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Some of My Best Friends Are High-Tech

Conducted by Paul Gediman, Borders.com Senior Editor

Paulina Borsook Paulina Borsook was a contributing writer at Wired during the magazine's glory years. Her fiction, essays, humor pieces and journalism on technology and culture have appeared in print publications including Newsweek, Mother Jones and San Francisco, and online at such sites as Salon, Suck and Feed. She is one of the few writers commenting on the high-tech world who is both of that world and apart from it. Her perspective is unique, scathing without being caustic. She is the kind of writer whose work not only attracts readers but also creates friends and enemies. In Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech, Borsook takes cultural criticism to Silicon Valley, arguing that the assumptions of high-tech culture include a disdain for government, an almost childlike faith in the free market and a tin ear for the complexities of real politics. She has a name for the conglomeration of such assumptions: technolibertarianism.


Please give us an overview of what you mean by technolibertarianism and then tell us what's wrong with it.

Paulina Borsook: It's hard to reduce the culture/religion of technolibertarianism to an elevator pitch -- and I obviously felt I needed a book to describe it, and couldn't just do so in a magazine article. Briefly, it's a mindset that is free-market/anti-regulation/anti-government/individualistic, bordering on the social Darwinist. It comes in different flavors and intensities and voter-registration habits, deploys para-biological phraseology and is all the more curious because no sector of society has benefited more and suffered less from the government than high-tech.

There's much that's simplistic and hypocritical about this worldview that ignores both high-tech's past and its lived present. What's particularly disturbing about it, though, is that because of the scads of money high-tech is throwing off, the world at large is tempted to buy this value-system along with the hardware and software high-tech creates.

You have some pretty harsh things to say about the culture of high-tech, yet you've spent a good deal of time and sweat learning and writing about it. You wrote for Wired at the magazine's beginning. Did something about the world of high-tech appeal to you at some point? Why the fascination with this beast?

PB: I sort of fell into high-tech, as many Bay Area liberal-arts flakes do, because that's where the jobs were, even back in the early '80s. I don't hate technology, and some of my best friends are technologists. I always felt myself to be sort of like the Saturday Night Live character Lisa Lubner, girl nerd and second-rate poet. Growing up, I was both a Lisa Simpson/Hermione from Harry Potter, as well as someone who tagged around the fringes of the arty kids. So my M.F.A. thesis at Columbia back in the early '90s, inspired by a suggestion by dear instructor Phillip Lopate, was a series of interconnected short stories that show how the new information technologies deform relationships. I always understood from my very first job at a small software startup in Marin County that technology was a human artifact; and part of the joy of writing for Wired in the beginning was its founder's understanding that technology is culture.

One of the many funny lines in the book appears when you're trying to figure out why so many people in high-tech, particularly men, feel victimized even though they're rich, have had the best educations and are part of a subculture that is defining the larger culture. You describe one disgruntled email correspondent as exhibiting "the ancient nerd-rage at being slighted by the (to him) attractive art student who would have nothing to do with him." This strikes me as something close to the heart of your book, your astonishment -- both bemused and horrified -- that this libertarian culture is essentially the culture of smart, socially maladapted adolescent boys. That it's attitude puffed up into a worldview.

PB: Since I suffer from protracted adolescence myself, there's something of a takes-one-to-know-one factor operating in the book. That is, I recognize the symptoms in others because I know them all too well in myself. The conformist kind of brashness that characterizes much of high-tech culture today is very adolescent, as is its short attention span, the faddishness of technologies and business philosophies and the narcissism (the attitude that no one suffers as we do or is as glorious as we are).

Narcissism's corollary is self-absorption, an inability or unwillingness to look at the real, non-virtual world. Again, your phrase is better than mine: "the most virulent form of philosophical technolibertarianism is a kind of scary, psychologically brittle, prepolitical autism." Can you elaborate on what you mean by this and tell us where this mindset comes from?

PB: Narcissism is pretty widely distributed in the population, so I wouldn't want to come across as saying that it's exclusively the province of techies. The self-absorption and psychological brittleness I was referring to there occurs at the fringes of the culture I am documenting. It's the inability to grant any value to anything that can't be measured in a certain way, the assumption that we all are rational economic actors. It's almost Nietzschean, the notion that altruism comes from self-loathing and is ultimately destructive, that the squishy human subjective stuff that can't be quantified is best ignored.

