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

Author: Paulina Borsook
Publisher: New York: Public Affairs, 2001
Review Published: September 2001

 REVIEW 1: Aimée Morrison
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Paulina Borsook

Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech is freelancer Paulina Borsook's cri de coeurto Silicon Valley. The book springs from two of the author's earlier articles on the high tech zeitgeist, "Sex and the Single URL," posted on suck.com, and "Cyberselfish," which appeared in Mother Jones. Both pieces struck chords with -- and plucked the nerves of -- netizen readers with their identification of distinct cultural mores among the Silicon Valley digerati. In Cyberselfish, Borsook argues that these mores reflect a dominant ideology of California high-tech that she names technolibertarianism.

In this review, I will evaluate Borsook's concept to two purposes: is it plausible? And if so, to whom might this text and concept be most useful? Then I will turn my attention to those aspects of Cyberselfish I feel are most interesting to cyberculture scholars: namely, Borsook's extravagant prose style, and the ways in which this style and the author's multiple identifications work to make Cyberselfish a truly interdisciplinary text.

Borsook's 'technolibertarianism' diverges as much as derives from standard Libertarianism, and the author's reworking of this politics and philosophy for the purposes of left-leaning social critique has angered some traditionally-defined Libertarians. However, unable to find a better bucket-word, Borsook chooses to retain 'libertarianism' as a base for her critique, repurposing the term as a lower-case generality which she argues is no more vague or broad than vernacular usages of 'hierarchical' or 'democratic.'

It is from this more general definition of libertarianism that Borsook asserts that, regardless of explicit individual political or philosophical affiliation, "libertarianism is a computer-culture badge of belonging, and libertarians are the most vocal political thinkers and talkers in high tech" (7). Borsook's coinage of 'technolibertarianism' derives from this observation, and the term is used as an evocative shorthand reference to a largely unexamined, seemingly commonsensical cluster of related beliefs and practices that she finds undergirding the culture of high tech.

Cyberselfish's introductory chapter taxonomizes particularly techno-libertarian modes of thinking and being, and outlines the author's unease at the ways these beliefs and practices are shifting the culture of high tech towards unmitigated technocracy. Borsook first differentiates between political and philosophical modes: political technolibertarianism often manifests itself in apathy toward organized politics, and considers itself Democratic as often as Republican; philosophical technolibertarianism, much more dangerous, is a full-blown individualist, market-based ideology parading around as common sense. Technolibertarian subjects, also, hail from two seemingly contradictory identity categories: 'ravers' look like cyberpunks, love crypto, and are often humanities dropouts with multiple body piercings; 'gilders,' on the other hand, support unimpeded global capitalism and more traditional gender roles, and are named for social conservative George Gilder.

Certainly, this taxonomy is a little counterintuitive. More often than not, technolibertarians as distinguished in Cyberselfish fail to self-identify as such. However, whereas Borsook considers that this dis-identification is immaterial to the validity of her point, and that it works to prove rather than disprove the pervasiveness of technolibertarianism, her detractors disagree. And this identification is the crux of the book: the passionate cry that Borsook makes in Cyberselfish is that the climate of technolibertarianism in Silicon Valley is a monoculture fatal to any other than free market values and those (mostly white, well-educated, male, entrepreneurial, workaholic) persons who hold them. If you fail to be convinced that technolibertarianism as described in the introduction is the Weltanshauung of high tech, the rest of Cyberselfish is going to read like so much anecdotal conspiracy-theorizing, or the manifestation of authorial sour grapes.

I, for one, am convinced that Cyberselfish correctly diagnoses technolibertarian fire from the smoke rising from Bionomics, cypherpunkery, the 'business-porn' tone of Wired, Silicon Valley corporate misanthropy, and the like. I have felt the vague unease that the author notes among older Valley workers and transplanted humanists, the deep soul-tiredness of muttering 'the emperor has no clothes' to oneself as another techno-evangelist spouts scary right-wing rhetoric and calls it the utopian future. For readers similarly uneasy, Cyberselfish offers succor and the strength to carry on with one's vilified humanistic enterprise.

However, touchy-feely leftist-feminist humanist literature professor or not, to really benefit from this port-in-a-storm, it's best if you've personally suffered the effects of technolibertarian weather-fronts. That is, this text is probably most useful to readers well-versed in the very libertarian subjectivities, cultures, and texts that Borsook is writing against: the diagnosis and analysis of technolibertariansim in its many guises and habitats is sure to be more plausible if you've read a lot of Bruce Sterling, Nicholas Negroponte, and John Perry Barlow than if you haven't. Also, a firm grounding in the particularly West-Coast high tech culture that Cyberselfish describes offers purchase on the slippery terrain laid out by the dizzyingly vast scope of Borsook's references, asides, pop-cultural analogies, literary metaphors, and digital-era prose style.

