Time warp

In "Cyberselfish," Paulina Borsook denounces high-tech culture as pitiless, egotistical and libertarian. She was right in 1996.


Brad Wieners
May 4, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

Only after I'd read well into Paulina Borsook's "Cyberselfish" and grown quite grumpy with it (the entire time I was reading, I felt trapped in late 1996) did it occur to me that most of the readers of this spirited book-length essay might not experience this time warp -- not as severely, anyway. Nor would they likely know or care about the circumstances that contributed to its being dated-on-arrival. Some readers, I realized, might even pick it up without a predisposition toward its author. This was an astonishing thought.

Whether you were at the center or periphery of the San Francisco/South Park and Silicon Valley office park circles Borsook chronicles in "Cyberselfish," it's almost assured you met her or read one of her rants, including the essay for Mother Jones that launched this book. For those who didn't, Borsook is a lively, well-read, sarcastic writer who's infamous for pissing on the inside for all to see (mostly while as a contributor to Wired magazine, where -- full disclosure -- I worked) and for getting some things said that are on a lot of minds, but that are not getting said.

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She's especially talented at sketching caricatures and does so throughout "Cyberselfish," where we meet a host of cypherpunks and nerverts (nerds who indulge in unusual sex), ravers and gilders, entrepreneurial newts and programming flamingos. Her sketches are true enough that you nod and think, yeah, I know the type. Indeed, at its best, "Cyberselfish" reads like the "Radical Chic" of mid-1990s San Francisco.

Problem is, this strength also highlights the book's flaw: Her sketches are snapshots of a moment that has come and gone. A large part of the reason for this involves the book's rocky publishing history. "Cyberselfish" was originally set to be published three years ago by Hardwired, the now-defunct imprint of Wired Ventures, but the book bounced to Broadway Books when Borsook had a falling-out with Wired, and then to Public Affairs, a new division of Perseus Books, after a falling-out with Broadway. But a lot has changed since 1996.

How very long ago it seems that Phil Zimmerman, facing jail for distributing Pretty Good Privacy's encryption software, was the poster boy for the Internet. (Many of today's dot-commies probably don't even know who he is.) Today, it's all about Steve Case, Jeff Bezos and Meg Whitman. And now, rather than heroic defiance of government, some of these players are inviting the government to regulate their industries. Had Borsook recast her book as a portrait of the early, heady days of the Web, she might have had something -- the next hot "anti-memoir." Instead she overstates her case with stale evidence.

Borsook contends that "the default political culture of high tech" is small-l libertarian, and because high-tech players are amassing so much wealth and power, their technolibertarianism poses a threat to civil society and all-American ideals like good public schools. According to Borsook, technolibertarianism ranges from "classic eighteenth century liberal philosophy of that-which-governs-best-governs-least [and] love of laissez-faire free market economics to social Darwinism, anarcho-capitalism, and beyond." It manifests itself in an embarrassing lack of philanthropy and "rebel-outsider" posturing such as the "crypto wars" (the ongoing debate between technologists and the federal government over how best to encrypt digital data and therefore protect the privacy of computer users).

The "ravingly anti-government" rhetoric of the attendees of CFP (the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference) also strikes Borsook as appallingly ironic since the Internet, like so many technologies that underlie the recent economic boom, was subsidized and cultivated by government agencies.

"Much as there are two forms of the plague -- bubonic (less contagious and not necessarily lethal) and pneumonic (violently infectious and almost always fatal), technolibertarianism manifests in two forms: political and philosophical," she writes. The political strain, she says, is mostly just "convenient obliviousness" to the need for governance and giving back. It is often latent, or even denied. "I can't count the number of times," Borsook writes, "I've gotten into a discussion with a thoughtful, sweet high-tech guy about something where he will snort disdainfully about how he's not a libertarian ... and then will come right out with a classic libertarian statement about the el stewpido government or the wonders of market disciplines or whatever. It's rather like women who say, 'I'm not a feminist but I do believe in equal pay for equal work.'"

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Philosophical technolibertarianism, Borsook argues, is the pneumonic strain. It's "psychologically brittle, prepolitical autism," she warns. "It bespeaks a lack of human connection and a discomfort with the core of what many consider 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." Momma, don't let your babies grow up to be John Perry Barlow!

In the chapters that follow, she takes us to the incubators and hot zones of this plague. She attends the since-discontinued bionomics conferences; examines Wired during its first five years; takes us inside the cypherpunk subculture. Then she discusses the prospects for "cybergenerosity," explores the origins of technolibertariansim, and concludes with a bit of "what then must we do?"

