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Paulina Borsook: Cyberselfish 15 years after, Part II

By geert, January 29, 2015 at 10:08 am.

"Cyberselfish" 15 years after publication

Part II: Where am I going and where have I been

The complex truth behind how I got into writing about technology and writing about it the way that I did.

The truth behind this is complicated but it finally seems time to explain how it -really- all happened.

I was shot in the head with a Colt .45 at a distance of six feet when I was 14 years old — and have suffered from mild Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) ever since. However, because my survival was a medical miracle and TBI wasn't nearly was well understood then as it is now — the cognitive impairments I have lived with ever since weren't understood by anyone, much less me, until several decades later.

It was an incredible source of confusion and frustration that somehow, from 11th grade on, I just couldn't concentrate, focus, retain information in conventional ways, study, -perform- as a potential white collar worker might. New mathematical and quantitative concepts would wash right out: I saw a similar albeit much more generalized inability to track and retain decades later with my mother's dementia.

Anyway, it got to be in my mid-twenties and I was terrified that I would never be able to -do- anything or support myself. My grades in college were atrocious (the Regents of the University of California should never have allowed me to graduate) and guidance councillors I spoke with told me years later said that they weren't sure I was going to be able to make it in the world.

There was no way I could have gone to law school, medical school, public policy school, become a geologist, gotten an MBA, learned a foreign language — in some ways I remain cognitively as I was at age 14.

That I could write crabbed little poems wasn't of much utility.

As a kindness, a friend brought me into the small software company where he was working in Mill Valley (Marin County, just north of San Francisco) to try at a part-time very low-level technical writing job that verged on clerical work.

And there, I had the joyous experience of "ah ha, I can do this". I had a degree in psycholinguistics with a minor in philosophy and what had been left after the injury was some ability with language and pattern-recognition. With the rise of cognitive neuroscience and ever-growing interest in AI, that there would be an overlap between someone who had a certain kind of humanities + social science training and someone comfortable with computers — well, we would take that for granted in 2015 (I would argue there is too much eagerness to see the mental processes as computational ones, but that's a discussion for elsewhere). But then, such an overlap wouldn't have been obvious.

So taking technical concepts and turning them into ordinary language — was something I could -do-. It was all symbolic manipulations of grammars.

I did NOT have the experience of "Oh wow, computing and communications are so cool!" About the only technophilic response I did have was in response to the new experience of composing texts on a computer; since I cannot type and suffer from terrible writer's bloc, being able to backspace in light (that is, writing not with type strike to paper but with what was then phosphor on screen) was liberating. I could not have had a career as a writer without text editors.

As important, falling into writing about technology, I -did- have the experience of analogous to someone who has always been dyslexic discovering she can weld. I fell into a—trade—and that was that.

What was also true was that this software company allowed you to make your own hours, wear what you wanted to the office, ask questions, and make mistakes. In other words, the work environment was appealing and not rigidly nine-to-five. Again, new to me then—commonplace with technology companies now.

I also -got- that technology is just like indoor plumbing or electricity: it's infrastructure, not magic.

It was a peculiar accident of fate that this little software company was running its minicomputers on something called the Pick operating system — which had a kind of vertical integration where its text editor, its operating system, and its database were analogous/parallel to each other. Learning about Pick taught me that software was a -human artifact; that is, I began to be able to think the way the creators of Pick thought, so could anticipate how things would work within Pick-based software. The dyer's hand, the design sensibility, the cognitive blind spots: all evident and all human artifacts. Technology is idiosyncratic like the humans who devise it and the people who make it are just people, no more or less gifted or flawed than anyone else. Nothing heroic here.

I moved on to a fulltime job with a bigger company (also Pick-based) near Berkeley that was automating insurance agencies: there, I saw how IT actually worked in companies and what the guys in network operations actually did and coped with. I also saw what a software company -actually did-: deadlines sliping, feature creep, turf wars, architecture fights, business needs versus tech limitations — I saw it all and it was very educational, in a business anthropology way.

Around the same time, I found out about "Processed World" (I own all issues), the famous snotcake techno-sceptic zine — so had kindred spirits and useful critiques to abide with, attending the "Bad Attitude in the Woods" picnic in the summer of 1983.

That fall, I was recruited to New York to work for a new consumer computer magazine: I got the job because -then- very few people had experience writing about technology who also seemed somewhat literary. And, most important, who were willing to leave the Bay Area to move to New York.

