Bullied nerds exact financial revenge


November 3, 2000

California: the world's seventh largest economy, home of good weather, bad weather, movie stars, high technology, wacky new fads and the San Andreas Fault.

Paulina Borsook, who used to describe herself as a "token ageing hippie feminist writing for Wired", surveys Silicon Valley with the frustration of a native who can no longer afford to live in her own city. Technolibertarianism is her word for the mix of arrogance, youth, distrust of governments and gun control, and love for the free market that refuses to accept that both the internet and the technology industry itself owe their existence to extensive government funding.

Cyberselfish began life as a rant/essay in which Borsook accused Silicon Valleyites of behaving like spoiled teenaged children of immigrant parents refusing to recognise their good fortune. The essay landed her a publishing contract with Wired Books, a relationship spoiled by comments she made about Wired founder Louis Rossetto (whose own libertarian leanings are well known) in a lengthy online interview. It has taken more than four years and three publishers for Cyberselfish to get into print. A couple of years ago, Borsook took to referring to it as "TDB" - "That Damned Book."

Some Silicon Valleyites have complained that Cyberselfish is dated, more about 1996 than today, for, since then, even Bill Gates has started to engage in sizeable philanthropy. But all non-fiction books describe a particular time and place. More disappointing is a writing style full of slashes and parenthetical asides.

In the trip from essay to book, Cyberselfish has acquired chapters on bionomics and the crypto wars, a close examination of the workings of philanthropy and labour in Silicon Valley, and a discussion of Wired before its purchase by Conde Nast and consequent loss of importance.

Borsook concludes that technolibertarianism is blind, selfish and cold, at least in part a way for grown adolescents to get revenge on the arty, better socialised kids who ostracised them in school. Oddly, she points to technological efforts to transcend being human as a kind of self-loathing; as if every religion throughout human history had not aimed at transcendence.

For her, "technolibertarian" is a cultural/religious more than a political mindset. She does not, for example, talk about whether techies are going to vote for Bush or Gore, but about their instinctive reaction to the Microsoft antitrust trial. Certainly, many companies cheered privately when the anti-Microsoft verdict came in, but, as Borsook points out, most of them are engaged in similar business practices, only without the power.

Yet, beyond highlighting the fact that a generation of rich, influential, smart geeks all automatically think government bad, free market good, the book never quite proves that technolibertarianism infects high-tech bastions away from the western corridor from San Jose to Seattle. If anything, Borsook says things are different in the old-time tech corridor along the Route 128 circle north of Boston. The real question is how thoroughly high-tech libertarianism will permeate policy in Washington, and although Borsook visits the city where you can smell the power instead of the electrons, she never quite nails down a prediction.

Wendy M. Grossman is the author of net.wars

Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian World of High-Tech

Author - Paulina Borsook
ISBN - 0 316 84771 2
Publisher - Little, Brown & Co
Price - £14.99

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