Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech, by Paulina Borsook, New York PublicAffairs, 267 pages, $24.00
This is a bad book, unlearned in its titular subject, petulant, and poorly argued. It is tempting simply to dismiss it and move on. Despite its shoddy quality, however, Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech is not irrelevant. Far from it. The book is fascinating as a case study in the reasoning and psychology behind opposition to the mix of individualism and anti-statism that characterizes contemporary libertarian thought.
Borsook was a regular contributor to Wired magazine during its start-up period in the early-to-mid-1990s. During that time, she became alarmed at what she saw as the undue influence of libertarian thinking at the magazine and in the world it covered. As the dominant thought leader for computer industry culture, she suggests, Wired was a powerful vector for the libertarian "plague" or "parasite" (two metaphors Borsook uses for libertarian thinking at different points in the book). "It's worth trying to tease out what these mostly American, mostly West Coast inventors and programmer-droids and plutocrats are up to--for they have the big bucks, and cultural juice, that will be affecting us all as we head into the next millennium," she writes.
Borsook took her first swipe at the topic in a 1996 Mother Jones article. As an extension of that lament about the supposed dominance of libertarian thinking in the high-tech world, Cyberselfish can expect a sympathetic audience. Most intellectuals, after all, are not simply unlibertarian but actively hostile to libertarianism. They don't agree with the philosophy's vision of a state restricted to the protection of its citizens' lives and property (if that much--anarcho-capitalists sail under the libertarian banner as well).
What's more, most intellectuals tend to think there's something untoward about anyone who does embrace the libertarian philosophy. At best, goes this line of thought, such people are tools of moneyed interests. At worst, they are inhuman, atomistic drones. And while most Americans express sympathy for generally stated libertarian tenets (abstract visions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are A-OK), that sympathy tends to wear thin when rubbed against the sharper edge of specific policy applications (What do you mean, shut down the FDA?).
Borsook throws around enough names to suggest a knowledge of libertarianism, but it's clear she doesn't know that much about the political philosophy she's attacking. She cites Friedrich Hayek, for instance, but misspells his first name and gives a ludicrously reductive reading of The Road to Serfdom's critique of planning. "All government intervention of course," she summarizes, "irresistibly lead[s] to Stalinesque collectivization of farms." Similarly, she mistakenly identifies Ludwig von Mises as the inventor of anarcho-capitalism. (Mises was no anarchist.) She mentions Murray Rothbard, the actual intellectual father of 20th-century anarcho-capitalism, to say that he borrowed the idea from Mises and then adds, in a bizarre footnote, "Who knows if it was a conscious choice."
Borsook references Harry Browne, the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate in 1996, and claims the L.P. "routinely" nominates him for high office. (So far, they've done so exactly once, though they may well do it a second time this summer.) She says the Cato Institute was founded a decade before it actually was and that the Scaife Foundation was one of its original funders. (Cato existed four years before getting any Scaife money, and Scaife is mentioned just to gratuitously hang Ken Starr around Cato's neck.) She brings up REASON, in order to claim that Editor-at-Large Virginia Postrel is used as a "Token Girl" at overly male and sexist computer-world conferences.
For all the names she drops, Borsook doesn't seem to know what issues are actually the dominant concerns of libertarian writers and institutions--drug laws, education, foreign policy, and trade all go unmentioned. She has only the vaguest idea of the theoretical and empirical reasons why libertarians think what they do--not even enough to argue with them.
If Borsook were your only guide, you wouldn't think there was any economic or philosophical reasoning, any history or logic on which libertarianism is based. The only apparent motivation is a snotty adolescent attitude among geeks, who have a "wicked excitement about...the Hobbesian war of all against all." Her technolibertarians suffer from "a kind of scary, psychologically brittle, prepolitical autism." They "make a philosophy out of a personality defect" and, she insists, are disproportionately involved in "programmatic weird sex."
Borsook knows too little to contextualize libertarianism outside high- tech, and thus she equates it with "bionomics," cypherpunks, and George Gilder. Bionomics, a concept set forth by Michael Rothschild in a 1990 book of the same name, holds that, in the broadest terms, economies function like biological systems and can manage themselves. (Rothschild also created The Bionomics Institute, whose popular Bay Area conferences helped define high-tech's character and community.) Cypherpunks are radical opponents of any government restrictions on cryptography. Gilder is the great social-conservative cheerleader for high-tech, and Borsook is mostly interested in the biologically reductionist notions about sex roles and family life he has spun out in books such as Men and Marriage (1992), a revision of his earlier Sexual Suicide. Gilder is indisputably a high-tech guru, and his books Life After Television (1990) and Telecosm (2000) extol the liberating potential of technology like nobody's business. But his insistence on traditional male-female roles doesn't exactly play well in Silicon Valley. More important, such ideas have nothing whatsoever to do with libertarianism, techno or otherwise.
No matter--any weapon Borsook can muster to bash the libertarian enemies she sees all about her will do. Hence she mocks Wired co-founder Louis Rosetto as a "neo-caveman" for entertaining sociobiological explanations for women's lack of dominance in high-tech, yet offers up feminist researcher Carol Gilligan's similar thinking as a rational explanation for the phenomenon.
Strangely, Borsook herself frequently and frankly brings up the thinness of the factual assertions behind many of her arguments. In a typical moment, she points out that "political scientists who study the demographics of the Net do not find voting patterns that differ much from the world outside" and that political scientists have done no work on the intersection of libertarianism and high-tech.
To another author, such facts might be cause for worry. But Borsook bravely pushes on. Even while acknowledging that she meets people in the high-tech world who aggressively deny being libertarian and others who claim not even to have heard the word, she nonetheless asserts that almost all techies--the deniers and the ignorant along with those who openly embrace the libertarian label--parrot the same simplistic line, her summation of libertarian thinking: "Government bad, market good; someone said it, I believe it, that settles it!"
It isn't so much that Borsook strongly disagrees with every element of the modern libertarian message, though she surely would have problems with much of it if she knew what it was. It's that she considers libertarians unpleasant people. They're selfish, asocial, too into Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein; they indulge in impersonal, perverted sexual games because they can't stand real intimacy. She finds them "nasty, narcissistic, lacking human warmth."
She peppers little insults like this throughout the book, and on some level this book could be seen as a personal lament: "Why is it so hard to meet nice guys in Silicon Valley?" Dotting the book are tales of bad dates with libertarian geeks who make snide remarks about bums and who send her unwanted e-mail, only to get riled when she explains she doesn't believe all that free-market stuff.