"PC junior" was a bad magazine about a bad piece of hardware. But I did learn about the sacralization the computer press extended to technology companies and software developers, something forever after I remained hyper-vigilant about and averse to. I also realized computer games were not for me.

I was then hired at a technical trade magazine, "Data Communications" (my then-novel experience doing documentation for the Network Operations Center of Insurnet/Emeryville, California got me the gig — who else aspiring to work in publishing in New York had had any exposure to -networks-, of all possible obscure things?). This was at a time when networks were considered the least interesting aspect of computing, like HVAC only more impenetrable and of less obvious value. Recall in the early 1980s computing in general, whether in the perception of the general public or to most businesses, was something of an ancillary after-thought: no glam, juju, or necessity to it. A gig at a McGraw-Hill sister publication such as "Modern Plastics" would have been considered to be of greater societal value and comprehensibility.

However, "Data Communications" positioned me well to -learn-. For example, I attended the press conference at the Waldorf Astoria for the introduction of Microsoft Windows (ah, I thought, this is just like timesharing, but for PCs — similar to the thought I had when client/server came into fashion and more recently about software as service/cloud computing). The magazine was tasked with -minute- coverage of the breakup of the Bell System, which entailed watching the good and bad of deregulation. I was the new products editor, so I listened to every pitch about every product for three years — until I was transferred back to San Francisco in 1987 to be the West Coast bureau chief.

Back on my home range, I visited too-numerous-to-count Silicon Valley companies and did stuff like attend the first conference (1987!) about potential coming commercial uses of the Internet. And it was at one of the too-numerous-to-count trade shows (OMFG, the trade shows!) where I got into a conversation with a vendor I had been friendly with over the years — that I had my first identifiable encounter with techno-libertarianism. The fellow's articulation of his anti-government/pro-porn/pro-technology point of view — was something Berkeley hippy me had never run into before.

And when I left to pursue my MFA in 1989, I freelanced corporate hackwork for countless technology companies, writing white papers, contented-cow/happy user application stories — and even ghostwrote an article in 1990 for the then CTO of Cisco about the nascent commercialization of the Net.

I moved back to San Francisco in 1993, with corporate work and work for the technical trades always supporting my more literary writing until that mostly came to an end. Meanwhile, I was living ground zero for Internet-as-global-shaping-culture: after all, I remember when Craig's List was simply a listserv with a few hundred people on it and no one had heard of Craig Newmark. So to me, computers and communications were not something to fetishize and I didn't find them particularly fascinating. They turned out to be something I could write about and make a living with all the while retaining my squishy Berkeley-ish values. I was writing about something that I saw as fundamentally neutral i.e. just as power generation and steel manufacturing can be used for good or bad, so can computers and communications. I could have been writing about dishwashers or dog leashes; I wasn't turning out advertising copy nor advocating for thermonuclear exchanges and I didn't have to -believe- anything to write about statistical multiplexers or TCP/IP.

Network technology I found more interesting than some other aspects of computing precisely because it involved communications — and network and security folks tended to be quirkier in ways I liked.

I elaborate on all this because I feel it worth explaining that through accident of time and place, I fell into being familiar with Silicon Valley. I was neither entranced nor intimidated by it: it was an industrial subculture like any other. I must also confess to a bit of a redemptive aspect in my relationship to Silicon Valley: while my TBI had made it impossible for me to do anything quantitative, syllogistic, or STEM-associated, writing -about- technology used a phantom trace of whatever native endowment I had been equipped with in those areas. I will always be grateful to technology writing for it gave a disabled person a livelihood — but I will never understand at the emotional level the religious beliefs computer and communications technology has spawned.

A burnt-out clairvoyant moves on

As to what has gone on in my life since the publication of TDB, I have to give a long answer here, perhaps subtitled "things they happen".

First, there are the issues with publishing.

Second, there's what happened within my own life.

As for writing about technology, unfortunately TDB did not sell well. Getting another book advance = almost impossible. Second, books that are happy-clappy/here's how to make money off the coming wonders to be = always popular and nothing I could ever write.

More meta about writing: I rather felt with TDB, along with other shorter things I wrote in the 1990s, that I had said all I wanted to say about technology. I cannot tell you how often I have snorted and eye rolled to those around me when they would bring up a current event or point me to what someone had written and I would say "yes, I already wrote about that 10-15-20 years ago." Not inclined to repetition compulsion, I didn't see the point in trying to say again redundantly what I had already said twice — and to what effect? (Although it gives me cold comfort that some of my intellectual opponents from the 1990s have come around to my POV on some issues, such as "no, there are no new economic models that are going to be invented to make up for giving stuff away for free/no, email [and now in later days, Twitter] will not bring about real democracy and civil society".

