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Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech

By Paulina Borsook

PublicAffairs Books; $24.95; 288 pp.ISBN 1-891620-78-9

Reviewed by Tom Bowden

Twenty years in Silicon Valley as a technical writer and journalist have brought Paulina Borsook up close and personal with the individuals who form the Valley's computer programmers, entrepreneurs, internet whizzes, and others of its hyperwork-addled, high-tech, über-capitalist denizens. Whether it owes to high school years rejected by peers; thousands of hours toiling over products, programs and start-ups; sudden success followed by absurd wealth; some combination of these or none of the above, Silicon Valley's cyber citizens -- especially the mercilessly rich -- tend toward libertarian attitudes. Libertarianism -- that eerie nexus where far-left and far-right ideologies meet -- valorizes the extremes of individual liberty over social responsibility and seethes at government interest . . . uh, interference . . . in any and all personal and public affairs. The operative phrase here, for Borsook, is social responsibility, the cyber community's atrophied sense of it, its atrophied sense, in fact, of any notion of collective goals beyond the corporate. Cyberselfish is an entertaining, black-humored tour of Silicon Valley.

Although few of the men (almost always) she talks with would describe themselves as libertarian, their views consistently square with libertarian values as the exaltation of the ego. In chapters on such topics as "bionomics," cypherpunks, and the early days of Wired magazine, Borsook handles cyberian foibles with wit, verve, energy, and aplomb.

"Bionomics" is the pseudo-Darwinian argument that those who are biologically fit -- multi-millionaire computer entrepreneurs, say -- rise to the top of the economic heap. Wealth is a gauge of biological fitness and adaptability. You're poor? Too bad, so sad. That's fate -- blame it on your genes. Celebratory conferences that sacralize bio-economic superiority apply Darwin's theory of evolution to as many business and social models as it will bear. If they had a clue, however, bionomicists would know that evolutionary change is measured -- in the only way it can be measured -- by changes in populations, not by individuals within populations. Too bad for them -- computer capitalists have very low rates of reproduction. According to Borsook, they rarely marry and more rarely produce offspring. A simple look at the numbers would tell them that even if they took the reproductive plunge their DNA wouldn't even ripple the gene pool. Of course if they had a clue, they wouldn't believe in bionomics to begin with. There's nothing wrong with the fitness of Darwin's argument; bionomicists apparently don't realize they apply it metaphorically. (The silly bionomics take on Darwinism puts me in mind of a chapter from Alex Heard's Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America, where Heard interviews a wealthy New Age couple who believe that an ecological disaster will soon mete out planet-wide destruction, taking down a few billion benighted human souls with it. Only the ecologically hip -- i.e., people like them -- will survive. Heard asks the couple if they're trying to get their message out to the inner cities, so the folks there can prepare. The wife angrily spits back that perhaps in a former life they chose to live among squalor and violence when they were reincarnated.)

Cypherpunks -- not cyberpunks -- are computer geeks heavily steeped in devising, manipulating, and otherwise playing with encryption systems that provide privacy and safety for operating systems, internet business transactions, and email correspondence. Emphasize privacy. Often even attending conferences with pseudonymous nametags, Cypherpunks form the extreme edge of preventing and eliminating all forms of government intrusion into internet traffic. Cypherpunks rightly assert that the U.S. government's push for internet encryption systems it can break is a move to extend its phone-bugging activities. Whether their efforts to keep pure this portion of the internet succeed -- perhaps its only remaining untainted part since the introduction of commercial traffic on the web -- depends not only on their success in continuing to portray "national security" arguments by the NSA, CIA, and FBI as disingenuous and paranoid but also on their ability to shut down or cripple any encryption-busting system those agencies may eventually employ. The irony of all this anti-government posturing, as Borsook points out over and over again, is the fact that the internet owes its very existence to the U.S. government, as an outgrowth of the Department of Defense's ARPANET project of the 1960s and 70s. In fact, much of computer science as a whole owes many of its early discoveries and its ability to burgeon as a separate discipline of study to government-funded projects.

Not all cyber concerns are as esoteric to the general public as bionomics and encryption. Wired magazine packages geek style, geek attitude, and more importantly, geek values as being as dynamic and cutting-edge as Vogue or Vanity Fair: Borsook came into the Wired fold soon after it began. Rich with blasto-graphics, advertising hip knowingness, and articles touting the virtues of venture capitalism, corporate start-ups, and bold individualism and inventiveness, Wired instantly became a mass-market have-to-have item that brought computer capitalism to Main Street and made it cool. After the thrills of Wired's first heady years began to wane, Borsook began taking closer stock of the message the magazine mediated. And just as Playboy ushered in, disseminated, propelled, and cultivated not just a new attitude toward sexual mores but a whole lifestyle and way of being in the world, Wired too pushed a lifestyle and attitude that glorified all that is selfish, elitist, and anti-democratic. Bionomic, libertarian.

Devoid of old money's sense of noblesse oblige, the new new money set doesn't get the point of helping others. Borsook points out a notable difference in charity between East Coast, old-style computer giant IBM and West Coast new-hat computer megalith Microsoft: IBM bases its charitable tax deductions on its computers' wholesale values; Microsoft deducts based on their retail rates. Decisions to donate computers to high schools and colleges are not "charitable" in the sense of helping the down-and-out, say, but are designed to generate future sales, as did tobacco companies that once gave soldiers free cigarettes. Putting the "chary" in charitable, software firms likewise donate (unwanted/unneeded) CD-ROMs to organizations that may retail for $100 but cost only 10˘ to burn, not including documentation, which, Borsook notes, these firms often fail to supply. Computers and software packages are impotent in battling such community issues as alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic abuse, homelessness, and so forth. Outside of their specialized niches, wealthy cyberians seem uncomfortable, seem at sea, out of the box; and so they respond defensively: the wretches deserve their fate; I will not serve.

Borsook's humor and her compassion for her subjects turn what could easily have been an angry screed into a balanced, earnest exploration of the sociological values the new technologies and concomitant new money are producing. In times of economic boom, such as the one we're still enjoying, comfort more easily breeds care for the downcast. In times of economic boom, it's also easy to forget that the downcast exist.

-- Tom Bowden is Managing Editor of Tech Directions

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