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Valley pioneer Paulina Borsook skwers the “cyberselfish”


Paulina Borsook is a sheep in zebra's skin: soft and sensitive one-on-one, but unrelentingly brazen in print. And she's quite unique: She's female, she's a techie, and she worked in the Bay Area for two decades and wrote for Wired back when it was cool. The really amazing part: She's probably the tech industry's most outspoken, or at least its most stylishly shrill, critic.

That's a compliment. If any industry deserves thoughtful analysis from within and from without these days, it's the swaggering high-tech and dot-com worlds, which drive the New Economy and have politicians-- left and right - competing to do their bidding. That's a lot of power for such a young, hungry industry.

Not that Borsook would care if it were an insult, though, if her new book, Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High- Tech, is any indication. The accusations, ridicule, and slightly personal-is-political attacks Borsook loads on Valley boys and a token girl or two--from George Gilder to Kim Polese- imply that she has surrounded herself with several layers of Teflon. She wants to tell the truth about a community she at once adores and abhors, and she doesn't mind taking it on the chin in return-if the tech community ever notices. "They don't want to hear it;' she says in an interview. "They're so consumed with GetRichQuick.com and how to make the best of their 20 minutes with an angel.”

 Borsook draws on her experiences as a freelance journalist and contributing writer of Wired magazine back in the days when San Francisco's SOMA/Mission district was as drug-infested as it is geek-yuppie today. She self-effacingly calls herself a Luddite, while trotting out insider poop from nearly every übergeek convention of the last decade and explaining functions of arcane technology in lay- woman's terms.

The Santa Cruz resident sets the hypercritical tone early in her book, throwing down a mocking gauntlet: "I am a Luddite:' She continues: "The Luddites were early labor and ecology activists, upset not so much with technology per se but with technology's destructive effects to their bodies, to their children, to the places where they lived, to their ability to make a sane living."

That definition well illustrates Borsook's take on the tech industry in general, and the Valley in specific: It's filled with selfish, arrogant technoliber-Itarians who "are oblivious to the social contract" and scorn their communities in search of the almighty buck. She calls the Valley a "high-tech archipelago." But they don't have to be so damned self-serving, she says with frustration.

Fountainhead in the Valley

Borsook accuses Silicon Valley (with notable excepItions such as Hewlett Packard) of being all business, no compassion-a typical Ayn Rand-Social , Darwinist libertarian response that is rooted deep in the psyches of many techies, she argues. But it's more the lack of community concern than the  devotion to making money that she disdains: "[I]t's I not that I denigrate their success; it's mean-spirited- I ness and hypocrisy and cognitive blinders I can't abide;' she writes. She disparages the Valley philosophy as believing that an ideal world is "de-individualized and overautomated."

Those beliefs result directly from a distrust of I government that is out of proportion to reality, she I says, while still criticizing Washington's war on cryptography and attempts to censor the Internet. That Big Brother mistrust is particularly silly considering that Silicon Valley sprang from the dollars of taxpayers: from the Department of Defense-funded Arpanet (Advanced Research Projects Agency) to federal-housing subsidies for Silicon Valley workers to ASCII and Dataphone. Add that to all the lobbying high-tech is now doing in Washington-for everything from an Internet sales-tax moratorium to increasing the quota of H-1B high-tech visas, and the "cyberselfishness" becomes painstakingly dear, to her thinking.

"Government was the source of the goodies that created the critical mass of infrastructure, people' and expertise that generated, in the 1990s, high- tech companies who no longer had direct government ties;' she writes. That includes America Online, Middle America's Internet Service Provider (ISP) and UUNET, still one of the largest ISPs. But the government's bootstrap assistance to the Valley is "invisible to technolibertarians," she says, lamenting that most tech companies want to take without giving.

The "technolibertarianism"- an even more evil brand of basic libertarianism, to hear her tell it - that germinated in the Valley had several roots, she argues: techies' tendency to be a bit antisocial (thus not being as community interested); a massive paranoia generated by spending too much time, well, around paranoid people; and the immature leanings of youngish (mostly) men who spend too much time playing computer and fantasy games and believing Lara Croft is the perfect woman.

"PC-based libertarianism can also be reframed as the mind-set of adolescents, with their deep wish for total rampaging autonomy and desire for simple, call-to-arms passionate politics, where Good and Bad are dearly delineated - taking for granted that someone else does the laundry and stocks the refrigerator," she writes.

Dehumanized and Overworked

The irony, though, is that high-tech companies and individuals are, in reality, tethered more than ever; that is, the industry is linked to corporate welfare and tax credits. Call it their delibertarianized zone. Individuals also are enslaved by companies that expect all work, all the time, from employees because the technology enables it.