Also, the loss of -paid- venues for short-form writing, and particularly for the sort of writing I do (which is literate and literary and the opposite of the blog voice which has so infested everything, which takes time and thought and reflection, the opposite of hamstering reactive-mind snacky clickbait) — I just could not see the point in even trying. Writing is for me in part a performative art: I write to be read. I absolutely could not see the point in creating a blog "paulina borsook, forever cranky" which might get a readership of 50 people. I am also a binge/purge writer: I have never been able to write daily or even weekly and that writing as the spirit moves doesn't work in the 24/7 blogosphere/twitterverse.

Which leads to the rest of my life: starting in 2001, weirdly coincident with the end of the media arc for TDB, I was drawn into a messy nasty draining eldercare situation which lasted for about six years. If you have never had to deal with dementia, family flu, compassion for failing monsters, money complications, and trying to step up to be the best person you know how to be because the situation demanded it, regardless of the psychological horror—when you are dealing with the failures of our healthcare system, death and dying, legacies, and miseries—and you just don't have a lot of patience with the latest wonder widget or even examining the societal implications of it. Being on call 24/7 with a frail yet irredeemably nasty elder, there's nothing else like it to grind your kharma exceedingly fine.

And technology can't change or fix it.

Within six months of the death of my evil mother (a psychic release for both of us) I became somewhat involuntarily involved with a regional environmental issue. The Northern California bioregion where I live was going to be aerially sprayed with pesticides for years on end for reasons have to do with international trade kabuki theatre. I won't get into the intricacies of trying to stop the Light Brown Apple Moth eradication program, but the reason this rare victory for the environment, populism, good science, and small farmers -happened- was because of activism in the non-cyber world.

I felt a sense of mission and personal responsibility I have hardly ever felt before or after. And no, I envision no further career as an environmental activist.

While thousands of people were involved in this effort, there were maybe 20 of us nonstop core folks who preserved for years: which meant showing up at the state legislature in Sacramento, creating town hall meetings all over the Bay Area, orchestrating street theatre actions, meeting with local, state, and federal electives, farmers and environmentalists and business people and scientists working together.

Stopping this program mattered for every living creature in the Bay Area and for the preservation of small local organic farmers. While yes, there were websites and YouTube and an online petition—this successful activism was the opposite of clicktivism.

You do work like this and pausing to critique Silicon Valley and its technology (I hesitate to call Uber or WhatsApp technology) seems so aside the point and of so little ultimate consequence.

Worth also pointing out that not only were no people majorly working in technology highly involved with these efforts — when I would talk with my friends still working in technology they had heard nothing about "Stop the Spray". This, with major coverage in ALL MSM, bumper stickers and lawn signs galore, etc. I guess if it's not on Reddit, it doesn't exist.

As for what I am doing now, I have to delve even further into the personal: I have coped with chronic health problems for decades and had an acute flare up of same in 2011. This led to an exploration of certain aspects of TBI — which led to the idea for a wildly ambitious art project: "My Life as a Ghost/What happens when the soul is slammed out of the body but is incompletely returned?" (http://www.mylifeasaghost.org). The project is among other things about one of the perennial human dilemmas, the mind/body problem.

I was fortunate enough to be an artist-in-residence at Stanford in fall 2013 on behalf of MLG-but at this moment, the project is stalled out because it has passed from existence proof into needing megabucks to come further into creation.

I also have in mind another project: "Rocket Fall to Earth". Perhaps a book, perhaps a produced performance, about the public and private life of a seminal figure in the early U.S. space program. Genius! Suicidal first wife! Troubled kids! A proper canvas for someone of great mathematical gifts to create singular things de novo, unlike now when all that would be possible for such a large talent is hedge funds. What was it like when the U.S. actually knew how to do stuff? (Contrast, to pick just one example, with the cost overruns, delays, and structural problems with the new Bay Bridge). My stake in this is that Al Hibbs, the scientist in question, was the father of my oldest friend. So much like the housekeeper in "Wuthering Heights", I watched the family dynamics and observed the impact of this outsize personality (brilliant charismatic handsome alcoholic polymath) most of his working life (he's dead) and all of my life. It's "Theory of Everything" meets "The Bell Jar" meets.

paulina b.

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