geert on Thu, 28 Mar 2002 06:32:24 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Interview with Paulina Borsook

(First published in Mute #22, December 2001)

Cyberselfishness Explained

Interview with Paulina Borsook

By Geert Lovink

During the memorable year 2000, with markets going from euphoria of the
AOL-TimeWarner merger to the NASDAQ dotcom crash my personal bible was
Paulina Borsook's critical anatomy of Sillicon Valley high tech culture,
Cyberselfish. For me it's a classic must-read for all interested in the
origins of Internet culture. Unlike most academic cyberfeminism or Richard
Barbrook's provocative Californian Ideologies, Cyberselfish is a hardcore
account from inside the belly of the Beast, a razor sharp critique of
US-techno-libertarianism written by a female journalist who was very much
part of this culture. Paulina Borsook's position of high tech essayist is a
unique one. Some say she used to be the token Luddite while working for
Wired magazine but I don't buy that. Borsook is part of a growing discontent
within high tech circles, at unease about the infrastructure breakdown and
the general lack of social and political awareness. Curious enough
Cyberselfish does not deal with the late nineties dotcom phenomena. Instead
Borsook looks into the emerging ideology of the Gingrich era (1993-97) in
which George Gilder, Kevin Kelly, Esther Dyson and other Wired front page
heroes were setting the cultural-political agenda on which the speculative
Internet boom was build.

Cyberselfish is advertised as a book about people and culture, not about
computers and markets: "It is about a set of beliefs well known inside
high-tech, but little known outside it. It is not a get rich quick guide nor
about the ways scary hackers are going to get your momma." Written in Susan
Sontag's essay tradition, Cyberselfish is a theory-light analysis of an
engineer culture teaming up with business. Within the history of ideas genre
the book is free of political dogmas or regional essentialism. Not touching
the big philosophical issues of Freedom and Liberty Cyberselfish is rich
source material for those who want to get an understanding of
techno-libertarianism. Borsook, speaking in Toronto: "Libertarian comes as
close as I can think of to describe a culture that is lunatic
anti-government, that romanticizes itself as outlaw, and, more than ever, is
in bed with Wall Street and enamoured with those with elite establishment
credentials. It is a culture that has been present in Silicon Valley since
its beginning. It flourishes in Bay area high tech society to this day and
differs significantly from other technology cultures, and distinguishes
itself from other robber baron nouveaux riche cultures in some meaningful

Back in 1996 there would have been a great need for such a book.
Cyberselfish has been criticized for being outdated because it stops around
1996-97. But Borsook denies that her object of study has changed all that
much over time. "The culture that I am documenting existed long before the
Netscape IPO and will exist long after folks will be embarrassed to admit
that they bought shares in" With techno-libertarianism facing one
setback after the other this ideology has by no means lots its influence and
appeal on the rising class of young male programmers and this is the main
reason why Cyberselfish will remain a first class reference work in the
understanding of contemporary technoculture. I spoke with Paulina in a back
garden of a friends house in San Francisco's Mission District, a once
colorful Hispanic district which got quickly gentrified during the late
nineties dotcommania, driving out migrants and artists.

GL: Where would start if you have to trace back the libertarian high tech
culture? Would you back as far as 1950s cybernetics or hippie culture in the

PB: I have been into high tech since the early 1980s. A lot of what I have
been writing in Cyberselfish has been based on what I have been observing
for years and years. It took me a while to figure out what it was I was
seeing. You can talk about the cuckooness of the dotcom world but that's a
very particular bubble. The culture which I am describing goes back to
Sillicon Valley in the early 80s and even before which I do not really see
changing. This is a technology culture that grew up post-Vietnam and
post-Watergate and admits a deep disillusionment about government. There is
wonderful book , Regional Advantage by Annalee Saxenian how Sillicon Valley
rose and route 128 outside Boston died. She talks about all the complex
private-public partnerships and all the information sharing that went on.
There was a real communitarian culture. But even they had the fantasy of
being the lonesome cowboy. It is a fantasy that all their success in high
tech wasn't depending on a complex mesh of things.

GL: Could you describe the difference between Wired from the beginning and
what the magazine eventually turned into?

PB: I had a love-hate relationship with the early Wired which I wrote for.
It was wonderful because it was about technology as culture. I saw the early
Wired in the American tradition of magazines such like Hound and Horn and
Horizon. They were intelligent and smart and dealt with society and culture
and had a definite point of view. Gonzo! Irreverent! Hard charging paradigm
smashing! The later Wired turned into a business porn magazine. Nowadays
there is little you can read anywhere which is not about business. I was
looking into an in-flight magazine last week. American Airlines always had
the best, a general interest magazine not just for sales people. They gutted
it. It even had an excerpt from Fast Company in it (one the post-Wired New
Economy propagators). All of American society has become corporatised. The
business culture touches everything.

