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PAULINA BORSOOK, A BOHEMIAN intellectual displaced into the world of Silicon Valley high tech, asks what seems to be a very stupid question:

"Where would you want to do business in 2000? In Russia-where's there's no regulation, no central government, no rule of law-or in northern California, where the roads are mostly well paved and well pa- trolled ...where the power grid is usually intact and the banking system is mostly fraud-free and mostly works... where people mostly don't have to pay protection money and the majority of law enforcement personnel are not terribly corrupt or brutal?" If you say "Russia" you are probably either a Russian oligarch-a member of that country's burgeoning mafia-or a supremely self-deluding technolibertarian getting rich in Silicon Valley without a clue as to how dependent you are on the collective efforts of the institutions you despise. If the latter, you are also probably not much of a fan of Borsook, a self- described "gonzo anthropologist" of your comfortable little world.

Borsook's new book, Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech (PublicAffairs), dissects the philosophical and  psychological underbelly of the geek utopia that has made so many people rich beyond imagination without improving their manners or sartorial habits.  

According to Borsook, a former contributor to Wired, the guys swimming in Net riches live in a world quite different from the one the rest of us occupy. It's not just that they still read Ayn Rand for her insight into human character. It's not just that they decorate their overpriced little houses in Early Graduate School style. It's not even that they still don't know how to talk to women, much less marry  them and procreate with them. It's that they think differently-and, according to Borsook, quite dangerously.

The most virulent form of philosophical technolibertarianism, says tour guide Borsook, is "a kind of scary, psychologically brittle, prepolitical autism [that] bespeaks a lack of human connection and a discomfort with the core of what many of us consider it means to be human. It's an inability to reconcile the demands of being individual with the demands of participating in society, which coincides beautifully with a preference for, and glorification of, being the solo commander of one's computer in lieu of any other economically viable behavior. Computers are so much more rule-based, controllable, fixable, and comprehensible than any human will ever be."

While it has many separate streams and sources, the technolibertarian ethos derives from a worldview called bionomics that was hatched in a 1992 book of the same name by free-market economist Michael Rothschild. The concept takes a Darwinian view of the economy, picturing it as a kind of rain forest, based on phenomena such as adaptation, intelligence, selection, and ecological niches." Innovation equals genetic mutation, and competition equals natural selection. In other words, winners and losers are a part of God's plan, so why bother trying to help anyone up the ladder once you've made it yourself? Philosophically, it ranges from the "classic 18th-century liberal philosophy of that- which-governs-best-governs-least [and] love of laissez-faire free-market economics to social Darwinism, anarchocapitalism, and beyond." It manifests itself in an embarrassing lack of philanthropy and lots of silly "rebel-outsider" posturing. Most crudely, it can be summed up as "I've got mine (and intend to keep it, if the god-damn bureaucrats don't get in my way), so screw you."

Technolibertarianism is to Silicon Valley what knee-jerk liberalism was to the Upper West Side. It rules the fashion roost, though it takes many colors and flavors depending on who's wearing it. These include ravers, like the neo-hippie John Perry Barlow, who wrote lyrics to many of the Grateful Dead's less memorable songs. A pal of the late John F. Kennedy Jr., Barlow preaches on behalf of  "the wonders of the Net." ("Governments of the industrial world," he writes, "I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule.")

At the other end of the spectrum are the gilders, named after their guru, the Reagan- era supply-sider George Gilder. These Net heads are socially conservative, "in love with the spirit of enterprise and the spirituality of the microchip." (Capitalism, Gilder writes, "begins not with taking but with giving Profit is an index of the altruism of a product.") The most aggressively radical grouping in this mini-universe are the cypherpunks. These "radical pro-privacy computer activists" have a view of government as being "peopled only by the unprincipled, the dull-witted, the corrupt, and the power-tripping. It is an angry adolescent's view of all authority as the Pig Parent, uniformly cretinous and bad and oppressive." They do not, oddly enough, concern themselves much with the amazingly intrusive technologies currently being employed by big business to turn all computer users into invisible consumer tubes.

