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Home / Book Reviews / Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech
Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech
by Paulina Borsook
ISBN: 1891620789
Publisher: Public Affairs
Publication Year: 2000
Publisher Price: $ 13.00
Cover Type: softcover

A local technology expert was quoted in Mountain Xpress [Vol 7, No. 29] as saying that Asheville's ambiance-or lack thereof-might provide the perfect creative atmosphere for software developers and other technology engineers: "The ideal job for a guy in the technology business ... is a job where he has flexible hours, he's in a creative environment such as downtown, where he can bring his dog to work and have a hammock in his office and go kayaking on his lunch break."

Is there anything wrong with this heartwarming portrait of a technogeek and his dog?

Paulina Borsook thinks so, at least in connection with the technogeek. Her book doesn't say anything negative about dogs, thank goodness. But Borsook's Cyberselfish should be mandatory reading for all economic developers, and for anyone else who might be fooled by such a deceptively benign portrait of your average technogeek.

Cyberselfish is a passionate, thoughtful, yet hilarious critique of a culture whose pretensions to dysfunctional weirdo-cool will be hyped and celebrated so long as it makes money for other people. But until Cyberselfish came along, the mean-spirited, misogynistic, solipsistic, and irretrievably greedy aspects of this deeply flawed culture remained obscured-and the geeks want to keep it that way. Thus the paradox that compelled Borsook's critique: the creators and guardians of the Information Age want you to be able to find out everything about everyone but themselves.

In Cyberselfish, Borsook's assessment of a particularly malignant tech industry mind-set is in equal measure highly entertaining and deeply disturbing. Her term for this mind-set -- technolibertarianism -- is defined as a "pseudo-religion" formed by "the juxtaposition of Ayn Rand enthusiasm with high-tech entrepreneurship." The authenticity of her experience with high-tech culture strikes home within the book's first few pages. Borsook was a contributing writer at Wired during its heyday, as well as a prolific writer whose work has frequently appeared both in print and in on-line publications such as Newsweek, Mother Jones, San Francisco, salon, suck, and feed.

For years, she haunted Silicon Valley raves, fired combat shotguns with billionaire owners, and tried, unsuccessfully, to put an end to the insufferably tight-fisted high-tech version of philanthropy which she describes in her book as "The Cat-Dead Rat Phenomenon." This phenomenon works like this: computer companies that make billions show their benevolence by giving away almost zero-cost software and outdated computers to jobless and homeless people because they are incapable of perceiving anyone's wants or needs but their own, just as a cat can't understand why its human companion doesn't appreciate dead rats dropped on the front doorstep as gifts. But then, as Borsook points out, at least cats don't subsequently demand, as a reward for their good deeds, tax write-offs and hands-off marketing policies from a government they love to hate, as do the high-techs.

While the tone of Cyberselfish is every bit as smart and hip and fast-paced as those high-tech ads would want us to believe the totally wired (or now wireless) lifestyle could be if we bought all their stuff, there is nevertheless an underlying bitterness to Borsook's complaints. Yet this bitterness actually strengthens her observations by grounding them in that timeless human enterprise, disillusionment. Her sense of disappointment seems to persist after the delightful wordplay and wisecracks subside, like the bathtub ring after a bubble bath. The poignancy of discovering that she is a Misfit Toy in the ultimate Misfit Toyland saves this book from being just another flippant, adjective-laden, invective-rich, throwaway-type rant that people like her often post to on-line discussion groups, and that people like me attempt to insert in certain book reviews. Her insider-as-outsider status is not just a journalistic technique, however. Rather, her very conspicuousness in Geek Central forms the heart of her own misgivings about a woman's place in cyberspace, and it is the source of her inspiration for the most compelling arguments and character portraits offered in her book.

From time to time, Borsook does resort to an avowal of ignorance or naiveté that seems too dramatic-too forced-to be a genuine reaction from someone as quick-witted and clear-eyed as she obviously is. The result is oversimplification and weakened arguments.

For example, she pretends to have arrived, almost by accident, at the following realization: the main reason for the astonishingly quick acceptance of and enthusiasm for the peculiar beliefs and practices of cyberculture is because cyberculture is the apotheosis of a 15-year old boy's idea of paradise. Whether you agree with this notion or not, you know after reading the first five pages of this book that this was not an idea she had to struggle with at all. Later on, she does qualify this assertion by suggesting that the psychological age of the movers and shakers of cyberculture may only be that of 15 year-old. Indeed, Bill Gates and Newt Gingrich immediately come to mind. Furthermore, she also notes that computer engineers are still predominantly male, and that the Internet still reflects a pervasive "men's locker-room"-type sanctuary for their claims of entitlement and exclusivity-and for their tirades or "flames" against women. As Borsook writes:

If you think about it, PC-based libertarianism can also be reframed as the mind-set of adolescents, with their deep wish for total rampaging autonomy and desire for simple, call-to-arms passionate politics, where Good and Bad are clearly delineated-taking for granted that someone else does the laundry and stocks the refrigerator . . . . [T]echnolibertarians take for granted the richness of the environment they have flourished in and resent the hell out of the constraints that bind them

Borsook is at her best when she's pissed off at being dismissed as the smart bratty girl who wants to tell the teacher about the boys' stinky science experiment that's gone terribly wrong. She delights and instructs as she attacks the ludicrous, self-congratulatory claims of daring and machismo made by this heavily subsidized subculture, a subculture that was, prior to the 1990's, regarded negatively -- if at all -- as a haven for people so detached from reality and so uncomfortable with human interaction that theirs was an endangered status only one keystroke away from requiring medical intervention for their suspected agoraphobic or autistic tendencies.

Cyberculture's bias away from humanity and toward machinery has many ramifications, and most of them are destructive, as Cyberselfish amply suggests. The problems posed by human interactions that are almost wholly predicated on the knowledge, use, or contemplated purchase of electronic gadgets have already been covered in other works such as Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil and Stephen L. Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute. But Borsook's arguments have a greater resonance because she responds to the arrogance and hostility of high-tech culture personally, viscerally, instinctively-and then refutes their claims intellectually.

Although she perceives cyberculture to be inimical to empathy, intuition, non-violence, altruism, and true cooperation, Borsook does not want to repudiate the benefits already delivered by the engineers of our vast information and imaging systems-even if the same engineers are cyberselfish about everything else. In other words, she seems to imply that sometimes receiving a dead rat from a cat is better than receiving nothing at all. Borsook is neither newbie nor Luddite, and she invites us to laugh at the follies of the high-tech industry while keeping a sharp eye on our own culpability-as consumers, as citizens, as voters-in allowing cyberselfish agendas to go unchallenged. Cyberselfish is a funny, furious, and extremely "user friendly" book that reminds us that even in the 21st century, the most human trait of all is to try and escape the burdens of our humanity.

© Copyright 2001 by KNS Maré