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Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech
by Paulina Borsook
PublicAffairs, 2000. 267 pgs.

Reviewed by Bob Murphy

[Posted July 21, 2000]

Every generation has its defining moment, when the Manichaean unfolding of history lets the good guys gain the upper hand. These moments may be tumultuous political upheavals, such as the New Deal or civil rights protests. But they also consist in the publication of literary treasures, such as Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin or Sinclair's The Jungle. Cyberselfish, the latest masterpiece by Paulina Borsook, will one day surely be placed in this latter category.

True to her concern for "the vulnerable, the ones who weren't able to cash out, those whose skillset or native endowment doesn't fit well into the shiny happy new information economy" (37), Borsook's work entertains without even being opened--as the marketing hustlers like to say, "no purchase necessary."

Indeed, the man of modest means may derive a pick-me-up simply by picking up Borsook's book. The front cover features a stunning red backdrop--which can only be an allusion to Poe--and the mesmerizing image of a hideous pair of glasses (complete with Scotch tape on the frame), which breaks all the rules by not even being centered in the picture.

To speculate on the meaning of this is perhaps as foolhardy and blasphemous as proffering explanations of Marx' law of surplus value, but in any case the present reviewer feels the off-center placement is symbolic of how 'skewed to the right' such "technolibertarians" appear to the rest of us.

But when one turns to the back cover, well! Here Borsook smuggles an attack that would astound a Trojan. The benighted boob, fresh from his oh-so-difficult job shuffling papers in the office, will no doubt take the critics' praise (as if Borsook needed promotion) at face value.

This Anglo-Saxon balding male--anxious to get home, crack a Bud Light, and watch John Rocker pointlessly throw a little white ball really really fast, only to have it tossed back to him so he can do it again--will read that Borsook is "agreeably caustic," "eloquent but vaguely irritated," "[s]cathing but not incorrect." He will swallow whole the claim that Borsook "oozes style and an authoritative voice that lets you know she's probably read more books than you."

The very idea that Borsook would consent to such crass corporate cookie cutter compliments, to such an irrelevant understatement as the last quote--akin to presenting an atheist with a Testament and the admonition, "He's probably seen more lepers than you"--is frankly insulting. Such shameless salesmanship--which has given us commercialized Olympics and the choreographed spontaneity of Woodstock '99--is clearly a satire, plucked from Borsook's prodigious arsenal of literary devices.

Borsook is just having fun with the reader, and has obviously ghostwritten these 'reviews.' The chosen few of us who get it, who recognize her subtle ploy, feel a rush of righteousness that this reviewer has not experienced since he first chained himself to an old-growth redwood.

Whatever we may long for, the sad fact is, we still live in a world dominated by cost-conscious capitalists, and this reviewer's employers are no exception. As such, he cannot do Cyberselfish the justice it deserves, and regrettably must restrict his attention to the two sections of the work where he feels most competent.

(Incidentally, the present writer was initially inclined to suggest this latter approach to Borsook, but then realized upon further reflection that such a superlatively cosmopolitan lady as our author needs no lecture from him on the virtues of experimentation.)

Borsook's first target is Bionomics, the spawn of apologist Michael Rothschild:


Bionomics [describes] the way the world works in terms of learning, adaptation, intelligence, selection, and ecological niches. It favors decentralization and trial and error and local control and simple rules and letting things be. Bionomics pays homage to Friedrich Hayek, one of the residents in the traditional libertarian pantheon, who believed that only free markets can lead to freedom (been to China lately?) and that command and control (all government interventions of course irresistibly leading to Stalinesque collectivization of farms) leads to serfdom. (32)

Borsook's brilliant analysis stands on its own and so no comments will be offered and so we move on:


Bionomics states that "the economy is a rain forest." The Bionomics argument goes that a rain forest ecosystem is far more complicated than any machine that could be designed--the idea being that machines, and machine-age thinking, are the markers of Bad Old Economic thinking. No one can manage or engineer a rain forest, and rain forests are happiest when they are left alone to evolve, which will then benefit all the happy monkeys, pretty butterflies, and funny tapirs that live in them. In our capitalist rain forest, organizations and industries are the species and organisms. Although if a corporation is the analog for, say, an individual tapir, then what is the rain forest analog for an individual person? A mitochondria?

What about the fact that actual rain forests are now being destroyed because of the free market? (32)

Although it borders on sacrilege to deconstruct Borsook's prose, it is the responsibility of the present reviewer to point out all that has been packed into this brief snippet. The capitalization in "Bad Old Economic thinking" is an ingenious attack on the deploring tendency of the technolibertarians to eschew serious debate and instead construct simplistic straw men.

Borsook's references to tapirs and mitochondria showcase the incredible breadth of her knowledge--indeed, she has read many books. Our author first explodes the Bionomic rain forest analogy with a neat reductio ad absurdum. (Which prompts the tantalizing question, What is the rain forest analog for Cyberselfish? This Borsook does not specify, but given her concern for the environment, it would no doubt be biodegradable and make excellent fertilizer.) After this stunning jab, Borsook finishes off her Bionomic opponent by placing the final sentence quoted above as a paragraph unto itself.

