Reviewed 7/19/2011

Cyberselfish, by Paulina Borsook

Access to this book courtesy of the
San Jose, CA Public Library
cyberselfish 1
A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech
Paulina Borsook
New York: PublicAffairs, 2000




ISBN-13 978-1-891620-78-2
ISBN-10 1-891620-78-9 276pp. HC $24.00

Paulina Borsook developed a breezy, pile-up-the-hyphenated-strings-as-adjectives writing style in the course of her varied career. This made her a natural for Wired magazine, where she was a contributing writer "during the magazine's glory years" — meaning, presumably, before it was bought by Condé Nast. (Condé Nast is not indexed.) She has had an eclectic life and career, from descriptions she dribbles out in the course of her somewhat meandering narrative: growing up in Pasadena, working as a tech writer for various high-tech firms, on staff at Wired, freelancing for other magazines like Newsweek or Mother Jones and in a host of on-line publications.

The author devotes the major part of her narrative to a dissection of the libertarian mindset in high-tech Silicon Valley culture. Briefly described, libertarianism is the philosophy that governments are intrusions on the natural right of persons to conduct their affairs according to market principles, which inherently lead to fair deals for all concerned. This ignores the realities of how typical businesses behave. That is not the only contradiction which libertarianism fosters in its adherents; it can evoke a moralistic fervor which is as ignorant of human behavior as its central tenet is of business behavior. As Ms. Borsook notes with regard to one prominent libertarian:

"A worldview that equates Godhead with money but damns mass entertainment as impure (unexalted ribaldry has been around at least as long it seems as there have been written records, probably even longer; every era has its penny dreadfuls and its porn)—well, that's more the political and economic culture of a Singapore with maybe only slightly better movies, or of a China (prisoners make for a lean, disciplined, productive, nonunion workforce—and such entrepreneurial opportunities!) than the United States of Walt Whitman, John Huston, or REM."

– Pages 122-3

Libertarian culture, in its Silicon Valley instantiation, presented a desire for extreme freedom: the wish to get rich and having done so, to do exactly as one wished, with little to no regard for community. Per the standard libertarian mindset, government was anathema no matter what its policies happened to be; merely by existing, it interfered with liberty by imposing a tax burden and restrictive rules. The proper policy was for individuals and businesses to be left alone. One consequence of this attitude was that new companies in Silicon Valley donated very little to charity. Ms. Borsook describes in detail how, despite their oodles of cash, the new high-tech companies contributed little to United Way and other charitable organizations and causes, in sharp contrast to their older Silicon Valley counterparts. Indeed, as she documents, the less wealthy businesses and individuals were often more generous.

Another part of her analysis deals with "cypherpunk" — the segment of high-tech libertarians ardently defensive of privacy rights, hence devoted to cryptography (cyphers). Borsook takes the reader along to some of the many confabs she attended, beginning with Michael Rothschild's Bionomics conferences (which evolved into CFP), showing how they turned increasingly toward free-market fundamentalism and away from the complexities inherent in the real world. There was an insularity about these conferences and their attendees, a clubby mutual affirmation that they had made it and everybody else could fend for themselves. I must point out, however, that the cypherpunk resistance to U.S. government policies on cryptography was abundantly justified by the clueless heavy-handedness and counterproductive nature of those policies.

She also extends an homage to Wired as it was at its peak in 1995-6, praising it for its pace-setting style and its journalistic boldness. But she is critical of its embrace of libertarian positions and deplores it for its anti-woman attitudes. She was never loath to express these views during her tenure at the magazine. This led to some friction with management.

"In other words, it wasn't Wired to question whether technology was going to do anything other than bring good things to life and make us all healthy, wealthy, and wise. And if you thought otherwise, you certainly weren't wise and probably couldn't be wealthy."

– Pages 128-9

This book, then, is an extended rant against Silicon Valley's avaricious, workaholic culture, and against many of the people and institutions that embraced it — people like Michael Rothschild, George Gilder, and John Perry Barlow; institutions like the Bionomics Institute and Wired magazine. Borsook supports her points with abundant references to plays, non-fiction books, reports and newspaper stories; she is very well read. And those points are well taken; I endorse most of them. It is only her gonzo-journalism-affecting, obscure-reference-dropping, hipness that makes me knock the rating down one notch. That, and the too-frequent grammar, spelling and punctuation errors. (In this day and age, did no one use a spelling checker on this manuscript?) So, Ms. Borsook, you've got a must-read book here, but you get only a B+.

"As James Gibson explained, New Warriors have a continuing love affair with technowar and with what he has called "the hard variables of production as opposed to the soft variables of history, culture and motivations." These soft variables, as we all know, defeated the French and the United States in Vietnam and, in spite of how technology goes on careening in its madcap way, will continue to matter as much as they ever have."

– Page 111

1 I've tried here to reproduce the format used on the title page of the book. The avant-garde font and the italicizing of "selfish" are not apparent on the cover.
2 Paulina Borsook appears to have mixed feelings about Wired: admiring its early boldness and influence, loathing the shallowness and anti-woman attitudes that pervaded it. She says at the end of Chapter 3, "Only the superficial think style doesn't matter. Wired created style and, in doing so, set the pace for politics and religion among the geek class. It doesn't get any more important than that. And I'll remain one of the many whose heart was broken by the promise of Wired." (page 171)
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