As you might gather from her plague metaphor, Borsook is not much in favor of technolibertarianism. Elsewhere she calls it a conspiracy (with a parenthetical wink) and a demon. Since I am essentially a small-l liberal, it didn't bother me that she presumes that right-leaning technolibertarianism is frightful, but others will understandably balk at this. There are a number of thoughtful arguments that can be made to support the contention that free markets have done more to relieve poverty than anything a government ever has, and Borsook doesn't address herself to these at all. Rather, she argues that unchecked technolibertarianism threatens ill, if not catastrophic, consequences. We must read her book, she implies, to inoculate ourselves.

Well. Some problems present themselves even before she really gets started. For one thing, by "high tech," Paulina really means Silicon Valley -- even more specifically, those involved in the San Francisco Bay Area high-tech field who participated actively in online forums during the first years of the Web (1993-1998). In little more than a paragraph she acknowledges that technolibertarianism is not as much of a pox in and around Boston's Route 128, nor is it leading to sick days at Microsoft -- a corporate culture too "feudal," in Borsook's estimation, to promote virulent dissent.

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The brevity with which she deals with Microsoft is doubly frustrating. First, because the Justice Department vs. Microsoft is the most visible and profound contest between free market values in high tech and the government, and second because she neglects to explore the complicated feelings anti-Microsoft technolibertarians have about the proceedings. Generalizing, of course, most Silicon Valley machers are pleased to see Gates taking it on the chin, and yet you won't catch them saying so on the record -- there'd be too much hubris in that.

Many CEOs know in their hearts that they would have done what Gates did to build and secure his market share. Many are also aware that they operate, albeit on a much smaller scale, just as Microsoft does. They too make aggressive acquisitions and bundle previously independent software applications to add value to their product suites. In fact, this was even true of Netscape, the company Microsoft crushed and that put Justice on to Microsoft.

An even greater problem is that Borsook has us spend too much time coloring in a map of yesterday that does not correspond to today's territory. For instance, she's right that bionomics -- using biological metaphors in business strategy, economy as ecology -- has become more pervasive. But it has not gone mainstream merely as a way to justify winners and losers in the new economy, in cold-blooded survival-of-the-fittest fashion. In fact, perhaps the most mainstream book on this theme to date, Jane Jacob's "The Nature of Economies," is primarily concerned with the ethics of the bionomics worldview.

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The best part of Borsook's book is her hilarious treatment of cypherpunks. These "radical pro-privacy activists," she writes, view the government as "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." Ha! And I couldn't agree with her more that cypherpunks ought to concern themselves more with the invasive tendencies of corporations and their one-to-one marketing schemes. And yet, for as often as she points out that the cypherpunk worldview is essentially adolescent, she doesn't give these heroes-of-their-own-space-operas hope of ever growing up. Why?

Borsook also undercuts her own thesis by raising the possibility that the "crypto wars" were a "charming excess of the recent past." She dismisses the idea, but I'd contend that's exactly right, and that the crypto fervor of '94-'96 is akin to day-trading now. Many get caught up in it for awhile, but all but a few burn out on it soon enough. Meanwhile, we now have companies as high profile as eBay voluntarily banning the sale of firearms from their service.

By far the most problematic chapter for me is her third, where Borsook is at risk of becoming the Renata Adler of Wired. (My strong reaction to this section was predictable. I was an editor at Wired before and after its sale to Condi Nast in the spring of 1998. I left the magazine in December 1999.) Borsook does not go in for the personal attacks Adler advanced on her former New Yorker colleagues, but she seems to yearn for the early Wired even as she disparages it.

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In its "glory years," she writes, Wired was "mostly libertarian, largely in denial that there could be anything wrong with high tech, and dismal with women." In short, Wired broke her heart, and discovering why helped her to see the magazine as Patient Zero of the technolibertarian plague. She doesn't have to work too hard to make her case that Wired, circa 1994 (when she was at her most active as a contributor), espoused libertarian ideas and values. It did. While its founding editor, Louis Rossetto, is too singular a political creature to absolutely pigeonhole (he did, for example, refuse to run any tobacco advertising in Wired), he definitely thought governments were backward, sclerotic institutions that needed some reverse engineering. So Rossetto could be called a libertarian certainly, and sometimes even a vociferous one.

