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July 25, 2000


Silicon Valley Views the Economy as a Rain Forest




A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech.

By Paulina Borsook.

276 pages. Public Affairs. $24.


As high tech spreads outward from Silicon Valley to American society at large and people spend more and more time in cyberspace, the journalist Paulina Borsook steps back to look at the digerati and their view of the world.

Her conclusions: that high-tech culture is ravingly antigovernment, antiregulation and "psychologically brittle," that it manifests "a lack of human connection and a discomfort with the core of what many of us consider it means to be human," and that its view of human nature "reduces everything to the contractual, to economic rational decision making" and "ignores the larger social mesh that makes living as primates in groups at least somewhat bearable." In short, that high-tech culture promotes an Ayn Rand-ian view of the world, where the strong in tooth and claw survive, and the meek and unmarketable perish.

Ms. Borsook does not write as a Luddite outsider but as longtime observer of the tech world -- she was a contributing writer to Wired magazine in its formative years -- and she has written a smart, funny and irreverent book.

"Cyberselfish" is both an engaging bookend to "Escape Velocity" (1996), Mark Dery's provocative study of cyberculture in the 1990's, and a bracing antidote to the Pollyanna-ish cyber-utopianism of Esther Dyson's "Release 2.0" (1997).

The dominant mind-set in high tech today, Ms. Borsook argues, is libertarianism -- in its many manifestations, from laissez-faire free-market economics to a more virulent form of "anarcho-capitalism." It boasts an ugly, selfish code of behavior and functions as a perfect mirror of the dark side of our "winner-take-all casino society." Many techies also evince an aggrieved, adversarial attitude toward the establishment or, in tech-speak, TPTB, "The Powers That Be." There is a tone of adolescent paranoia reminiscent in equal parts of "The X-Files" and "Falling Down" to many technolibertarian exchanges; a sense, in Ms. Borsook's words, of "testosterone-poisoned guys with chips on their shoulders and too much time on their hands."

Ms. Borsook contends that many of the favorite arguments of technolibertarians come from "bionomics" -- that is, they like to use metaphors drawn from biology to explain economic behavior and endorse a decentralized free-market system. Reduced to a bumper slogan, Ms. Borsook writes, bionomics states that "the economy is a rain forest"; in other words, it suggests that "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." J

Leslie Kosoff/ PublicAffairs

Paulina Borsook


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Lisa Guernsey Reviews 'Cyberselfish' (June 22, 2000)


This social Darwinism not only fails to afford protection to those less equipped to flourish in the jungle -- those "hypersensitive maladaptive no-commercial-potential individuals" -- but in Ms. Borsook's opinion also fails to ensure the triumph of the best. "It's a dirty little secret in high tech that superior marketing and inferior technology will beat out superior technology and inferior marketing every time," she writes, "and that other factors, aside from Darwinian fitness, determine which technologies and which companies thrive or perish."

Ms. Borsook makes it clear that she shares many of the libertarians' most fundamental assumptions -- "What I most want is to be left alone," she writes. "I don't have that will to power that would ever suggest that I know how to tell other people how to live their lives" -- and she criticizes the United States government for what she calls its "mostly awful handling of free speech and privacy as these relate to technology."

But while she comes down hard on federal efforts to curtail digital privacy, calling them a violation of civil liberties and due process, she is equally tough on those technolibertarians who extrapolate their anger at the feds' stand on cryptography (encoding used for security purposes) to the government at large.

"For the most part," she observes, "the government has made Silicon Valley a fine and dandy, safe and regularized place to make scads of money. A gargantuan infrastructure of suppliers and educational institutions, directly and indirectly subsidized by the government, nurtured the defense-electronics industry, which formed the substrate for today's high tech industry."

She is equally impatient with what she sees as high tech's insular selfishness -- its gonzo, go-it-alone individualism animated, she says, by a crippling blindness to human frailty and imperfection. She argues that techies' love of machines and rule-based programming leaves them ill-equipped to deal with emotions and such unquantifiable things as art, that this is why the digerati often prefer to escape the real world for a virtual one and demonstrate little sense of civic responsibility.

There are passages in "Cyberselfish" where Ms. Borsook's fervor gets the better of her fair-mindedness. Her portrait of a former Reagan speechwriter, George Gilder -- a hero to the conservative wing of high tech just as the former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow remains the avatar of its neo-hippie wing -- turns into an angry rant; and her assessment of high tech's philanthropic record verges on the churlish, taking the digerati to task for the sort of donations (often computer-based in nature) that they choose to make.

For the most part, however, Ms. Borsook combines common sense with an old-fashioned humanism to make sense of the current high-tech gestalt. She has done a nimble job of tracing the digerati's libertarian roots in the counterculture of the 60's and the Reaganism of the 80's, and she proves equally adept at exploring the social and political fallout of their cultural ascendance.


Steve Rhodes


Tiger Beat weblog on media, culture & politics (updated daily)


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