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A Techie Know-It-All's Take on Cyberspace

REVIEWED BY David Lazarus Published 4:00 am, Sunday, June 11, 2000


A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech By Paulina Borsook Public Affairs; 288 pages; $24
"Cyberselfish" doesn't refer to its author, tech journalist Paulina Borsook. Even so, Borsook comes across like one of those people you meet at parties who is probably right about all the things they have opinions on, but after a while you wish they'd just shut up.

This is a lengthy, frequently intelligent, occasionally shrill exploration of the libertarian underpinnings of a tech culture that was largely born and bred in the Bay Area.

Borsook, a contributor to Wired, Mother Jones, Salon and other publications, doesn't exactly have a point to make with her observations -- "if you don't understand where you have come from, you can't well understand where you might end up" is her somewhat lame conclusion -- but she nevertheless nails the target again and again as she alternately skewers and rejoices in the culture of Silicon Valley.

The primary object of Borsook's wrath is the "technolibertarian" belief that information technology, and especially the Internet, is sacrosanct, and that government authorities have no business regulating and legislating and otherwise telling people what they can and can't do with all these bright, shiny digital toys.

She reminds readers that the Net was in fact a creature of the government, and that without government funding in the early days, there wouldn't even be an Internet as we know it today. Borsook is also quick to observe that commerce, e- and otherwise, thrives in part because we live in a just and lawful society.

"Quiz: Where would you want to do business in 2000?" she asks. "In Russia, where's there's no regulation, no central government, no rule of law; or in Northern California, where the roads are mostly well- paved and well patrolled . . . where the power grid is usually intact and the banking system is mostly fraud- free and mostly works . . . where people mostly don't have to pay protection money, and the majority of law enforcement personnel are not terribly corrupt or brutal?"


With the role of government in society now safely defended, Borsook is free to go after specific technolibertarian issues such as privacy and cryptography and the notion of "bionomics," which would explain away technological developments as if they were an organic, natural process best left alone. She accomplishes this with wit and a wealth of anecdotal material, as well as an attitude of superiority implying to readers that if they don't agree with what she has to say, they probably don't understand it.

This attitude frequently crops up as Borsook relates how she participated in this blue-ribbon panel discussion or attended that super-elite symposium, and then riffs on what she took away from the experience. "In March of 1998," Borsook relates in one such passage, "I participated in the launch event for Technoreal ism, the public unveiling of an eight-point document . . . signed by twelve somewhat well-known technology writers, basically saying chill, technology isn't all good or all bad, does have social consequences, and is embedded in the real world."

It's hard to say which is more off-putting, that an eight-point document merits a "launch event," or that it required no fewer than 12 "somewhat well-known technology writers" to make such mundane declarations as late in the game as 1998. (Borsook encourages readers to decide for themselves by visiting www.technorealism.org.)

Although "Cyberselfish" has its roots in Borsook's similarly titled 1996 Mother Jones essay on the lack of philanthropy among Silicon Valley's new-money millionaires, this isn't a dominant theme of the book. Times have changed, and Borsook, although she doesn't admit it here, has undoubtedly been forced to admit that philanthropy is in fact growing among technology's upper classes.

The closest she comes to conceding the point is by allowing that tech companies' donations of computers to schools and elsewhere perhaps isn't the act of sheer self-interest that critics have made it out to be. Instead, Borsook says this is probably more akin to the way a cat will leave a dead rat on the kitchen floor -- it is sharing its most-prized possession in the only way it knows how.

At the same time, there is a decidedly sour-grapes element to "Cyberselfish" that resonates in a long chapter on Wired magazine and Borsook's experiences as one of the few women to serve as a contributor in the early days. She seems genuinely to resent that Wired and the South of Market neighborhood it calls home have changed over the years, and not always for the better.

Borsook recalls a 1994 profile she wrote of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Wired founder Louis Rossetto's decision to cut out a section taking Allen to task for what Borsook saw as his meager record to date of giving to good causes. "Who are we to say what he ought to do with his money?" Rossetto told his writer.

Borsook refers to this as an instance of "true censorship." Others might call it editing. But then, "Cyberselfish" isn't about looking at things from the other guy's perspective.

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