This narrow spectrum of political viewpoints helps to explain the peculiar reaction inside the Valley to the Microsoft antitrust suit. On the one hand, the colossus of the Northwest is the enemy, trampling the Valley, stomping on creative little guys, and pocketing the profits from their inventions like a high-tech Godzilla. On the other hand, the Justice Department is really the enemy, being part of the government and all. The suit is therefore like a battle between Saddam and Satan in South Park (the movie, not the neighborhood). From a technolibertarian viewpoint, the only appropriate response is the one that then-Senator Harry Truman opined when Hitler's Germany invaded Stalin's Russia: "If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible."

This worldview has many problems, beginning with its amazing lack of self- awareness. Most obviously, Borsook notes, "no sector of society has benefited more and suffered less from the government than high tech." Most particularly, the early Internet, called Arpanet, was financed by the Defense Department and sheltered from the harsh world of profit and loss for nearly two decades. Yet the idea that government has contributed anything useful to the explosion of wealth and technology in the Valley, she finds, is inconceivable to the people who benefit most.

Borsook, 46, lives in Santa Cruz, California, a town she once liked but now feels is being ruined by the same money-go- round that pushed her out of San Francisco. She studied psycholinguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, before getting a master's in fine arts at Columbia University. Undoubtedly, she is more than a bit of a ranter. This book seems to have been rattling around her head for the better part of a decade and to have spilled out all at once. Here is one typical sentence: "The hypersensitive maladaptive no-commercial-potential individuals, the runts of the litter, and the defective members of the species can - because as humans and not planaria we can value things not just of momentary food/shelter/mate status-enhancing enticement-create the best of what makes us uniquely human."

This semi-stream-of-consciousness style gambles with the reader's patience. But it pays off in the insight it offers into Borsook's idiosyncratic thought process. It helps the reader decide whether the rant is ultimately grounded in intelligence and common sense. (When I interviewed Borsook for this column, I found I had almost no questions for her. Just about everything I wanted to know was somewhere in this book.) And to this reader, anyway, the rant turns out to be quite convincing. For all the astonishing wealth the geeks have created, they've done precious little with it besides buy bigger and better toys.

Why, Borsook quite sensibly asks, when personal wealth in Silicon Valley grew by $100 billion from 1991 to 1998, did the regional United Way annual goal remain a paltry $25 million? Why is crime- and poverty-stricken East Palo Alto, barely a microchip away, still one of the worst places in America in which to grow up? Why are so many Valley companies located just outside the metropolitan area, in non- descript buildings with nothing in the way of aesthetics to recommend them? Why is just about everything so bland out there, save the natural scenery and San Francisco itself? I remember eating at a trendy Palo Alto trattoria a few years ago, and on the menu, the owner compared the city to Renaissance Florence. Oh yeah? Where's the Uffizi, Mac? Where is the Academia? Who are your Leonardos, your Michelangelos, your Machiavellis? And aside from the late David Packard, who was admirably civic-minded though somewhat old-fashioned, where are your Medicis? Five hundred years later, we still trudge to Florence for our vacations to partake in its beauty and the soaring tributes to the best of the human spirit that it continues to represent. Will anyone want to vacation in Mountain View 500 years from now? Would anyone today?

Although the industry's (and its owners') relative youth has been offered as an excuse for its stinginess and lack of public imagination, Borsook professes to discern little change in the tech ethos as the business matures. Once Wall Street became entranced with the Valley, a "strange symbiosis" occurred, with "masters-of-the- universe MBAs colliding with awkward geek 'I don't have the world's best social skills"' culture. The marriage makes perfect sense, notes Borsook: "MBAs like being associated with the geek shibboleths of inventiveness and revolution. Geeks are attracted to the MBAs' promise of making things real through the glamour of money. And both of them like money."

paulina b.

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