We're only in it for the money

Calling high-tech "libertarians" on their lack of conscience.

I FIRST BECAME aware of Paulina Borsook when she wrote an article last year for Salon in which she postulated that the Internet boom ruined San Francisco. Friends—mostly other ex-Bay Areans—gleefully forwarded me the URL, implicitly applauding me for opting out of the whole SF Get Net Rich Quick thang, rather than waiting for the rest of my stock options to vest so I could purchase a $500,000 postage-stamp-sized bungalow or another Mercedes to clog the Bay Bridge. Unfortunately, I was forced to conclude that Borsook was only half right. Yes, San Francisco is a self-centered, shallow, tremendously overrated town. But the Internet had nothing to do with it. Ask anybody born and raised there: It has always served as a kind of Disneyland North for imported pseudo-scenesters who aren't quite pretty or cutthroat enough to make it in the SoCal wastelands. Heck, Frank Zappa pointed that out in 1968 ("Who Needs the Peace Corps," from We're Only in it for the Money).

Borsook has done it again. Her half-right new book, Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech (Public Affairs/New York; $24; www.cyberselfish.com) makes some very important points about the culture of high technology that few other people have had the guts to address. Yes, the politics of high tech are, by default, libertarian. Yes, technology companies (at least in Silicon Valley) are comparatively stingy in their donations to charity and the public sector. Yes, tech workers tend to overlook the good things that government has done to make the current boom possible. But no, Wired Magazine and the niche philosophy of bionomics it espoused are not primary, nor even important, reasons behind the culture of high tech.

It's understandable that Borsook places such importance on Wired. She was one of its earliest employees and a frequent contributor to the magazine, and this book was originally to be published under Wired Ventures' now-aborted book publishing arm, HardWired. But, apart from a few tech-obsessed academics and the hipper-than-thou folks who worked for Wired at one time or another from 1993 until its 1998 buyout by Cond頎ast, nobody in technology ever took the rag all that seriously. Sure, it looked great. Sure, it was the first large-circulation magazine to treat tech CEOs like rock stars. Yes, its politics were very obviously libertarian, antigovernment, and probusiness. But to devote one of five core chapters to Wired and suggest it is one reason why so many of today's techies tend towards libertarian politics (Borsook calls them "technolibertarians") is like, well, suggesting that Rolling Stone was a primary reason for the counterculture movement of the '60s. Let's not confuse cause with effect.

It's telling that even as Borsook slams the politics of the magazine, she glosses over the fact that Wired failed miserably as a business. She discusses editor Kevin Kelly's religious beliefs several times, but only mentions Wired Ventures' twice-withdrawn IPO once. In fact, the magazine made a profit by packing itself full of advertising, but it never enjoyed the circulation of such nuts-and-bolts computing magazines as Ziff-Davis powerhouse PC Magazine (much less the numbers of mainstream publications such as Playboy or TV Guide). Oh, and let's not overlook the fact that many of the predictions published in Wired have been totally, completely, notoriously wrong. Push technology is the wave of the future? Most Web-based companies will go out of business during a major 1997 shakeout? Y2K will be the end of the world as we know it? I think not.

The simple fact of the matter is that libertarianism and its corresponding distrust of government are deeply rooted in contemporary American society. The proof is everywhere: the Reagan revolution, the passage of laws easing corporate mergermania, the Republican congressional landslide in 1994, the rise of antigovernment militias, the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories (think The X-Files and Art Bell), Waco, Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma City, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 . . . need I go on? I have friends who voted Libertarian back in 1988 because it was the most anti-establishment thing they could do. Wired was simply in the right place at the right time. It covered the computing industry in a pop fashion, just as the Internet was about to make computing technology much more relevant to the general public. And it covered it with a political viewpoint that would make it popular to the increasingly libertarian public and, of course, advertisers.

BUT I'M BEING TOO hard. Apart from the importance Borsook places on Wired and some of her misplaced personal attacks (why waste any more ink on John Perry Barlow? The band he wrote for was last relevant in 1974 and Robert Hunter penned all the cool songs anyway), Cyberselfish is a fabulous read. Stylistically, it resembles a highly caffeinated rant: part Mary Daly postfeminist wordplay, part chat room screed.

More importantly, the book undercuts many of the truisms that technolibertarians (including, I guess, some of the folks who suggested I get fired for my Seattle Weekly piece in favor of more antitrust legislation) hold so near and dear. There would be no commercial Internet if the federal government hadn't sheltered its predecessors from commercial development in the 1960s and 1970s. Today's robust protocols developed slowly, openly, and internationally, without concern for next quarter's financial results. Contrast this with Microsoft's attitude toward development, the corresponding quality of some of its products, and the resulting de facto "standards."

Likewise, the Silicon Valley business machine couldn't exist without business-friendly zoning laws, clean water, and workable roads. American tech companies don't need to budget for protection money to be paid to local police or gangsters. The formerly fantastic California education system—decimated, in large part, by 1978's tax-revolt Proposition 13—created the elder generation of high-tech workers and innovators. Silicon Valley's insistence on opening the doors to more (low-paid) foreign programmers is simply the saddest example of high tech's hypocrisy—if they were more willing to pay for American schools in the first place, they wouldn't have such a "problem" now! And speaking of hypocrisy, let's not even mention all these libertarian CEOs testifying, one after the other, in favor of the federal government's breakup of their equally libertarian competitor from Redmond.

In fact, one of Borsook's sources, a history buff from Washington, DC, made the best case for why the Left Coast tech culture is so libertarian: It reflects the West's strange double-edged relationship with the federal government. In other words, give us water, power, subsidies, and land, then get the heck out. Sounds like any other Western industry: mining, ranching, aerospace. . . .

Whatever its faults, Cyberselfish cuts through the usual techie propaganda about "the government that governs least governs best." (Right, which is why there are so many hot tech startups in the anarchistic states of Africa and the former Soviet Union.) Whether you find yourself nodding and saying "right on" or spackling dents in the wall after throwing the book across the room, Cyberselfish is a great read for any high-tech worker, executive, or investor. Especially all you technolibertarians.

 
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