picture or pixelation?
Wired sees selfishness in high-tech world
A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech. By
Public Affairs, $24.
By JAMES D.
doubt that technological innovation will continue to drive the American economy
and transform daily patterns of life, the recent drop in tech-stock prices
notwithstanding. Much has already been written about the nation's high-tech
leaders, but no other book has quite the perspective of this one.
Paulina Borsook’s “romp” offers a critical examination of the
political culture and world- view of the computer geeks who have emerged in the
last decade as the country's new power elite.
Borsook focuses most of her attention on
California's Silicon Valley and the men and women who have made fortunes there.
She finds that the Silicon Valley world- view "contains within it all
different colors of free-market/anti- regulation/social Darwinist/aphilanthropic/guerrilla/new
-pseudo-biological/atomistic threads." Her summary description of the
Valley's culture is "technolibertarian." According to Borsook, nearly
everyone connected with the high-tech industry is a technolibertarian of one
sort or another.
The two main sorts are the "Ravers,"
characterized as neo-hippies who celebrate "drugs, sex and rock 'n'
roll," and the "Gilders," social conservatives like George Gilder
who have enshrined entrepreneurs as the true spiritual leaders of society.
While Ravers and Gilders have very different
lifestyles, they unite in their belief that all technological innovation is good
and all government regulation bad. Sharing
in these basic beliefs are other, more extreme groups such as “anarchocapitlalists,”
who would have international corporations replace the traditional nation-state
completely, and cyperpunks,” radical pro-privacy computer activists with the
“paranoia, self-importance and displaced anger” of militiamen.
While never a "technolibertarian"
herself, Borsook did have an insider's perspective on Silicon Valley while
writing for the Wired magazine (described as the "Daily Worker for the
libertarian technical elite") in the mid-1990s. She believes that Wired
both reflected and helped shape the "libertarian and techno-utopian"
culture of the high-tech industry.
The book is entirely negative in its description of
that culture. The dot.com millionaires of Silicon Valley are portrayed as
uniformly selfish, superficial and self-absorbed. Borsook charges that an
infatuation with biological models has led many of them to believe they have
achieved their position through a process of natural selection. This
"survival of the fittest" mentality, she believes, is one reason
high-tech leaders have so little sense of compassion or responsibility for those
in society who have not been so fortunate.
In addition, members of this technology elite are
cultural philistines. Borsook holds a liberal-arts degree from the University of
California at Berkeley and went to work as a high- tech writer out of economic
necessity. Her highly unflattering and often condescending portrayal of the
nation's newest economic elite may reflect a bit of personal resentment at the
success of those who are so obviously less clever and less cultured than she
sees herself to be.
political liberalism is even more offended.
She despairs for the future of the country as the power and influence of
those who are virulently anti-government continue to grow. She warns that
technolibertarianism poses a threat to the "unspoken cultural assumption
that progress in our shared civilization was helped along by government programs
supporting scientific research, public health [and] education."
Her "cyberselfish" have no more interest
in supporting private charities than government programs. Borsook charges that
high-tech leaders have been scandalously stingy in their charitable giving and
in the time and energy they have devoted to civic activities.
While her figures are a bit dated, she is able to
produce more evidence to support her charge of philanthropic cheapness than for
many of her other claims. High-tech philanthropy often has meant giving away
soon- to-be-obsolete equipment and software without provisions for upgrades or
Borsook points out that donations of software can
allow high- tech firms to take significant tax write-offs, especially when they
use the list price ("which no one on Gaia's green earth has ever
paid") in calculating the value of their contribution. As an example of
this “soft money give-away scam,” she cites a 1996 case in which software
giant Novel was forced to admit that a gift it had valued at $1 million had cost
the company only $4,800.
There is no question that the prospect of a society
run by the people Borsook describes is frightening. It would be even more
frightening had she been able to present evidence that everyone connected with
the growing high-tech sector actually was "ravingly anti-government, and
tremendously opposed to regulation."
Democrat Maria Cantwell, the former Internet
company executive who was just elected to the U.S. Senate from Washington State,
hardly fits Borsook's technolibertarian stereotype. The last election, in fact,
suggests that there is considerable political diversity within the high- tech
Borsook makes a good point in noting how ironic it
is that people in high-tech should be philosophically opposed to government
support given that the microprocessor industry grew out of government-funded
defense and space research. The Internet itself would never have come into being
without govern-ment support. She suggests that libertarians pause and consider
where the nation's trained workforce will come from without public education and
how property rights and contracts could be enforced without a formal legal
Undoubtedly there are technolibertarians of
the sort Borsook describes, but she provides surprisingly few concrete examples.
Her characterizations are based largely on the impressions she formed while
working at Wired -from passing comments of co-workers, anonymous postings on the
Internet and her attendance at various conferences. Her basic thesis is not very
convincing because she offers so little evidence the world she describes is
really out there.
D. Fairbanks teaches political science t the University of Houston-Downtown.