The tender reader may feel that Borsook's scathing attack, though not incorrect, is a bit too merciless. But this is not at all the case. For these self-styled freedom lovers--where "freedom" is used in an incredibly Victorian sense, of course--are not blissfully ignorant of the utter absurdity of their position. When the plight of the Amazon rain forests is pointed out to them, they bravely maintain that South American countries are not examples of what they 'mean' by "free markets" (as if issues of social justice revolved around semantics!). That Borsook has neglected to even bring up this silly rebuttal is an example of her under-appreciated compassion.

Unfortunately, Bionomics is not the only refuge of today's incipient fascists. A more virulent strain of egoists has arisen:


"Anarcho-capitalist," which is how many cypherpunks describe themselves, is as hardheaded as it gets. This dimly veiled social Darwinist/property-is-next-to-godliness/everything-is-contractual political and economic philosophy (with Nietzsche crawling around somewhere inside there, too) was first articulated by economics professor Ludwig von Mises in the 1920s and 1930s, echoed later by economist and Mises student, Ayn Rand-follower Murray Rothbard-and portrayed in sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which posited a utopian society based on libertarian, Nietzschean ideals. (97-98)

This reviewer must confess that he finds the sheer wit of this passage to be simply impenetrable. Based on his meager studies, he had never made the connection between libertarianism and Nietzsche. He was rather sure that the reactionary Ludwig von Mises had ridiculed anarchists as hopelessly na´ve, and that the exasperating Murray Rothbard had referred to the products of the information superhighway as "mindless pap."

Alas, sometimes our author's sarcasm--though always a delight--makes it difficult to distinguish historical revisionism from hilarious hoaxes. He will of course diligently watch C-Span's "Book Notes," and perhaps ask Borsook herself at the next AIDS rally, but in matters such as these, she usually adopts the stance of the magician with regard to his tricks. No doubt these apparent antinomies will occupy economists and philosophers no less than biblical scholars attend to the exact circumstances of the death of Judas.


This cruelly meritocratic world-to-come described in cypherpunk postings is reminiscent of 1950s science fiction. In these yesterday's tomorrows, the males with superior intellect, as measured in rocket-scientist terms, ruled. (In current terms, benefiting hugely from cash sucked from high tech entrepreneurial activities, generating untraceable untaxable financial reserves and tweaking the global monetary supply through anonymous transactions.) And incidentally, in these Good Societies of the future, the ruling males also scored with the initially reluctant biology-officer bodacious babes. Aldous Huxley, writing years before, commented obliquely on a society of the future based on Nietzschean ideals in Brave New World (the genetically determined top-drawer alpha males were explicitly assigned foxy females)-but Huxley wrote his book as a cautionary satire. In the same way that the more you run away from something, the closer it gets to you, Huxley's teaching story about a land of ultimate government control doesn't look so different from the cypherpunk social-Darwinist promised land of total libertarian freedom. (98)

After reading this passage, one is immediately struck by the usage of the always amusing it-doesn't-take-a-rocket-scientist genre. The admirable alliteration serves to foreshadow Borsook's seamless transition to a compassionate commentary on the sexual mores of the technolibertarian:


[I]t's anomalous that many many cypherpunks are not married, have never been married, and have no kids.. Katherine Mieskowski.called the people who manifest [the] convergence of computer nerd and weird sex "nerverts." When I read her column I knew exactly what she meant, for I have run into nerverts many times. Mieskowski got a nervert practitioner to explain this connection between whacked-out sex and nerditude.. This is not to say that all nerds lack social or courting skills..But a strong intersection exists between nerds and fringe sex, just as a strong intersection exists between nerds and neopagans. (99, 101)

The emphatic empathy of this passage is typical of Borsook's work. She is a spoofing and witty and clever and sarcastic and creative and energetic writer, who no doubt spent her entire adolescence brimming with anticipation for the day when our sick culture would finally appreciate these traits. (A glance at the author's stunning picture on the book jacket confirms this conjecture.)

We treat the reader to one final gem:


As the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) of the technology community-more outrageous than most, articulating the funnest, extremest, most tear-down-the-walls/two-four-six-eight, organize-to-smash-the-state notions of how the world should work, will work, once their anti-good-boy vision comes to pass-cypherpunks express and inform the ethos of the rest of the technolibertarian community. And the original cypherpunk manifestos and newsgroup postings...coalesced a political way of being, a coherent adversarial pose for being a hardheaded geek. (97)

Here we have Borsook at her finest, exhibiting an effortless marriage of poetry and political commentary not seen since Bob Dylan's "Hurricane."

Believe it or not, there's more where that came from. Borsook never lets up, filling all 267 pages of Cyberselfish with her uncanny wisecracks and wisdom. The work will serve as an excellent introduction to the new reader, although one cannot help but blush when making such a presumptuous recommendation. (Which of the Bard's plays 'ought' to be read first?) And the devoted fan, who has grown up on a steady diet of Borsook's contributions to Wired, Newsweek, and Salon, will have only one thing to say after reading this book: She's still got it!


Bob Murphy is a summer fellow at the Mises Institute. Send him MAIL.


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