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Cyberjealous

July 21, 2000

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

by Paulina Borsook
PublicAffairs, 2000. 267 pgs.

Every generation has its defining moment, when the Manichaean unfolding of
history lets the good guys gain the upper hand. These moments may be
tumultuous political upheavals, such as the New Deal or civil rights
protests. But they also consist in the publication of literary treasures,
such as Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin or Sinclair's The Jungle. Cyberselfish,
the latest masterpiece by Paulina Borsook, will one day surely be placed in
this latter category.

True to her concern for "the vulnerable, the ones who weren't able to cash
out, those whose skillset or native endowment doesn't fit well into the
shiny happy new information economy" (37), Borsook's work entertains
without even being opened--as the marketing hustlers like to say, "no
purchase necessary."

Indeed, the man of modest means may derive a
pick-me-up simply by picking up Borsook's book. The front cover features a
stunning red backdrop--which can only be an allusion to Poe--and the
mesmerizing image of a hideous pair of glasses (complete with Scotch tape
on the frame), which breaks all the rules by not even being centered in the
picture.

To speculate on the meaning of this is perhaps as foolhardy and
blasphemous as proffering explanations of Marx' law of surplus value, but
in any case the present reviewer feels the off-center placement is symbolic
of how 'skewed to the right' such "technolibertarians" appear to the rest
of us.

But when one turns to the back cover, well! Here Borsook smuggles an attack
that would astound a Trojan. The benighted boob, fresh from his
oh-so-difficult job shuffling papers in the office, will no doubt take the
critics' praise (as if Borsook needed promotion) at face value.

This
Anglo-Saxon balding male--anxious to get home, crack a Bud Light, and watch
John Rocker pointlessly throw a little white ball really really fast, only
to have it tossed back to him so he can do it again--will read that Borsook
is "agreeably caustic," "eloquent but vaguely irritated," "[s]cathing but
not incorrect." He will swallow whole the claim that Borsook "oozes style
and an authoritative voice that lets you know she's probably read more
books than you."

The very idea that Borsook would consent to such crass corporate cookie
cutter compliments, to such an irrelevant understatement as the last
quote--akin to presenting an atheist with a Testament and the admonition,
"He's probably seen more lepers than you"--is frankly insulting. Such
shameless salesmanship--which has given us commercialized Olympics and the
choreographed spontaneity of Woodstock '99--is clearly a satire, plucked
from Borsook's prodigious arsenal of literary devices.

Borsook is just
having fun with the reader, and has obviously ghostwritten these 'reviews.'
The chosen few of us who get it, who recognize her subtle ploy, feel a rush
of righteousness that this reviewer has not experienced since he first
chained himself to an old-growth redwood.

Whatever we may long for, the sad fact is, we still live in a world
dominated by cost-conscious capitalists, and this reviewer's employers are
no exception. As such, he cannot do Cyberselfish the justice it deserves,
and regrettably must restrict his attention to the two sections of the work
where he feels most competent.

(Incidentally, the present writer was
initially inclined to suggest this latter approach to Borsook, but then
realized upon further reflection that such a superlatively cosmopolitan
lady as our author needs no lecture from him on the virtues of
experimentation.)

Borsook's first target is Bionomics, the spawn of apologist Michael
Rothschild:

Bionomics [describes] the way the world works in terms of learning,
adaptation, intelligence, selection, and ecological niches. It favors
decentralization and trial and error and local control and simple rules and
letting things be. Bionomics pays homage to Friedrich Hayek, one of the
residents in the traditional libertarian pantheon, who believed that only
free markets can lead to freedom (been to China lately?) and that command
and control (all government interventions of course irresistibly leading to
Stalinesque collectivization of farms) leads to serfdom. (32)

Borsook's brilliant analysis stands on its own and so no comments will be
offered and so we move on:

Bionomics states that "the economy is a rain forest." The Bionomics
argument goes that a rain forest ecosystem is far more complicated than any
machine that could be designed--the idea being that machines, and
machine-age thinking, are the markers of Bad Old Economic thinking. No one
can manage or engineer a rain forest, and rain forests are happiest when
they are left alone to evolve, which will then benefit all the happy
monkeys, pretty butterflies, and funny tapirs that live in them. In our
capitalist rain forest, organizations and industries are the species and
organisms. Although if a corporation is the analog for, say, an individual
tapir, then what is the rain forest analog for an individual person? A
mitochondria?

What about the fact that actual rain forests are now being destroyed
because of the free market? (32)

Although it borders on sacrilege to deconstruct Borsook's prose, it is the
responsibility of the present reviewer to point out all that has been
packed into this brief snippet. The capitalization in "Bad Old Economic
thinking" is an ingenious attack on the deploring tendency of the
technolibertarians to eschew serious debate and instead construct
simplistic straw men.

Borsook's references to tapirs and mitochondria
showcase the incredible breadth of her knowledge--indeed, she has read many
books. Our author first explodes the Bionomic rain forest analogy with a
neat reductio ad absurdum. (Which prompts the tantalizing question, What
is the rain forest analog for Cyberselfish? This Borsook does not specify,
but given her concern for the environment, it would no doubt be
biodegradable and make excellent fertilizer.) After this stunning jab,
Borsook finishes off her Bionomic opponent by placing the final sentence
quoted above as a paragraph unto itself.

