cisler on 15 Aug 2000 11:37:50 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Review of "Cyberselfish" from First Monday

Paulina Borsook
Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High

New York: Public Affairs Books, 2000.
cloth, 256 p., ISBN 1-891-62078-9, US$24.00.

Public Affairs Books:

Earlier this year Dutch media activists organized a conference entitled
"Tulipomania" in Amsterdam. It was meant to be a critique of the so-called "new
economy" which CEOs, such as John Chambers of Cisco, say is a matter of survival
for any business (or perhaps any country) that wants to be around in 2010. There
were economists, venture capitalists, anarchists, activists, artists, cultural
critics, and community organizers taking part in this event. During the planning
I suggested to the secret cabal of organizers that Paulina Borsook would be a
good addition to the program. Borsook had written a number of pieces for Wired,
knew the industry, and had strong views on the kind of society that was emerging
in this Mecca of high tech entrepreneurship where she and I live - if you count
Santa Cruz as an extension of Silicon Valley. She has written extensively on a
variety of technical topics in her long career that started out with a degree in
psycholinguistics from University of California, Berkeley, and like "most
liberal arts flakes" (including me) wound up working with computers.

Borsook was unable to attend the "Tulipomania" conference because she was on a
book tour for Cyberselfish, so I tried to fill in and present a personal view of
the problems in Silicon Valley - which regions hoping to duplicate the growth
and wealth might not realize. In short, income disparity, dwindling middle
class, expensive housing, and growing traffic problems were just a few of the
issues I covered. When I returned home I found a copy of the book waiting for
me. Her thesis is that a philosophy and belief system is causing some of the

I took her book with me on a trip around the world that included Ecuador,
Mexico, Japan, Hong Kong, South Africa, and Boston as places far from Silicon
Valley but certainly touched by the technology, the ideas, and investments, and
the aura of this part of the United States. These places have enormous problems
of their own, some of which may be solved with the help of information
technology, but many of the problems are about government and governance: how
groups of people make decisions and act to benefit (theoretically) a whole
country. Unless they have migrated back home, you don't find many
technolibertarians in other high-tech areas of the world.

Borsook says that Silicon Valley's high-tech community is a "hotbed of
libertarian political activism" which is characterized by a distrust of
government, a love of laissez-faire free-market economics, social Darwinism, a
lack of philanthropy (in spite of all the new wealth), and sort of rebel on the
frontier mentality that cannot empathize with the needs of others (or even their
point of view).

Borsook writes well, with a revealing amount of detail about the cultural and
intellectual descriptors that define her targets. It is very much a book about
the San Francisco Bay Area and the influential and mostly male sector of high
tech society. So many of the references are particular to heavy Internet users
that it seems her editor sent the text back with suggestions for footnotes (or
better yet, a glossary) so that readers might not get lost. This includes items
such as "The Borg", "open source", "self-organization", "beta" testing, and
"EFF." The editors seemed to have missed quite a few typos. I found three in the
first 25 pages. They also might have reined in Borsook's frequent use of long
hyphenated phrases such as the following:
"But most programmers I know are of the just-give-me-a-few-more-hours/days/
no-problem-I-can-make-it-perfect clan;"

The chapters cover the various technolibertarian sects and movements. She spends
more than 40 pages on the Bionomics conferences she attended from 1993 to 1996.
This belief system was one responsible for the rapid diffusion of
technolibertarian beliefs throughout nerd-dom. Bionomics compares ideal
capitalism to a rain forest which flourishes most when left alone. Economic
activity is evolutionary, rather than like a machine which can be tuned and
tinkered with for maximum performance. It also tends to treat those who do not
succeed in a narrow realm of technological competence and financial reward as
defective. As befits an area where technology projects begin with a t-shirt
design, Borsook mentions one that says, "In this era of digital Darwinism, some
of us are ones. You're a zero." She goes after a number of personalities and
celebrities including Kevin Kelly, John Perry Barlow, and especially George
Gilder, the Reagan policy guy who has made fast networks (fiber to the Big Guy
in the Sky) into a part of the Christian cosmology (TeraBeam me to the heaven, o
Lord). Her characterizations are wickedly pointed, and perhaps this is because
of her love-hate relationship with Wired, for which all those men wrote and
still write.

I went to the coming out party for Wired, oh so many Internet years ago. I was
surprised that everyone (except Kevin Kelly) wore black, and they weren't Amish,
Hasidic, or undertakers. I even wrote a couple of short pieces but then became
disenchanted with their style, content, and point-of-view. Only after reading
Borsook did I fully understand why I felt so uncomfortable thumbing through an
issue after 1995. Borsook describes how the libertarian politics of Wired came
from the guidance of its founders, especially Louis Rosetto. I was a fan of
Rosetto's failed Electric Word that predated Wired, but I found the lack of any
critical stance about technology to be one of the shortcomings of Wired. Borsook
analyzes many of the issues in the first two years to explain the tunneled
vision Wired had of what it was successfully selling to the public.

