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Cyberselfish

Paulina Borsook

A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech

(Public Affairs Books)

The Brat Wrote Computer Code

Even with the rise and collapse of the dotcom as a “sexy” industry, the perception of most of the code warriors in the business and in the rest of high tech remains unchanged. Not all of them are the unwashed geeks (in the original bite-the-heads-off-chickens meaning of the term) of cliché, but high tech’s tendency to distance itself from society is profound. Whether it’s the programmer who loudly advocates concealed and open handgun possession in the workplace, the middle manager who simply cannot understand why putting copyrighted “Star Trek” images all over a corporate document is wrong, or the upper manager who screams about excessive government interference when times are good but expects federal handouts when his flimsily conceived dotcom tanks, those who don’t obviously label themselves as libertarians certainly see themselves in the definition of the word. While plenty of books glorify the high tech lifestyle, Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish looks at the factors that contribute to high tech’s often baffling attitudes.


Borsook’s main theme is that high tech remains a boys’ club, with emphasis on “boys”—far too many people in tech culture act like spoiled teenagers. In an industry that would not have existed without government contracts, some going back as early as the 1940s, any mention of government involvement causes techies to scream and cry all out of proportion to the perceived offense. Those who succeed do so due to obvious merit, and the ones who remain behind are obviously deficient if they don’t get with the program and learn Java and C++. Since the value of art, music, and other “soft” disciplines can’t be quantified the way software can, with an absolute price tag for services rendered, they obviously have no inherent value at all and therefore deserve to suffer in the flow of a completely free market. The only girls allowed in the club are the ones willing to be sex objects, such as the endless nearly nude models in computer and peripheral ads or the female fantasy figures in video games, and if the girls expect to be treated as equals, the game isn’t fun any more. An interesting sidenote in the book is the fascination with polyamory, S&M games, and other alternative sexual practices within high tech, suggesting a search for balance between basic animal needs and the fear of longterm social commitment. This may, in turn, explain why behind it all is the almighty computer, which acts in direct black-and-white responses instead of the shadings of human behavior. Small wonder that so much energy in the business is dedicated to the twin Cibolas of interactive television and virtual reality, considering that so many of their proponents couldn’t get laid in Tijuana with a jockstrap full of $100 bills.


This brattish tendency even produced a new verb: “slashdot,” referring to the shouting-down of anyone espousing an attitude other than “Let the government build everything and make it safe, then get the hell out,” as regularly demonstrated on the tech-porn site Slashdot.Org. Simply advocate gun control, accountability for corporations for their actions, that E-books or MP3 files be anything but free, or the possibility that the Feds are the only people with the ability to keep Microsoft from killing its competitors on any public discussion board or chat room—the public expressions of barely coherent rage that follow are examples of being slashdotted. Those blasting contrary opinions aren’t interested in discourse. Rather they act just like religious fanatics attempting to murder the infidels, and in a way that’s exactly what they are. Their behavior is identical to that of science fiction fanatics threatening violence upon anyone who dares blaspheme the genius of Gene Roddenberry or George Lucas, which begs the question “Was the high tech industry a spinoff of nerdish attraction to science fiction, or do both high tech and SF attract the same antisocial people in search of power fantasies?”


If the thesis that many of the dysfunctional get into tech careers because they couldn’t handle human interaction is true, it also explains why so many become bullies when they achieve their goals. One of the main flavors running through Cyberselfish is cheapness—in money, in contact, in everything. Techies act as if the slightest bit of altruism is a potential threat. “Giving” is construed as “taking away”, with money and knowledge being hoarded away even if the owner has no reason whatsoever to hoard it. Conversely, everyone else’s stuff is open property: everything should be free except for a techie’s services, and those are sold dear. Much is made of Social Darwinism in technolibertarianism, where the world would only run smoothly if culture were allowed to work like an ecosystem. Forget momentarily that techies are at the top of the food pyramid only because of momentary changes in the business environment and that they could be outclassed or replaced very quickly—the fact that a little bit of compassion has worked quite well in favor of alligators, vampire bats (who engage in one of the few examples of true altruism in the animal kingdom), and (dare we say it) humans is irrelevant. If the unknown genius who discovered the secret of soft-percussion flint knapping had decided to be as paranoid as a typical techie about having to share this discovery, he would have ladled out worked spear and arrow points without sharing his technique, and said techie, along with the rest of us, probably wouldn’t be here today.


Throughout her travails, Borsook uses her own experiences as one of the original writers for Wired in its pre-Conde Nast days to illuminate the tech culture obsession with libertarianism. She notes the little realities that the tech business wishes would just go away, such as the discarding of older employees in favor of twentysomethings willing to forgo security and outside lives in the vague hope of striking it rich. Compassion toward the technologically challenged is particularly bereft in the tech world, where the one answer to all of the world’s problems is to throw more computers at them (in a particularly poignant illustration of this attitude, she relates how many tech companies’ “charitable donations” consist of outdated equipment and software to public schools, but without any of the support materials or employee assistance that would allow those donations to do anything besides fill up storerooms, and the companies taking tax writeoffs for the full original market value). In the same way, the National Endowment for the Arts is a tech whipping-boy as an example of the big bad government stealing hard-earned tax money, just as it is for fundamentalist groups, but once the art is created, it’s expected to be shared without thought of compensation to the artist. Obviously, if the artist can’t make Paul Allen-level money from doing art, then it’s not really necessary.


The book isn’t perfect: it bounces and jogs around without a common thread almost as badly as its antithesis, Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown, with enough annoying proofreading errors to lead one to suspect the publisher trusted technology more than humanity and settled for an intern dependent upon a spellchecker and not much else. Cyberselfish also has no real suggestions for antidotes or alternatives other than the note that in sticking to a Darwinian model, libertarianism should remove itself from society because way too many practitioners don’t breed. Even so, the fact that these technoweenies are screaming like stuck pigs over Borsook’s interpretation of their little society is an independent verification of her thesis. Meanwhile, the rest of us, who must deal with the constant passive-aggressive and arrogant attitude every time we call up the Help Desk at work, may finally understand why we get that treatment.

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