The tender reader may feel that Borsook's scathing attack, though not
incorrect, is a bit too merciless. But this is not at all the case. For
these self-styled freedom lovers--where "freedom" is used in an incredibly
Victorian sense, of course--are not blissfully ignorant of the utter
absurdity of their position. When the plight of the Amazon rain forests is
pointed out to them, they bravely maintain that South American countries
are not examples of what they 'mean' by "free markets" (as if issues of
social justice revolved around semantics!). That Borsook has neglected to
even bring up this silly rebuttal is an example of her under-appreciated
compassion.

Unfortunately, Bionomics is not the only refuge of today's incipient
fascists. A more virulent strain of egoists has arisen:

"Anarcho-capitalist," which is how many cypherpunks describe themselves, is
as hardheaded as it gets. This dimly veiled social
Darwinist/property-is-next-to-godliness/everything-is-contractual political
and economic philosophy (with Nietzsche crawling around somewhere inside
there, too) was first articulated by economics professor Ludwig von Mises
in the 1920s and 1930s, echoed later by economist and Mises student, Ayn
Rand-follower Murray Rothbard-and portrayed in sci-fi writer Robert A.
Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which posited a utopian society
based on libertarian, Nietzschean ideals. (97-98)

This reviewer must confess that he finds the sheer wit of this passage to
be simply impenetrable. Based on his meager studies, he had never made the
connection between libertarianism and Nietzsche. He was rather sure that
the reactionary Ludwig von Mises had ridiculed anarchists as hopelessly
naïve, and that the exasperating Murray Rothbard had referred to the
products of the information superhighway as "mindless pap."

Alas,
sometimes our author's sarcasm--though always a delight--makes it difficult
to distinguish historical revisionism from hilarious hoaxes. He will of
course diligently watch C-Span's "Book Notes," and perhaps ask Borsook
herself at the next AIDS rally, but in matters such as these, she usually
adopts the stance of the magician with regard to his tricks. No doubt
these apparent antinomies will occupy economists and philosophers no less
than biblical scholars attend to the exact circumstances of the death of
Judas.

This cruelly meritocratic world-to-come described in cypherpunk postings is
reminiscent of 1950s science fiction. In these yesterday's tomorrows, the
males with superior intellect, as measured in rocket-scientist terms,
ruled. (In current terms, benefiting hugely from cash sucked from high
tech entrepreneurial activities, generating untraceable untaxable financial
reserves and tweaking the global monetary supply through anonymous
transactions.) And incidentally, in these Good Societies of the future,
the ruling males also scored with the initially reluctant biology-officer
bodacious babes. Aldous Huxley, writing years before, commented obliquely
on a society of the future based on Nietzschean ideals in Brave New World
(the genetically determined top-drawer alpha males were explicitly assigned
foxy females)-but Huxley wrote his book as a cautionary satire. In the
same way that the more you run away from something, the closer it gets to
you, Huxley's teaching story about a land of ultimate government control
doesn't look so different from the cypherpunk social-Darwinist promised
land of total libertarian freedom. (98)

After reading this passage, one is immediately struck by the usage of the
always amusing it-doesn't-take-a-rocket-scientist genre. The admirable
alliteration serves to foreshadow Borsook's seamless transition to a
compassionate commentary on the sexual mores of the technolibertarian:

[I]t's anomalous that many many cypherpunks are not married, have never
been married, and have no kids..
Katherine Mieskowski.called the people who manifest [the] convergence of
computer nerd and weird sex "nerverts." When I read her column I knew
exactly what she meant, for I have run into nerverts many times.
Mieskowski got a nervert practitioner to explain this connection between
whacked-out sex and nerditude..
This is not to say that all nerds lack social or courting skills..But a
strong intersection exists between nerds and fringe sex, just as a strong
intersection exists between nerds and neopagans. (99, 101)

The emphatic empathy of this passage is typical of Borsook's work. She is
a spoofing and witty and clever and sarcastic and creative and energetic
writer, who no doubt spent her entire adolescence brimming with
anticipation for the day when our sick culture would finally appreciate
these traits. (A glance at the author's stunning picture on the book
jacket confirms this conjecture.)

We treat the reader to one final gem:

As the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) of the technology
community-more outrageous than most, articulating the funnest, extremest,
most tear-down-the-walls/two-four-six-eight, organize-to-smash-the-state
notions of how the world should work, will work, once their anti-good-boy
vision comes to pass-cypherpunks express and inform the ethos of the rest
of the technolibertarian community. And the original cypherpunk manifestos
and newsgroup postings...coalesced a political way of being, a coherent
adversarial pose for being a hardheaded geek. (97)

Here we have Borsook at her finest, exhibiting an effortless marriage of
poetry and political commentary not seen since Bob Dylan's "Hurricane."

Believe it or not, there's more where that came from. Borsook never lets
up, filling all 267 pages of Cyberselfish with her uncanny wisecracks and
wisdom. The work will serve as an excellent introduction to the new
reader, although one cannot help but blush when making such a presumptuous
recommendation. (Which of the Bard's plays 'ought' to be read first?) And
the devoted fan, who has grown up on a steady diet of Borsook's
contributions to Wired, Newsweek, and Salon, will have only one thing to
say after reading this book: She's still got it!

--------------

Bob Murphy is a summer fellow at the Mises Institute. Send him MAIL.


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