.V., earlier this year. "Cybergenerous"
refers to the philanthropic efforts of high tech companies and individuals. As a
former director of one such program, Apple Library of Tomorrow, at Apple
Computer from 1988 to 1997, I was interested in her criticisms of the kinds of
donations that are most common in Silicon Valley: software that cost little to
reproduce but affording the donating company (Microsoft, Apple, Adobe) massive
tax writeoffs for full value of the product, and of course hardware.
Here's one example of the company driven aid programs from my own experience:
Sun Microsystems wanted to donate a Sun server to my son's elementary school in
San Jose in 1995, but the school district did not even have a full time LAN
manager, let alone a Unix expert. The Sun donors also wanted the school to scrap
its dedicated 56 kb line and upgrade to a T1 (1.56 Mb/sec) if they were going to
plunk a big powerful box in the school office. This would have been an enormous
expense at that time. Luckily, the school did not get the box and all the
attendant problems. Borsook correctly details how most tech donors think their
tools will solve most of the problems that society encounters, but that more
intractable social problems are ignored. Just look at the reaction of the G8
leaders who met in Japan recently. They endorsed a program from the World
Economic Forum which proposed "closing the digital divide" instead of
a timely reduction in debt.
Borsook makes a few comments about the colossus to the North, Bill Gates. She
describes the problems of United Way, an umbrella charity here in Santa Clara
County which, because of mismanagement was broke a while ago. A local new wealth
guy, Steve Kirsh of Infoseek, put up some money to bail out the charity and then
Bill Gates made a huge donation. The idea that Gates would make the local rich
look miserly prompted others to cough up the rest. She does not mention the
massive campaign of giving that the Gates Foundation has undertaken in programs
like library connectivity but also research into the unprofitable diseases that
affect the world's poor. Whatever you may think of Gates or his company, his
foundation is undertaking some significant projects unrelated to computers and
networks as well as many that are.
She does admit that some companies are donating stock options to charities
and organizations like the Community Foundation of Silicon Valley, but mostly
she describes the low rate of giving by the tech classes of the area, and she
chronicles the failure of a great idea that looked promising, the Lightworks
Technology Foundation, which wanted to "provide an efficient tax-deductible
means for corporations and individuals to set up endowments and provide
technology-related grants." She criticizes many of the philanthropic
efforts as only giving in-kind goods or funding for technology projects, but the
Noyce Foundation, which she says is not doing much yet, does fund basic
education programs in area schools, and these have no technology component - at
least in the school where my wife teaches. She also does not seem to realize
that giving away money may be harder to do well for some of these people than it
was to earn it. They really do care about the performance of their donations,
and while some want a good ROI in clear cut measurements, others just don't want
to screw up and look stupid. She is right that a lot of non-profits are busy
fulfilling some need that used to be met by local, state, or federal government.
However, unless the director is a high profile NGO superstar like Daniel Ben-Horin
of CompuMentor (which was nicknamed Rent-a-Nerd when it started on The WELL
years ago), those causes won't attract much funding, especially from the new
rich in the Valley.
Borsook has been keeping a very busy schedule. Her Web site provides a list
of the dozens of interviews and lectures she has been giving, as well as
excerpts of her book, some of the hilarious comments by readers ("Go to
China, you Socialist!"), and pointers to the favorable and unfavorable
reviews. I certainly recommend the book, but if you consider yourself a
libertarian you will be annoyed at her scrutiny and her conclusions. Others will
find much to ponder: how high tech values influence greater society, the role of
government in an era of low voter turnout and distrust, and how the flowering of
other Silicon Valleys may change the character of your own region or country.. -
URLs of interest:
"Tulipomania" conference, a critique of the new economy.
: The Silicon Valley Cultures Project at San Jose State University.
: David Hudson's encounter with the author.
: "Cyberselfish", the 1996 article from Mother Jones Magazine.
www.cyberselfish.com/ : The book
: Borsook's home page.