Valley companies-and many of their emulators around the country-are not exactly cutting- edge when it comes to treatment of employees, Borsook notes. In fact, they're quite obsolescent, apparently not realizing that happy employees with balanced lives are vital to a company's longevity. That is, they overwork employees (or, a la Microsoft, hire contractors forever without benefits) and expect long days and weeks, often without comp time in return, ignoring labor laws. They then belittle or fire those who can't cut it.

That is, if the employees don't give up the fight first. Women, Borsook says, are leaving the technology industry at twice the rate of men - just as schools are struggling to get young women interested in technology so they can help drive (and benefit from) the New Economy. "That kind of smirky, arrogant, adolescent, selfish attitude, and no balance in life, often turns women off,” Borsook tells SAR. She believes the problem is entirely culture, not biology: Most women just don't like the junior- high-boys-club atmosphere and usually inefficient "runrunrun" business nature they often find at high-tech companies. "Women worked in [weapons] factories in World War II; there's no reason they can't work as programmers," she says.

Except, that is, that women don't buy into the cyberselfish culture as often. Many young tech-guns are creating inhumane working conditions and ignoring existing rules-from labor regulations to sexual-harassment policies-that other industries take for granted. Many women are just saying "no thanks."

 Young, Male, and Stingy

Borsook says Silicon Valley bias doesn't stop at "silly sexism." She adamantly believes that many high- tech companies routinely discriminate against "older"- which can start in the 30s-workers. She describes a nuclear physicist with 20 years of experience who couldn't get a job as a computer programmer - just because his resume did not list the exact tools he would need on the job. As if he wasn't smart enough to be trained. She says many Valley companies use resume-scanner software that breezes right over immensely qualified applicants because the exact key words--or an education pedigree such as MIT or Harvard Business School- aren't picked up.

Then the same companies, she says, lobby Congress for more than their fair share of work visas, hoping to find "ideally docile workers" abroad who dare not rock the boat, lest they be deported. "We don't want to pay for the cost of education, but you have to have it," Borsook characterizes. And once the immigrant workers arrive, they are "indentured servants" to the same company for a period, regardless of oft-ridiculous working conditions. (Of course, Silicon Valley didn't invent this: A similar pattern was established for "free men" earning their fare to America.)

Borsook is particularly hard on Valley companies for building an infrastructure of wealth while their local communities suffer-and without giving much back, unless it involves free computers and software to build loyalty among youth (but not necessarily more than one copy; they can buy the rest). "They vote for computers in schools, not hunger programs," she says.

Borsook's not against efforts to close the "digital divide." She is cynical, though, about the way it's being done and where expenditures for computers are falling in budget priorities: "So often I think schools need so many other things first: If you can write and think, you'll figure out the computer stuff. ...But everything is a branding and marketing opportunity; even more of that in the schools is not what we need.”

Borsook laments the Valley's pitiful history of philanthropy, especially money other than in-kind donations, but cautiously concedes that more Valley millionaires are starting to help others, or at least to help themselves look better. After all, since last spring's high-tech shake-up, the media are looking for kinks in the industry's armor. "Since the Nasdaq tanked, reporters all of a sudden are looking at the dark side; they're beginning to see some of these [cyberselfish] stories in the last six months, she says.

But, opportunities to be critical of the tech revolution- all platforms - were always there, certainly since Apple enticed Super Bowl watchers in 1984 (yes, against Big Brother). But traditional business reporters usually just looked for "who's on first" and helped feed into the "survival of the most marketable;' she says. "They weren't looking at the big stuff:' And even with the slightly harder-edge tech coverage of late, Borsook is cynical: "A lot of media are middle class with 401 Ks." She recalls an assignment from Brill's Content last spring to do a story about the people for whom technology doesn't work, but, interestingly, she says, the magazine pulled it after the Nasdaq wobble, saying it would be dated. "It's not dated!" she exclaims. "It was about how a religion of success has permeated everything."

At her best, Borsook offers a thoughtful and researched treatise on a young industry inflicted with too much greed and shortsightedness. Borsook doesn't really offer solutions, though, beyond the hackneyed (but true) know-where-you're-going- by-knowing-where-you've-been warning. But she clearly does not believe the government is the monster technolibertarians make it out to be (except when they need something). She wants government there for universal phone service, ensuring competition and helping to bridge dangerous economic gaps. She doesn't want it forbidding cryptography, censoring speech, or waging a drug war. There is a middle ground, she says.

Meantime, Borsook plans to keep tweaking the high-tech conscience whenever she can, despite what she calls the "you'll never go to lunch in this town again" aspect of her muckraking. Besides, the Valley is her home and techies her tribe. "I have many sweet, smart geek friends," she says.

paulina b.

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