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Paulina Borsook: Cyberselfish 15 years after, Part I

By geert, January 29, 2015 at 10:30 am.

"Cyberselfish/a critical romp through the terribly libertarian culture of high-tech", which I have nicknamed "That Damned Book" aka TDB, came out in the year 2000. It's been more than a little disconcerting that TDB turns out to still have relevance, as did short pieces I wrote such as "How the Internet Ruined San Francisco" (in 1999 no less!). I suspect dystopians (Aldous Huxley, William Gibson) usually do fare better than utopians (Edward Bellamy). So in that spirit, some looking back at TDB from the vantage point of 2015.

Technolibertarianism: still threat or menace? I feel like invoking Godwin's Law, and saying something like "I wrote TDB at a time that was sort of equivalent to the historical moment of the Reichstag fire. Are we now in a 'Man in the High Castle' era?" My feelings about it all haven't much changed, with the caveat our government since I wrote TDB has been showing itself to be increasingly both incompetent and malign. Yet the technolibertarian worldview seems to accentuate wealth inequality and environmental despoliation—hard to be happy about those. I still believe in regulation and that there is such a thing as the public good and don't believe the market can or should provide everything (libertarian police force is a joke circulating the Internet that makes this case).

So yes, it remains all and everywhere, its ideas have continued to spread, in part because there is So Much Money there. It therefore must be doing something right, correct? Yet it's a muddy time ideologically, when Edward Snowden takes refuge in Putin's Russia, and Silicon Valley is both (as has always been the case) in bed with and in opposition to government.

The language of "disruption" and "sharing economy" seems more about avoiding taxes, licenses, and corporate liability than "sharing" anything (i.e. deeply technolibertarian) — but then the terms Friend ™ and Like ™ have also taken on strange new meanings. And while Silicon Valley has made some progress on its lack of philanthropy relative to its wealth, too much of it remains what I termed the "cat dead rat" phenomenon i.e. if a cat loves you it gives you a dead rat, whether you want a dead rat or not. That is, philanthropy taking the form of teaching children to code or creating apps that do, well, something or...

As for prominent technolibertarians, gack, who prominent in Silicon Valley is NOT libertarian? Peter Thiel and Timothy Draper are obvious technolibertarian thought leader (gag) choices — typical of what Silicon Valley has become these Silicon Valley mouthpieces are financiers, not technologists.

Just to be of this decade and not of past ones, some specifics:

hat has almost never been discussed about the infamous Google (as well as Yahoo and...) buses controversy -is that the buses were parking in public Muni busstops-. If a private citizen were to park in one of those busstops, she or he would be fined a few hundred dollars. But somehow (and there was some tricky bit with the nature of the licensure of these buses to make this technically legal) the buses and their providers felt there was nothing wrong with what they were doing; the commons only exists to be exploited, never to be contributed to.

After much fuss, the city of San Francisco is now levying a gestural dollar or two per year on each bus.

Of course it would never occur to Google to levy some sort of self-tax that went into a fund to improve mass-transit in the Bay Area; or, as a public service, provide free shuttles from the main Caltrain commuter station in San Francisco to drop-off points throughout the City.

That would be bad and would break the rules.

Let us also contrast the works and days of two prominent Bay Area uberrich, one who dead who worked in finance and one living who works in software.

Warren Hellman, a pioneer in private finance, loved San Francisco and did wonderful things for its public schools, its parks, the University of California — with perhaps his most visible philanthropic gesture the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass three-day music festival, which 700,000 joyous concert-goers attend for free every year in Golden Gate Park, endowed after Hellman's death to last in perpetuity.

Larry Ellison's America's Cup left the city of San Francisco several million dollars in debt.

However, one thing that is different from when I wrote TDB is that there is a lot more a lot more Silval political engagement. This has taken many forms: it's well known around here that the Democratic Party considers the Bay Area as an ATM and Silicon Valley companies have participated in such legislative horrors such as ALEC.

I do love how Palantir has major contracts and connections with the U.S. government and particularly with the intelligence community-with Mr. Libertarian Peter Thiel as part of its executive team.

So I would say the companies for sure are much more politically engaged. Whether the average Silicon Valley worker is — remains unclear — and depends on how you define politics. Electoral? philanthropic? NIMBY?

