TCS Daily


By Brian Doherty - October 2, 2000 12:00 AM

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.

But it isn't clear that Borsook has strong intellectual objections to the "free minds and free markets" matrix that undergirds most of what libertarians say and think. She spends a chapter dissing cypherpunks, for example, chiding them for being overly concerned with government meddling in their lives (she thinks they haven't suffered enough to complain). Yet she agrees with their central goal of halting government interference in the sale, development, and possession of cryptography.

So what is Borsook's case beyond pique, beyond finding Bionomics conferences to be "little shops of horror," beyond lamenting that technolibs prefer Edge Cities to "real" urban centers, beyond finding libertarians "psychically exhausting"? Boiled down, she makes two arguments: First, high-tech people have no right to attack government since their industry would not have existed without government funding. Second, successful businesses are successful because they operate in a world where governments keep schools going, food and drugs pure, banks honest, and the like.

The first argument is simply a non sequitur. Government is involved with just about any commercial transaction or field imaginable, if only because it builds roads. But the fact that the government paves streets hardly makes it responsible for all the businesses that spring up alongside them. (There is, moreover, ample evidence that road building would continue even if government disappeared.)

The Defense Department's role in developing ARPANet, the forerunner to the Internet, was more as a customer than as an engineer creating something by design; it provided money for researchers doing early work on a decentralized computer network, but didn't plan or anticipate anything like the Internet we use today. Indeed, the essentially unplanned way in which the Internet developed is an example of the biologically informed models of growth and self-regulation that libertarians celebrate. It's also worth pointing out that the Internet's huge growth, both in terms of infrastructure and customers, came about due to commercial investment, not government financing.

As for Borsook's second line of attack: Anyone advocating a smaller role for the state is by necessity thrust into the realm of historical fantasy, of imagining the way things could be. Government has arrogated so extensive a role to itself that it's understandable that many people might imagine that nothing the government has a hand in could possibly have happened without it.

One of the key insights of libertarianism revolves around the notion of the "spontaneous order," the idea that social orders and markets can, do, and will develop to meet human needs without central direction or control. For instance, just because government has taken it upon itself to finance and run schools does not mean that no one would be educated if it didn't. Nor would restaurants start poisoning their customers if municipal food inspectors disappeared overnight.

But Borsook doesn't understand what libertarians mean when they talk about spontaneous order. Thus she asserts that such a theory of "self-organization" appeals to "engineers' physics envy" and that "the reason for the rise in technolibertarianism is that engineers are practical and like to fix things and get things right, so of course only the sensible political choice of libertarianism would fit."

In fact, the engineering mentality, which presumes a single best way of doing things in accordance with unchanging "natural" laws, is the exact opposite of the spontaneous order mentality that pervades libertarian thinking. That's why Hayek specifically identified the engineering mentality as the mind-set from "which all modern socialism, planning and totalitarianism derives."

But Borsook hasn't thought about libertarian philosophy hard enough to make fine distinctions. To her, anything and everything anti-government--from militiamen obsessed with what they consider a Zionist-Occupied Government to people who want more foreign tech workers than current immigration laws allow--is tossed into the libertarian stew she finds so distasteful.

The root of Borsook's problem--and perhaps of libertarianism's problem with mainstream writers and thinkers--is encoded in her book's title: Cyberselfish. She spends most of a chapter musing over the well-known "fact" that people who get wealthy from high-tech are unprecedentedly stingy with their corporate and individual giving. When I presented this thesis to Ann Kaplan, editor of Giving USA, one of the prime data collection sources for American philanthropy, she told me there are no accurate macro data to support that contention.

In fact, even the "data" Borsook cites don't support her contention. She notes that the regional United Way goal in Silicon Valley has not increased during the '90s and that, although San Jose has double the average U.S. per capita income, local charities do not receive twice the national average in donations. (She doesn't say how much they do receive and doesn't cite any sources for the data.)

Additionally, she notes a survey by the Community Foundation Silicon Valley (CFSV) of area residents across all income lines that indicates they give to charities at a level similar to the national giving rate (about 2 percent of annual income). What's more, in Silicon Valley, "the percentages of those giving in each income bracket are somewhat above national averages."

Such data are her main evidence for the oft-bruited assertion that the high-tech world is uniquely stingy. Borsook simply assumes that Silicon Valley can be equated with the entire high-tech sector and that United Way is a reasonable proxy for all charity. And if you look at the CFSV report that she mentions, you find that 83 percent of Silicon Valley households donate to charity, compared to 69 percent nationally, and that Silicon Valley adults volunteer at a rate exactly equal to the national average (49 percent). But 40 percent of Silicon Valley charitable giving goes outside the immediate area, which might help explain the local United Way situation.

Borsook's problem with an inherent "selfishness" that may not even exist is part of a general negative feeling about people who don't want as much government as she does. She doesn't feel spiritually akin to these espousers of libertarianism; their strongly expressed belief in a philosophy she only half-understands but associates with stinginess disturbs her. That kind of sociological prejudice rests on a false supposition, reflected throughout Cyberselfish, that "social" and "governmental" are coterminous, and that anyone who is against governmental action is therefore essentially "atomistic." The libertarian insight that the state is the nexus of legalized violence and coercion--and awareness of the special moral and practical dilemmas that its use thus involves--escapes Borsook entirely; she never even mentions it to try to refute it. Ignorant of the philosophical and intellectual background behind small-state thinking, she condemns it for being against cooperation. In fact, libertarians rely on uncoerced transactions and charitable fellow-feeling as the web holding civil society together--cooperation on mutually agreed terms at its finest, without force entering the equation.

Why do Borsook and other anti-libertarians miss this? Willful, ideologically motivated blindness no doubt plays a role. But libertarians themselves must share a good deal of the responsibility. In public debate, they should be less negative and spend more time pointing out the ways in which a culture can survive and thrive by relying on spontaneous orders and voluntary exchanges that make all the world richer, cleaner, safer, and saner.

Libertarians can perhaps take some solace that in over 200 pages Borsook fails to make a coherent case against "terribly libertarian culture." But they would do well to rely less on defenses of the right to be left alone, which can be interpreted as mere selfishness and hence something easy to dismiss. Recognizing that may be the key to understanding why so many are likely to agree with Borsook despite her inability to actually prove her case.

Brian Doherty ( is an associate editor at REASON.


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