But it's 2000 now, and even though Borsook acknowledges three or more times that Wired is no longer the technolibertarian typhoon it once was, she'd have us believe that it is still thought of as such and so we can ignore the particulars or significance of how it has evolved. This is not only lazy, but misleading -- and the only real explanation I can think of for her reluctance "to go to the text" of Wired in the last two years is that it would so thoroughly contradict her thesis.

Not only are Wired's editor in chief and managing editor now women, so, too, is its chief political correspondent. None are especially dismal with women. I can confirm that many Wired readers were fed up with the magazine's over-the-top libertarianism before Rossetto departed and Wired sold to Condi Nast -- and the magazine was listening to their feedback. And as imperfect a mirror of Silicon Valley mores as Wired may be, it has since reflected more of the very concerns Borsook first raised four years ago, including high tech's record on philanthropy and efforts to improve it. Even more remarkably, Wired now publishes essays by technologists like Bill Joy that openly question our faith in progress.

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"High tech's animosity toward government and regulation," Borsook asserts early on, "goes beyond the animosity that exists in most of the general population, and is stridently opposed to other views." This may be true, but she never comes to close to making a convincing argument for her case.

I now live in Santa Fe, N.M. Hang with a Santa Fean in an off-the-grid "earth ship" (a house made of rammed dirt and used tires, heated with solar panels), drive around in a bashed-and-dinged Subaru with an eco-nut who lobbied to reintroduce wolves to the Southwestern desert, or sit down for a beer next to a guy who shot elk last weekend and whose pickup sports a "My President is Charlton Heston" bumper sticker, and you could quickly develop a sense that New Mexico is overrun with ravingly anti-government libertarians at both ends of the political spectrum. And the government is the leading employer here. (Well, maybe there's your explanation.)

Of course, this assessment is based only on a few first impressions. Still, the contrast between New Mexico monkey-wrenchers and rednecks who really do seem to hold libertarian views, and the high-tech workers who don't, led me to think about what broader trends Borsook overlooked. And here's what I came to: She fails to take into account just how young the people who staff the Internet industry really are and how fleeting their libertarian convictions really are. At least as an all-encompassing set of political ideals, technolibertarianism, in my experience, is mostly a phase young dot-commies go through. The market has made them loaded overnight and technolibertarian rhetoric becomes their way of justifying their bank account and saying, how do you like me now that I'm money?

Remember: The kids who bum-rushed San Francisco's high-tech start-ups in the last five to 10 years (many of whom are my peers; I'm 32), graduated college cynical about the Reagan and Milken years and smack into the middle of the Bush recession (1990-92). The Web had not yet become the Full Employment Act it soon became for MBAs and "liberal arts flakes" alike.

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Then, quite suddenly, my friends and I went from being told we'd never improve on our parents' standard of living, that we were a generational bad apple, to playing moguls-in-the-wings, pundits on TV. Friends who marched with me against the Gulf War were suddenly clad in biz-dev blue and tone-on-tone ties and sporting new suits from Ann Taylor, pulling 100K plus options.

Material success -- and we got to act like mavericks, too. It went to our heads, and then we got head-hunted. We popped off like we had no one to thank but ourselves -- like silver-spoon libertarians, even -- after all, everyone had been telling us what slackers we were.

Now, I'm not saying there aren't some certifiable militia-ready technolibertarian assholes out there among my peers -- there may be some who even claim Charlton Heston as their prez. But too many of the swing votes, the ones that could really turn technolibertarianism into an epidemic, are my sort of "make the world a better place for all" guilty yuppie bohos. We weren't actually born with silver spoons in our mouths, and we'll come around.

It's been a few years, sure, since we volunteered at the Haight Ashbury free clinic, but many of my peers wrote me e-mails about the WTO protests in Seattle full of misgivings and surprisingly pleased that Clinton scuttled the talks. They are constantly self-assessing. As they start families (and they are, too, like bunnies), I'm confident their mid- to late-30s will reveal them as, at the very least, bigger and bigger technolibertarian hypocrites; sniping about what idiots elected officials are and how they can't be trusted to grok and regulate high tech, even as they rely more on, and, crucially, begin to pay for improved community services. I'd even bet Borsook some underwater IPO shares that they start carping less about public key cryptography, and more about the quality of the local public elementary school.

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Brad Wieners

Brad Wieners is a former Wired senior editor. He left Wired in December 1999 to work at Outside. He lives in New York.

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