If someone were to be politically minded, I suspect it would take the form of whistleblowing a la Snowden or filing the kinds of lawsuits the Electronic Frontier Foundation does from time to time — or perhaps starting a petition on Moveon.org.

Sexual politics

I wouldn't have thought it possible at the time but sexism seems so much worse in Silicon Valley than when I wrote TDB. The rise of brogrammers seems like the toxic sexism of go-go Wall Street got grafted onto technology culture. I think the mess with Tindr shows it all: female cofounder is harassed when she is no longer romantically involved with one of the male cofounders; she is told that her part in cofounding and making the venture successful won't be acknowledged because having a female cofounder "devalues the company"; when harassment became too great and she wants to quit she was not given severance because she was a quitter. She sued and the main jerk was set aside. However, what's most interesting is that Tinder -was- NOT a true start-up; it was part of the IAC online dating combine which owns match.com, okcupid, etc. etc. I think it indicative of the current mindset that these guys all want to -appear to be- founders so they too can be Big Swinging Dicks — and no girls allowed, because they have cooties. Obviously.

There are few fewer women with computer science degrees now than when I wrote TDB: there are movements afoot to change this (lots of discussion of lack of diversity in tech these days) but I have heard these "we can do better" pronouncements and initiatives before.

Another change for the worse is the amount of misogyny (I use the term correctly to mean "hatred of women"; people so often use it to mean "sexism") online. Cyber harassing, doxing, death and rape threats to women identified as feminist: this has gotten terrifying bad, although it's not clear how much of this is stemming from random guys with Twitter accounts, IT employees, or people who actually work at technology companies.

I think the employee benefit newly being offered at a few companies of egg-freezing for women is nutty: it's appealing because it's a fix that is blessedly technological. Never mind that the procedure is high-risk, invasive, with unknown longterm side-effects, and isn't necessarily likely to create viable live births down the line. It's female-friendly if you get your ideas about women from science fiction: most real live women would prefer a sane work/life balance and a hospitable work environment.

And, see, "ageism" above: "we won't want you when you are much above 35 anyway, so might as well freeze your eggs while you still have some economic value".

As for the Silval status updates shown by the existence of out gay Apple CEO Tim Cook and female Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, I just see these as a larger societal shift: greater acceptance of LBGT folks and women in the workforce. The dyspeptic cynic in me says - women are often brought in when an organization is a mess; and who else but Marissa could sprinkle Google fairy dust on Yahoo?

- was there anyone who didn't already know that Tim Cook was gay? Silicon Valley has long been relatively gay-friendly compared to other industrial sectors and Apple particularly so the point exactly is what? Also, I tend to be disturbed by the fact that high-tech culture (which skews young, and the younger you are the more likely to be LBGT-friendly) is much more comfortable going after homophobia than sexism. I was very uncomfortable when Brendan Eich was disappeared as CEO of Mozilla because of his support for California's retrograde proposition 8 (against gay marriage). My feeling was "either you believe in the Bill of Rights or you don't/either you believe people have a right to a private life or you don't". Eich made a campaign contribution in support of Prop 8 out of his own money not that of Mozilla's; surely he was entitled to his own political opinions? And, I don't for a minute believe if he had contributed to an entity that was working to eliminate a woman's right to choose that he would have been hounded from Mozilla.

I think part of the current kerfluffle about the fate of "The New Republic" is also telling: Chris Hughes, the gay liberal Facebook cofounder who bought the publication, started messing with the magazine's editorial before most of the staff and contributing editors quit. Relevant here is that Hughes wanted Tim Cook's coming out celebrated in the magazine and Apple's bad behavior (in terms of tax evasion) ignored.

In other words, gay rights AND gamification of the tax code are unquestioned goods. Questioning corporate profiteering is bad (this, from someone who earned his $700 million by luck and proximity to Zuckerberg).

Never mind that Hughes helped with Obama's 2008 social media efforts: he has acted like his Valley technolibertarian brethern. Personal liberty and government avoidance — that's how we roll.

For the record, I agree about the gay rights; don't agree about corporate financial sneakiness.

Which brings us to Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In.

Of course I support anything that encourages women to take their work lives seriously and cease from self-sabotage. But it's hard for me to see how what Sandberg talks about is as important as the lack of quality affordable childcare, paid parental leave, support for flex and part-time work, and a work environment that doesn't punish women for taking a few years off to cope with young children — or a sick partner or ageing parent. She also doesn't address wealth inequality — women's work is often in the poorly compensated service or caring sectors, when you can lean in all you want and you still can't make a living as a LVN.

