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Ottawa Citizen Book Excerpt

The Ottawa Citizen
Mon Oct 2 2000
Page: D6
Section: Tech Weekly Source: The Ottawa Citizen

Government, with the group effort that implies, and mixed personal/professional networks have been central to high tech's growth. Yet libertarians celebrate the cult of the individual, a la Ayn Rand, conveniently ignoring that most scientific and technological improvements are team efforts or are the results of gradual engineering improvements carried out over time. Most of the value in software comes through work done over time by many people, who create the upgrades, extensions, and other refinements. The era of the solo programmer making an impact is mostly long over.

The World Wide Web was simply one in a series of document-handling systems that came out of CERN (the European physics laboratory). The first release of Microsoft Windows (in 1983) went nowhere. It was Windows 3.1, shipped in 1992, that took off commercially. A still later version, Windows 95 (1995), released more than 10 years after the first version of Windows was announced, was the one that made marketing history.

Similarly, the underlying protocols of the Net were created over decades by the efforts of hundreds of people chipping in. The Open Source computer movement -- in which thousands of programmers from all over the world volunteer their efforts to augment and test public-domain software -- is another example of group work in programming. Yet it's very easy to sit at your computer and imagine yourself the Han Solo captain of your destiny -- ignoring the thousands of work-years effectively put in by thousands of people to, say, develop the operating system you are working with. The patches, the bug-fixes, the revisions, the distribution and marketing methods -- even the work that went into making the case for your monitor.

So although programmers fancy themselves sky pilots, they are taking advantage of mass labour and social organization, whose handiwork is almost invisible as they seek to create wealth where they sit. And the government's part in all this (R&D, for example) is similarly out of sight. A different political culture might look at a PC and see it as the pinnacle of communitarian striving, the proud handiwork of noteworthy gross tons of government and private-sector collaboration. And when start-ups are viewed without rose- (or mica-) libertarian-tinted glasses, it's easy to see how most of them are collectivist enterprises.

Personal computers themselves have been associated with revolutionary freedom for the individual since they came along in the early 1980s -- although if you think about it, it's a little strange, rather like associating typewriters or oscilloscopes or garbage disposers with individuality. Personal computers are, after all, simply tools/dumb machines. The association with individuality is one Apple Computer has traded on for years. The company's famous ''1984'' television advertisement, shown during the 1984 Super Bowl, presented the image of enslaved drones in quasi-religious obeisance to a nattering Orwellian Fearless Leader on a Big Screen; a youthful, athletic, Technicolor young woman then sprinted into view, smashing the oppressive idol.

Apple's 1999 ad campaign, ''Think Different,'' featuring rugged individualists like Gandhi, was more of the same. Every culture has its Creation Myth; the PC industry has as one of its master narratives the story that The People came from the counterculture and were longing for freedom and, lo, the PC freed them up from the oppression of mainframes, the heavy hand of the corporate MIS department, the servitude of Your Father's Computer Company. PCs were ad about power to the people. Never mind that these days portable computing turns out to be a way to keep people, wherever they go, more tethered than ever to their clients and their companies.

True, microcomputers freed programmers from dependence on a shared resource of a mainframe or a time-sharing minicomputer, where the presence of other humans was palpable. With that computing power sitting alone on your desktop, it's easy to imagine yourself as sole captain of your destiny, with no positive benefit to be derived from the intrusions of the outside world, of society at large. And if you find dealing with machines less baffling than dealing with the complex murkiness and illogicality of dealing with people, then there might be appeal in a view that states that the fewer societally imposed rules coming in from the outside, the better. It's human nature, and certainly the nature of humans in groups, but not computer nature, to operate in complex and not binary modes. If you think about it, PC-based libertarianism can also be reframed as the mindset of adolescents, with their deep wish for total rampaging autonomy and desire for simple, call-to-arms passionate politics, where Good and Bad are clearly delineated -- taking for granted that someone else does the laundry and stocks the refrigerator ... Yet these are the inheritors of the greatest government subsidy of technology and expansion in technical education the planet has ever seen. Technolibertarians take for granted the richness of the environment they have flourished in and resent the hell out of the constraints that bind them.

And, like privileged, spoiled teenagers they haven't a clue what their existences would be like without the bounty that has been showered on them. But it's human nature -- to be annoyed with, to want to renounce, those to whom you are indebted. Ask any 15-year-old -- or anyone who has not advanced beyond that age psychologically.

From Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech (Paulina Borsook, Public Affairs, $36.50 Cdn.) Reprinted with permission of Public Affairs, New York.

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