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Local Author Paulina Borsook's Critical Look at High Tech Politics


Interview by Asher Brauner

CYBERSELFISH: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech

By Paulina Borsook/PUBLIC AFFAIRS

Paulina Borsook will read from her new book at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Friday, January 12th, 2001, at 7:30pm.

Popular perception holds high-tech as the place to find glamorous innovation, spectacular profits, the lure of freedom from oppression through better computing, and cutting-edge cultural cues - tomorrow's zeitgeist, downloadable today. Santa Cruz-based author Paulina Borsook shatters this perception in her new book, "Cyberselfish", a blistering critique of the hypocrisies and failures of the high-tech world.

With twenty years of experience as a journalist of the high-tech world, most notably as a contributor to "Wired" magazine, Borsook freely grants that her book is a "romp." What it lacks as an academic treatise it more than makes up for as a highly readable, hilarious, grumpy, personable series of insider anecdotes and highly informed opinions.

"Cyberselfish" suggests that geek culture is dominated by what Borsook calls "technolibertarians," an angry army of programmers who are spiteful forwards government, disdainful of have-nots, disgusted with anyone backward enough not to use the latest edition of software, enraptured with the right to bear arms, resentful of any limitations on speech, pointlessly greedy, and thoroughly miserly.

High-tech is so influential in the U.S. today, with its financial and cultural clout growing daily and Santa Cruz a part of the growing sprawl of Silicon Valley, I thought it would be a good idea to sit down with Borsook for an interview.

Asher Brauner: To what extent is technolibertarianism so unique? Many Americans are convinced that government doesn't do much except bother them.

Paulina Borsook: The difference is that usually one can at least understand that hostility to government is rooted in real frustrations of unemployment or poverty. No sector of society has suffered less yet benefited more than high-tech. There's a great tradition in high-tech of socializing the risk and privatizing the profits. I grew up around an earlier generation of mission-to-Moon type engineers. No matter their political bent, they shared a perception that government could do great things.

AB: People don't just welcome politics for the fun of it. They do it to solve problems. Is there a common threat to tech folks so grave it would make them truly organize?

PB: The government is their threat, coming at them in black helicopters with ninjas. The irony is that while these First Amendment warriors were so busy - rightly - fighting the threat of government shackling of Internet communication, they missed the threat from private capital. I'm amazed by what people will endure as employees or consumers - email monitored, drug testing, customer personal information gathered and sold. What is more conformist than cubicle culture? These self-styled technowarriors are all wearing product-launch T-shirts, and social deviance consists of putting an action figure on the terminal.

AB: Deconstruct the following T-Shirt: "Will Code for Chinese Food."

PB: It's the romanticized programmer workaholic way of life: get into the zone for twenty hours and get food that comes in a box. And it's about loving to do this stuff so much I'll do it all night if you just feed me.

AB: Of course the phrase "Will work for X" is based on actual hungry, very poor people. I see this shirt as accumulating enough irony to shield oneself from an unpleasant situation.

PB: They wouldn't see it that way. They believe anyone can succeed in the new knowledge economy, so if you're not, it's your own fault. The idea of human vulnerability just doesn't make any sense to them. There's this amazingly mindless insistence on, "I worked really hard, I deserve what I get," with no idea that not everyone's got your skill set, or other people work hard, but are compensated less.

AB: What's going to happen to all the people you term "getrichkwik.com" in a few years when they don't have the billion bucks they expected?

PB: Severe disillusionment. It's already starting to set in, but if you watch these people during the Nasdaq wobbles, you'll observe this cognitive dissonance that says, "That person over there is failing, but it would never happen to me." A sense of personal immunity pervades.

AB: Based on not much.

PB: If they're young enough, they've never known anything but a boom market, no thanks to the business-porn media. We're becoming Argentina - extremely wealthy upper class, huge underclass, middle class withering away, but as a culture we are so identified with the rich, we don't acknowledge failure as human. Yet we know there are many failures out there. I wanted to do a story about the failures. I've been a journalist for twenty years, I know how to root around for a story, but no one would talk to me, not even off the record, for fear of jeopardizing their resume. So that became my story - that in this perverse sub-culture, failure's not O.K. unless it's spectacular. If you didn't go to the right schools, if you didn't crash at a high-profile startup, it is not O.K. to fail.

AB: You talk a lot about Silicon Valley, but is the mindset really geographic?

PB: Silicon Valley matters more in terms of culture than any other place in high-tech. But it's migrating already. When I spoke in Seattle a woman spoke up and said she worked at Amazon.com and she volunteered tutoring kids, etc., and I said, "I'm glad you're a good person, but that doesn't change the fact that Amazon doesn't have to make a profit because it relies on bloated stock and never collects taxes and your local independent bookstore is going out of business for doing the right things."

AB: Sitting at a terminal all day can't really define a sub-culture.

PB: The essence of this sub-culture is this: simple rules for a complex world. Computing is based on explicitly stated, comprehensible, repeating rules. Humans, on the other hand, are complex, unpredictable and flawed. That's what technolibertarians cannot seem to understand. But this is not the only model of a culture one could imagine resulting from the fact of computers. Imagine the same person saying, "I'm going to use these skills to become a technocrat, make government more efficient."

AB: What does the influx of Silicon Valley overflow hold for Santa Cruz's future?

PB: What I always loved about Santa Cruz was its diversity, truly different kinds of people doing their own thing, and now I'm afraid it's being absorbed by this monoculture, and all the interesting people are being forced out. Add that to skyrocketing rents, home prices, even worse a commute on 17, downtown offices dominated by one industry. Doesn't look good.

AB: What values are technolibertarians transmitting to their kids?

PB: The mindset goes like this: if it can't be quantified or monetized, if

it hasn't been tested in the free market, it doesn't exist or have any value. A lot of these people have a fundamental parsimoniousness of the soul that can be kind of creepy.

AB: But you could be describing the wealthy in any occupation.

PB: Not with this level of hypocrisy. They consider themselves very nouveau business people, but their habits are very traditional: they want the Stanford MBA, not the online MBA, they insist on face-time instead of letting employees telecommute. Meanwhile the same startup that throws $100,000 product-launch parties argues that your local nonprofit ought to have more strict accounting. And there's a nauseating narcissism: if it isn't high-tech, it has no value or doesn't exist, and anyone who doesn't participate in it is a higher form of insect. And they love copyright law dearly, but who do they think enforces laws? And their supposedly liberating success is predicated on a slave class: the guy driving the forklift at Webvan, the contract worker with no benefits doing data entry for Apple. They view themselves as daring, on the fringes of the empire, yet no one is more the darling of Wall St. So where do they get the feeling they have been so oppressed?

AB: You're linking a particular mindset and world view to an occupation. All those who work at a computer have no values?

PB: That's an exaggeration. I know very many sweet geeks who are as admirable as people in any walk of life. But the culture surrounding them is this bottom-line, flip-and-flee, global monoculture attitude. It's fascinating that immigrants from other countries adopt these attitudes within six months of landing in Silicon Valley.

AB: The amount of energy that's been put into Open Source software is fascinating - thousands of programmers online working to improve the same code for no personal benefit. It looks to me like the opposite of libertarianism.

PB: Open source is lovely. It's very communitarian, each person showing off by pounding away at the code together. But a lot of the open source people remain technolibertarians by day and have this terrific hobby by night. The fact that it is a cooperative effort that does not take place in a physical community in a specific time and place means that no real or positive sense of community can form.

Asher Brauner is a staff member at Bookshop Santa Cruz anmd the author of Love Songs of the Tone-Deaf.

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