This style deserves to be addressed here. In keeping with the passion of her ideas, Borsook's prose is more heated and urgent than academic readers may be accustomed to. Cyberselfish is peppered with pop-culture, high-culture, and tech-culture references, only a very few of which the author pauses to explain. She argues important points in parenthetic asides. Her use of inflammatory modifiers is, to say the least, immoderate. She mixes metaphors with great imagination, and engages occasionally in phonetic spelling. Some of the sentences make more sense if you read them out loud. While the resulting, vivid prose of Cyberselfish is a treat to read, Borsook's hyperbolic style, like her telegraphic and slap-dash re-writing of Libertarianism, leaves her open to misinterpretation and dismissal by serious readers.

Cyberselfish thus enacts a dilemma relevant to all cyberculture scholars: how should critics write about the digital era, whose proponents are so prone to hyperbole and utopianism, and who claim to be founding a whole new world that rejects traditional academic critical writing as outmoded and hopelessly dated? Vivian Sobchack, writing about writing about Mondo 2000, outlines the cybercultural critic's dilemma: "On the one hand, academic style would be ridiculous and ironically at odds with the technofrenzy it claimed to comprehend; on the other, a more vernacular style keeps veering toward the mimetic use of alliteration, hyperbole, 'hipness' and . . . 'prose bites'" (139). This mimetic tendency, Sobchack continues, also has the unhappy effect of replicating the object of critique's "easy indulgences at the same time that it would call them into account" (139). Whether Cyberselfish crosses this line I leave to the individual reader to determine; positive reviews have called Borsook's style fresh, while negative ones lambaste her for 'silliness.'

Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age, though, counsels writers to 'play with voice' (principle 2), 'flaunt [their] subcultural literacy' (principle 3), 'capture the colloquial' (principle 5), and 'be irreverent' (principle 7) in order to attain legitimacy among digerati (Hale and Scanlon 7-14). Borsook, her own "Sex and the Single URL" offered as an example of ideal style, admirably deploys digital-era informality to a critical purpose in Cyberselfish. The hyberbolic prose excesses of the book are, in fact, grounded in vast reading, solid research, and personal experience in the culture it critiques.

Borsook is obviously well-read in the canon of high tech, and Cyberselfish gains street cred from her familiarity with Alvin Toffler, George Gilder, Tim May, and the many Usenet and WELL conferences that make up the great virtual space of Silicon Valley. The author also draws on extensive research in more formal and academic venues, evidencing her 'feminist/humanist/skeptic' background. Marx, Jung, Max Weber, C. P. Snow, and Pauline Kael make appearances to shed some humanist light on the perceived technolibertarian darkness. In addition, Borsook makes use of publicly- and privately-funded research reports and statistics to factually counter some of the cherished beliefs of technolibertarians.

Cyberselfish is further enriched by the anecdotal reports the author distills from formal interviews, from conversations stemming from personal relationships, and from her general immersion in the technolibertarian zeitgeist. Borsook has a twenty-year work/life relationship with Silicon Valley, and in this sense Cyberselfish is an insider report. The author outlines her high-tech credentials in Mother Jones: "my first job at a software company, 1981; first job at a computer magazine, 1983; attendance at the first commercial conference devoted to the Internet, 1987; token feminist/humanist/skeptic on the masthead of Wired magazine, 1993" (Mojo Wire). However, Borsook also proudly asserts her humanities background, proclaiming that she's published poetry in tiny journals even she has forgotten the names of.

In any case, Cyberselfish is a sustained and laudable attempt to speak across the technolibertarian/humanist divide, and on this account alone the book is worth a read for cyberculture scholars similarly straddling multiple disciplinary and institutional boundaries. Borsook may preach most successfully to the converted, but she has certainly taken it upon herself to reach those about whom she writes as well. It must be working, because Cyberselfish has been extensively reviewed in the lay- and industry-targeted popular press, by national and local papers, alternative weeklies, online tech mags, and glossy magazines. Borsook herself has an impressive public reading and speaking schedule.

Cyberselfish is a truly interdisciplinary text that tries to speak in two languages at once -- humanities geek and high-tech geek. Neil Postman, in the introduction to his Technopoly, discerns this divide as well: taking Charles Snow to task for institutional myopia, Postman asserts "the argument is not between humanists and scientists but between technology and everybody else" (xii). Cyberselfish probes the fault lines along this chasm, trying to figure out, from a more humanist perspective, what makes the technolibertarian mind tick, and taking steps to refute the underlying ideology.

In many ways, Postman's and Borsook's texts address similar topics, from similar political and philosophical points of view; Cyberselfish, though, moves from the personal to the political, while Technopolydoes the reverse. Postman's book offers a great diachronic sweep from the Stone Age to the Digital Age; Borsook's text is a critical, engaged, synchronic view of life-as-lived-in-the-trenches, and is, in my opinion, just as valuable.

Borsook, Paulina, "Cyberselfish," Mother Jones (July/August, 1996).

Aimée Morrison:
Aimée Morrison is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Alberta. She continues to work on her dissertation, "Becoming the Universal Machine: Creating the Personal Computer in 1980s Literary and Popular Culture." She read Ayn Rand at 17, and is now thoroughly over it. 

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