Unpleasant as it may be to think about, this necessary work of caring still needs to be done. Would that it were justly compensated (see above, contrast with Chris Hughes' fortune).

Some of what she advocates for is really advocating for luck: sure, most women who want to be parents would prefer to have a supportive well-employed spouse. But this, like Sandberg's teaching aerobics at Harvard, seems to veer into an analogy to what doctors sometimes say is the recipe for a long healthy life: "choose good parents" — some things are outside our ability to plan. And not everyone can be upbeat and peppy and live a fortuitous life, from which all blessings do flow.

And, there are only so many C-level jobs on earth: arguing that women ought to gun for these is a fine thing but doesn't address all the other kinds of work women (or anyone else) can or should do — or work that allows for downtime, connections with friends and family, and being anything other than always on.

Lean In circles (the association is unfair but Dave Eggers' "The Circle" comes to mind) seem to have what I call the mandated toxic optimism of Silicon Valley. In these circles one is only supposed to share positive experiences: never mind that true support groups allow for the expression of doubt and uncertainty. But in Silicon Valley it's something of a thought crime to not feel onward and upward endlessly.

Economy as ecology

These ideas have so pervaded all aspects of contemporary discourse that no one even remarks on something being in company's DNA or an old bad thing being a dinosaur; such language is a given -everywhere-, but particularly in Silicon Valley. However, it often strikes me that the uses of these precepts are by people who don't really understand biology at -all-: that how genes get expressed under what environmental conditions are mysterious, that biological systems (whether within the cell or throughout the entire Great Lakes region) are complex, mysterious, and interconnected. And -those- actual truths, about ecology and biology, are little understood in the Valley, not least of which is that genomic medicine has not delivered on its promise. But may the best and fleetest predator win in our ecosystem of social shopping sharing apps!

I stumbled across a prime example of "they don't understand biology but they love the rhetoric of biology-whatever they think it means" with a ghastly company called VisualDNA, which wants people to freely give up all their personal information about everything in every part of their lives so that they can, um, be more their authentic selves and do something with "people like me" (senior management of VisualDNA comes from advertisting and credit bureaus. You do the math). The point here is not that the VisualDNA Understanding Economy seems straight from Michael Tolkin's "The return of the player" or from some other panoptical dystopian novel: it's that the founders used the language of biology to justify and glorify their corporate ends. What DNA actually is and how it actually works, including the vast amounts of junk DNA all living beings carry within them-is irrelevant.

I amuse myself by thinking about how the outbreak of Ebola, the rise of extremely drug resistant tuberculosis, densovirus killing off Pacific starfish, and on a happier note, trophic cascades-might get mapped as metaphors into "economy as ecology".

"Wired" and "Wired" people

"Wired" today is still suffused with that technolibertarianism (what business-forward publication isn't?) but to me the publication reminds me more of what "Omni" magazine was in the 1970s. Lots of whizzy popular science combined with technoutopianism; ho hum. It seems sadly like so many other 2015 publications, less sophisticated than in years past. For what it's worth, my profile of Esther Dyson was reprinted in Conde Naste's 20-year-anniversary Best of "Wired" anthology.

As for Kevin Kelly, it seems that he and I continue to be on the opposite side of every issue: HATE HATE HATE the Quantified Self movement (wouldn't it be better to cultivate an inner life and learn how to self-monitor? isn't that what all those mindfulness classes, so popular in Silicon Valley, are supposed to be teaching?); I don't think technology wants anything; and new rules for -what- new economy? He defines himself as an observant Christian and I am nothing of the sort. He also calls himself a conservationist — perhaps on that we can agree.

Finally, don't get me started on his "1,000 True Fans" notion; I get weary at the thought of getting into yet another thrash (20 years and passing!) about problems for creators with the rise of the Net. I wrote a few years back a few essays on these matters for the magazine of the Writers Guild of America (folks who write for movies and TV), warning them about what was coming their way; wanted to give my compatriots some warning...

Counter-narratives? Strategies of resistance? Reframes?

