Book Review: Valley Girl Sez: Libertarianism Sux! Donna Ladd A review of Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech by Paulina Borsook
Paulina Borsook must be your garden-variety libertarian geek's worst nightmare. She proudly calls herself a Luddite but can mix memes with the best of them; she skewers Silicon Valley from Santa Clara County outward (and with style); she is an uppity woman who knows how to hit below the belt, and draw attention doing it. And along the way, she can turn a gonzo phrase or two, and dish enough significant Valley dirt to make outsiders start jotting notes in their Visors about the dangers of "techno-libertarianism."
I wasn't so sure about Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech at first. As an "outsider" who comes at technology commentary from a cultural perspective, and who regularly gets flamed for favoring the e-rate and Internet taxation, and for questioning gods like Microsoft and Apple and even Napster, I craved a book like this.
The word "cyberselfish" captures so well the hypocrisy I have observed in the high-tech world in the last five years. And knowing that Borsook was a Wired writer in its rah-rah-tech heyday gave me further hope for an unflinching look at the arrogant world of high-technology politics. Borsook's polemic did not disappoint, although it took a little time to convince me she was doing more than showcasing her vocabulary, her rakish wit and her inside knowledge of what tech-freaks like to do in their spare time.
Valley archetypes on parade
She starts by describing the techie tribes -- cyberpunks (modern-day warriors), cypherpunks, ("crypto rebels"), nerverts (fetish, D&D-cum-S&M), extropians ("radical optimists) -- and their gods (John Perry Barlow, George Gilder, Ayn Rand and even Robert Heinlein). Thankfully, though, Borsook still has her eyes on the prize throughout her "romp" through the stereotypes (which are right on, by most accounts).
Borsook gives a quick lesson in Bionomics, the underlying theorem for Silicon Valley techno-libertarianism, as she disdainfully calls the no-regulation-except-when-it-helps-us technology mindshare. Bionomics, in essence, is a belief in "simple rules, complex behaviors" that promotes capitalism to the hilt, even in its most pitiless forms. It persists through today, she says.
"[M]ost guys for whom the system of start-up and cash-out works really well don't usually spend lots of time thinking about that system," is one of her incredibly obvious statements about the cruel underbelly of Silicon Valley. "It's a comfort to believe everything does best if left alone."
Borsook really struts when showing how the Valley grew from seeds of government largesse - government-backed bank loans for Valley homes, veterans' mortgages, Dataphone, ASCII, Arpanet, Internet-tax moratorium, H-1B visas, research-and-development tax credits and on through today. And she wallops the Valley boys for being too shallow, selfish and even socially inept to learn how to repay the community through philanthropy, a pitiful state she admits is changing -- albeit gradually and under duress.
To her credit, Borsook likes to give credit where it is due. She sings the praises of the long-giving Hewlett and Packard foundations and even T. J. Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor, who takes other tech companies to task for slobbering after corporate welfare, and has one of the more impressive Valley community-giving histories.
A high-tech Hemingway
Borsook does disappoint at times. Her writing, while following the gonzo-journalist tradition, can be just too Cartoon Network. I really never need to read the words "yes indeedybob" and the spelling "sooper." She is a bit too hyper-frenetic-Valley girl for a national audience. Her sentences are filled with parentheticals, asides, style experimentation and pop-culture references ad nauseum. Her cuteness exhausted me, like I had just finished a marathon of several Tom Robbins novels in a single sitting. One sentence: While terrific at being at being the choleric punky watchdogs against governmentthat they are (one of my cypherpunk pals defined cypherpunks as 'radical pro-privacy activists.' So be it), cypherpunks, particularly in their acid-nightmares ofgovernment ninjas dressed in black bursting through their doors at 3 a.m., personifywhat the Jungians call the Shadow -- meaning, the dark side of stuff that you don'twant to deal with, the repressed, stunted and unexpressed aspects of personal andcommunity life.
Pass me a shot of Stoli. That there is some piece of writin'. As I heard advised by some stodgy fashion doyenne years ago, the author could do well to back up from the mirror and lose at least one accessory.
Luckily, the language smoothes out a little as you go, or you just get used to Borsook's Clever New Material World (she likes random capitalization, too.) Then you can add some vermouth to your vodka and enjoy Borsook's enlightening expose of the boys of Silicon Valley.
And she does mean the boys -- the "adolescents," in fact. Thankfully, in an Internet world filled with paranoid men who lash and bristle at any mention of anything remotely feminist, Borsook aims between the eyes of high-tech chauvinism. We all know it: Technology is largely a boys' world, and Borsook believes most silicon alpha males would like to keep it that way -- or at least limit it to women with Seven-of-Nine Borg sex appeal. She argues that women are leaving the tech industry at twice the rate of men precisely because its smirky techno-libertarian devotion turns them off.
Most of Borsook's geeks-are-pigs comments, though, are shielded in the chapter about her previous employer, Wired magazine. Borsook does call the early, pre-Conde Nast Wired the "Daily Worker for the libertarian technical elite" and accuses it of light censorship. Yet she still seems bedazzled with Wired's early power to speak to a burgeoning, albeit morally challenged cult of nerds, giving them the ultimate media-soaked revenge.
Geeky and introspective
In the end, after repeatedly stooking techno-libertarians' crass brand of social Darwinism, Borsook shows she is no fan of stupid government, either, apparently realizing that Santa Clara County does not hold the patent on selfish hypocrites. (Like, say, Republicans skewering the Justice Department for trying to guard the free market from a lecherous Microsoft; like, say, President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno leading the charge for a doomed Communications Decency Act.)
Borsook ultimately reeled in my vote -- for her store of sheer knowledge, her compassion, her estrogen-soaked balls. She expounds what most of us, save the most zealous, know already: There is a place for government (ensuring competition, enabling universal phone service, educating kids and future American tech workers, protecting the environment). And she knows government should not lurk in other places (the war against drugs and prostitutes, reading our e-mail, censoring the Internet).
Most importantly, Borsook warns that while newbies of other political persuasions are invading high technology, techno-libertarianism still endangers community, compassion and small bookstores. "The you-can-count-on-it libertarian presence in high tech is as persistent as the presence of pro-lifers at a Republican convention," she writes in her conclusion.
Borsook's crowning achievement: Showing you can be a geek and still question high-tech's blind, libertarian religion. Yes indeedybob.
Donna Ladd writes about technology and politics for the Village Voice, Salon, Feed, Working Woman and the Silicon Alley Reporter. E-mail her at <mailto:donna at shutup101.com>donna at shutup101.<mailto:donna at shutup101.com>com.
Related Links For information and reviews of Borsook's book, check out <http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1891620789/qid%3D965244448/102-6865146-0312114>Amazon.<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1891620789/qid%3D965244448/102-6865146-0312114>com. Visit the official Cyberselfish home page for excerpts from the book and information about the author. Brad Wieners comments on Borsook's book in Salon.com. Twilight of the crypto-geeks: Ellen Ullman considers. Read an article by Borsook about how the Internet has "ruined San Francisco."