Borsook has a wonderful phrase for Wired and its imitators which now, under new
management, it is imitating: business porn. I can never look at another copy of
ASAP, Fast Company, or Business 2.0 without thinking of this term - whether it's
a fair charaterization or not. Her most personal wounds seem to be over the old
boys clubishness of Wired and its ignorance of the role of women in the high
tech revolution or just the data processing blast furnaces of IT departments
around the nation. She says of the women at Wired, "We were feeling something
like the woman who enters into a passionate relationship with a charismatic man,
only to discover with horror that our concerns were not his concerns and that
who we were and what we had to say weren't valued."

Another chapter targets the cypherpunks, cryptography, and digital cash. As an
attendee of the early Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conferences where crypto
devotees (both three-letter-agency guys and their opponents in cyberspace)
gathered, I think she paints an accurate picture, but like the Bionomics story,
this seems a bit old. It is not that we should not look back and search for the
vectors and hot spots which caused a disease to spread, but this would have
seemed fresher had it appeared in mid-1998 instead of two years later. Perhaps
the queue for the printer at Public Affairs Press slowed down the publication.
Or perhaps it is because I myself tired of CFP after a few of the conferences
and that I had already read some of Borsook's rants online in places such as
David Hudson's now discontinued Rewired (

I did enjoy the chapter on cybergenerous, part of which had been published in
the new San Jose Mercury News style supplement, S.V., earlier this year.
"Cybergenerous" refers to the philanthropic efforts of high tech companies and
individuals. As a former director of one such program, Apple Library of
Tomorrow, at Apple Computer from 1988 to 1997, I was interested in her
criticisms of the kinds of donations that are most common in Silicon Valley:
software that cost little to reproduce but affording the donating company
(Microsoft, Apple, Adobe) massive tax writeoffs for full value of the product,
and of course hardware.

Here's one example of the company driven aid programs from my own experience:
Sun Microsystems wanted to donate a Sun server to my son's elementary school in
San Jose in 1995, but the school district did not even have a full time LAN
manager, let alone a Unix expert. The Sun donors also wanted the school to scrap
its dedicated 56 kb line and upgrade to a T1 (1.56 Mb/sec) if they were going to
plunk a big powerful box in the school office. This would have been an enormous
expense at that time. Luckily, the school did not get the box and all the
attendant problems. Borsook correctly details how most tech donors think their
tools will solve most of the problems that society encounters, but that more
intractable social problems are ignored. Just look at the reaction of the G8
leaders who met in Japan recently. They endorsed a program from the World
Economic Forum which proposed "closing the digital divide" instead of a timely
reduction in debt.

Borsook makes a few comments about the colossus to the North, Bill Gates. She
describes the problems of United Way, an umbrella charity here in Santa Clara
County which, because of mismanagement was broke a while ago. A local new wealth
guy, Steve Kirsh of Infoseek, put up some money to bail out the charity and then
Bill Gates made a huge donation. The idea that Gates would make the local rich
look miserly prompted others to cough up the rest. She does not mention the
massive campaign of giving that the Gates Foundation has undertaken in programs
like library connectivity but also research into the unprofitable diseases that
affect the world's poor. Whatever you may think of Gates or his company, his
foundation is undertaking some significant projects unrelated to computers and
networks as well as many that are.

She does admit that some companies are donating stock options to charities and
organizations like the Community Foundation of Silicon Valley, but mostly she
describes the low rate of giving by the tech classes of the area, and she
chronicles the failure of a great idea that looked promising, the Lightworks
Technology Foundation, which wanted to "provide an efficient tax-deductible
means for corporations and individuals to set up endowments and provide
technology-related grants." She criticizes many of the philanthropic efforts as
only giving in-kind goods or funding for technology projects, but the Noyce
Foundation, which she says is not doing much yet, does fund basic education
programs in area schools, and these have no technology component - at least in
the school where my wife teaches. She also does not seem to realize that giving
away money may be harder to do well for some of these people than it was to earn
it. They really do care about the performance of their donations, and while some
want a good ROI in clear cut measurements, others just don't want to screw up
and look stupid. She is right that a lot of non-profits are busy fulfilling some
need that used to be met by local, state, or federal government. However, unless
the director is a high profile NGO superstar like Daniel Ben-Horin of
CompuMentor (which was nicknamed Rent-a-Nerd when it started on The WELL years
ago), those causes won't attract much funding, especially from the new rich in
the Valley.

Borsook has been keeping a very busy schedule. Her Web site provides a list of
the dozens of interviews and lectures she has been giving, as well as excerpts
of her book, some of the hilarious comments by readers ("Go to China, you
Socialist!"), and pointers to the favorable and unfavorable reviews. I certainly
recommend the book, but if you consider yourself a libertarian you will be
annoyed at her scrutiny and her conclusions. Others will find much to ponder:
how high tech values influence greater society, the role of government in an era
of low voter turnout and distrust, and how the flowering of other Silicon
Valleys may change the character of your own region or country.. - Steve Cisler.

URLs of interest : "Tulipomania" conference, a critique of the new
economy. : The Silicon Valley Cultures Project at
San Jose State University. : David Hudson's encounter with the author. : "Cyberselfish", the 1996
article from Mother Jones Magazine. : The book promotion site. : Borsook's home page.

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