Again, we're talking extremes here; but you may be familiar with the book Shadow Syndromes, an excellent Listening to Prozac-type meditation on mind/body/brain/character stuff, which discusses, among other things, how lots of typical geek behaviors can be regarded as low-grade autism. So it might be speculated on what kind of philosophy and worldview would arise from such characters... and it might look very much like what I have attempted to describe, in a gonzo anthropology way, in Cyberselfish.

What is "business porn" and how is it related to the culture of high-tech?

PB: I wrote an essay for the September 1999 issue of San Francisco magazine on what I term business porn, and also did a commentary along the same lines for the NPR program, Beyond Computers. Basically, the definition of business porn centers around the idea that so many business books and so much media coverage of business follows an entirely predictable, voyeuristic arc, where the moves are all routinized, details are fetishistically exact and there's a strange repetitive lack of distinctive personality to it all. Plus, there's always a guaranteed positive outcome. It's roughly analogous to the way Harlequin Romances can be thought of as emotion porn, or Tom Clancy novels as action porn.

Let's return to something you said earlier: "no sector of society has benefited more and suffered less from the government than high-tech." You address this irony in the book, noting that such reflexive disdain for government exists in an industry that was nourished by federal money. The Internet, after all, started as federal project. The research universities that made the high-tech industry possible grew up on government contracts and subsidies. Why do you think so many smart people are in such denial about the fact that government, to a large extent, is high-tech's mother?

PB: It's hard to say why West Coast high-tech is in such denial. It's partly the argument libertarians make to me often: "Just because I took the king's money once doesn't mean I am forever indebted to the king." And there's that adolescent quality again -- I'm going to be out all night and rave away, but Mom, can I do my laundry here and of course will the refrigerator be kept stocked? The Western United States, and California in particular, in the last five to 10 years, has been such a magnet for immigrants of all kinds. Maybe these people simply don't know any of the history or remember a time in California (pre-tax revolt Proposition 13) when the public sector -- because it was well-funded enough -- worked.

Many writers spend their lives preaching to the converted, but you spend a lot of time writing right into the lion's den. You make much of your living as a squeaky wheel, a woman in a man's world, a humanities chick who pays the rent by asking impertinent questions of -- and passing withering judgment on -- the geekocracy. What kind of response do you get?

PB: The response I get is mixed. There are many people in high-tech who find that the work I do articulates their own vague feelings of unease; or that while they may find what I do slanted, overall they think my work is more or less accurate. On the negative side, it's always impolite to attack other's people's religion -- so I get the response one might imagine when articles of true faith are attacked. Pity for being so blind. Rage for being so apostate. And in many cases, strange assumptions are made about my character and background -- that I'm a debutante, that I obviously couldn't have spent any time in high-tech or else I wouldn't think as I do.

Business, fueled by high-tech, has become the cultural lodestar for our time. Do you see an analogy between the way high-tech libertarianism has shaped popular culture and the way that the cultural assumptions of the industrial revolution -- which brought us social Darwinism and a fascination with eugenics -- shaped the Gilded Age? If so, do you see any backlash on the horizon, something akin to the progressive era of the early 20th century?

PB: It is interesting that certain fin-de-last-siècle trends (social Darwinism, eugenics) get echoed in our own fin-de-siècle (the faux spirit of meritocracy in high-tech, the pseudo-biological thinking). And it's just eerie how much the language of turn-of-the-century, Gilded Age, California-as-the-promised-land era sounds so much like the booster language coming out of the Bay Area once again 100 years later. Gray Brechin, in his wonderful, seminal, germinal Imperial San Francisco touches on similar themes with regard to the first San Francisco gold rush: the rhetoric/fantasy of individual initiative (the lone placer miner) versus the reality of a new communications technology (the telegraph) in cahoots with big money (Wall Street) making fortunes for a few (strip mining the Sierra Nevada).

As for a backlash, I would say people outside high-tech do seem to be experiencing a vague unease with the culture I've documented, aided of course by the NASDAQ wobble. Hey, maybe the new new economy ain't what it's cracked up to be.

Copyright © 2000 by Borders Online, Inc. Photo by Leslie Kosoff.

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