I have heard one argument often, about 60s counterculture and the coming of personal computers. I feel it is always important to define terms: the 60s was both about youth in revolt (drugs, sex, rock and roll, yoga, spiritual adventures, anti-materialism, back to nature, embracing the life of the senses) and politics (feminism, gay rights, civil rights, rage against the military-industrial complex, critiques of transnational capitalism and colonialism, anti-corporatism).

So yes, I suppose one could say that the personal computer revolution came from the counterculture (in the sense of empowering tools for individuals) — but I have never seen it that way. Early adopters were techies and not happy users of "Laurel's Kitchen" cookbook; it still has seemed to me that the earliest users of PCs I was acquainted with were either business people or techies.

And to these early adopters, I don't think the anthemic "the personal is the political" would have resonated. If you liked the Grateful Dead and ate acid, does that automatically mean you were countercultural? Discuss....In a way, saying the roots of the PC revolution were countercultural would be like saying computing is European because John Von Neumann and Alan Turing were not American.

It also seems to me that given Moore's Law//miniaturization and the rise of consumer electronics (remember the Walkman?)—wouldn't personal computers have to come into existence eventually anyway, no matter what?

To be fair, I suppose the overlap between counterculture and technolibertarianism contains both a bias towards self-expression and a suspicion of government. However, I always found those arguments about PCs and the counterculture somewhat absurd, as so much fundamental computer and communications innovation came from government and military funding. To me, the current interest in artisan Portlandia this and slow food sustainable agriculture that—seems far more rooted in counterculture ideals than what Microsoft, IBM, Radio Shack, and Apple did way back when.

When I wrote TDB, I mentioned Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR). I am pretty sure everyone in CPSR (which were folks my age cohort or somewhat older) has died, retired, been rendered surplus to requirements, or given up. I can not imagine such organization existing today: people's careers are too chancey and uncertain; your work either all-consuming or non-existent, winner-take-all. Also, what is a computer professional these days? a director of community engagement? a mommy blogger? a member of Anonymous?

Worth mentioning here is our general societal "Bowling Alone" loss of social capital/community-mindedness everywhere AND the worse-than-anywhere ageism in Silicon Valley. I wrote about this way back when and like all the other negative social consequences of Silicon Valley culture, it.is.so.much.worse.now. It's not just smart talented accomplished engineers in their 50s and 60s who can't get work — it's those in their 40s — and even in their mid-30s who have to worry.

So how could an organization like CPSR exist when there generally aren't the people who, secure in their professions and perhaps the biggest demands of mate-hunting and childrearing of young children behind them, could look outside themselves to think about how from their position in society they could do good?

Hard to imagine although I would welcome being wrong.

There is some faint questioning about tech industry values — but we have the Great Enclosures going on around here: who is -left- who can afford to live here who is not part of it? Noe Valley, a San Francisco neighbourhood I used to live in, is home of the $2 million two-bedroom flat and I started calling it, not in a nice way, Palo Alto North several years ago. If a modest two-bedroom house near the freeway in Berkeley can now sell for $1 million and rents have risen in Oakland by 40% in the last few years and every day there is news of yet another low- or mid-rise building/locally-owned business in San Francisco being replaced by what I used to call "lawyer lofts"-it's all Facebook/Google/Twitter, all the time.

One story I do find heartening is the pushback to Vinod Kholsa's attempt to cut people off from access to the coast. Kholsa, Sun Microsystems cofounder and venture capitalist, bought a historically-family-owned-and-run property called Martin's Beach, located on the coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Californians are fierce about public access to our beaches, a fierceness supported by law. Kholsa has been attempting to cut this access off-with endless lawsuits being brought against him. For once, even California electeds (who usually assume the dog-supine position of "rub my belly, more, more!" when dealing with the tech community) has come out against Kholsa. The general sentiment is "this is one outrage the techie colonizers are not going to get away with".

Finally, there are a few outliers, such as Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com. Both his own personal philanthropy and the encouragement towards community involvement by Salesforce are quite unusual in the current environment-and more like the great 19th-century German Jewish mogul-philanthropists who made San Francisco great, culturally speaking.

I suppose there is also Steve Westly, an Ebay zillionaire, who has been very active in national, state, and Democratic Party politics, including having been the state of California's Controller for several years. He (as they all do) has gone venture capitalist. Venture Capitalist Ron Conway has become a San Francisco power broker + philanthropist and there are a few others.

paulina b.

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Cyberselfish 2015
Looking Back

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