Business porn magazine are driven by the Ayn Rand idea of the entrepreneur
as hero. It is like pornography because it's got a very predictable story
line. You read it over and over again and got the same climax, like sex
manuals: ten ways to do it. It's extremely formulaic, your readers are
living vicariously living through it. Nurse novels are emotion porn for
women while Tom Clancy is action porn. You never want to deviate from the
formula because otherwise people get upset. Business porn taps into the
human need for glamour and importance, to be a hero and have other people
regard you as a hero. Business Week and Forbes have been around for a long
time but they didn't always have the self-glorifying glossy glam. They
didn't have this philosopher-prince quality. Wired discovered how to turn
unattractive geeks into celebrities.

GL: Could you tell us a bit more about the early 'bionomics' conferences? In
your analysis they are playing a crucial role in establishing the 90s Wired
culture of the fancy IT business culture. What's the agenda behind the use
of all these biological metaphors?

PB: Bionomics is the title of an influential book by Michael Rothschild who
had been in and around the computer industry and the venture capital
community for a long time. The book was distributed widely in those circles
at the right time. We live in a totally mediated environment and panic about
nature vanishing. We do have wilderness here in the western U.S. and live
with the myth of living on the edge of the empire and these myths are at
hand for us to borrow from. Most of the people borrowing biological
metaphors do not realize that they are in fact social Darwinists. A lot
don't want to see themselves this way but they are. It's against those not
meeting the test of the marketplace. 'We are thinning the herd. Good ideas
survive, bad ideas don't.' They don't want to regulate anything because how
can you regulate a rainforest? It doesn't matter that free market capitalism
is destroying the actual rainforest. We don't want to touch that. Biological
metaphors simplify. We shouldn't have to do anything and leave it all alone.
Maybe it's that utopian strain in the American character. We all want to
back to Eden, to paradise before the goddamned government intervened.
Bionomics built on intellectual fashions such as chaos and complexity
theories which are saying that things are self organized, we don't have to
do anything, just follow the genius of nature.

GL: It is seems a social Darwinism without anti-Semitism. It is no longer
gypsies and Jews who have to be excluded. Would you say that the bionomics
discourse is free of racism?

PB: Sillicon Valley presents itself as being a meritocracy. It is not. It is
a lottery but it is not racist. It's fantasy success is based on brains.
It's a Calvinist sense of superiority, very much like Max Weber's study of
the origins of capitalism in Protestantism. The Valley is mostly whites and
Asians, you don't see a lot of blacks, native Americans or Hispanics. The
idea is that if the market does not validate your ideas you are inferior
intellectually. This does not mean that you should be exterminated. There
are certainly prejudices against people with other skill sets who may not be
good at programming, people from humanities or those who work with their
hands. The competition is rather class-based, not ethnic-based. There is a
diversity in nation origin and ethnicity there but on the other hand it is
about as diverse as Harvard Law School. It's people with the same values,
the same goals, the same education. It is not remotely diverse. I still see
it as a mono culture.

GL: What ever happened to the New Economy? Do you believe that its goal was
not so much to overthrow or destroy the Old Economy but parasite from it?
Dotcoms didn't seem to have time to make their money. All they did was burn
other people's money.

PB: I never believed there was a New Economy. Now, when I read, reporting about the latest dotcom bankruptcies and
job losses, I feel I am reading the transcripts of the Nürnberg trails. All
the people saying: 'I was never a party member, I was just a cook. I was
just a driver and never bought into any of this stuff.' There have been
trends in our society for twenty years which have accentuated the dotcom
cuckooness. Capital became global, there been a rise of IT, there's been
more speculation on the stock market. That didn't start with the Netscape
IPO in 1995. It is silly to think that it did. There was a change in the SEC
rulings in 1997 which really contributed to the boom because CEOs, VCs and
founders could flip their stock much more quickly. It really became a
culture of flip and flee. The point of these companies was not necessarily
to make money in the long run. They were built for early investors to get
money out of it quickly. There is no virtuality. We still live in world of
matter. California has got an energy crisis. Sillicon Valley is not a clean
industry. We got a huge breakdown of infrastructure here because people have
to live some place and citizens of surrounding communities are getting sick
of Sillicon Valley exporting its problems such as commuting over growing
distances, housing and parking lots without contributing to possible

GL: Would you describe techno-libertarianism as an underlying long-term
trend or rather as a mid-nineties fashion?

PB: There is much more libertarianism in the United States compared to 20 or
30 years ago. It sure helps that the FBI is so incompetent. Elections are
more corrupt than ever. The libertarian religion is still more concentrated
in the high-tech sector then elsewhere in society and I don't see that
changing. It is only in 2000 local elections that we have seen people waking
up. The quality of life in Sillicon Valley is so bad, in particular schools.
Everything they did not want to pay for over the last 20 years is coming
home to roost. Maybe we got to find ways, they thought, to make schools
decent, make some mass transit around here and create affordable housing.
Ten years ago ten percent of the Bay Area economy was high tech. Now it's
become twenty percent. If you include law firms and other support sectors
it's probably much more. People who made it a more diverse people were all
forced to move out. What's sad is that this now worsens the impact of the
tech slum. The region is suffering much more badly. The slaves of the stock
market don't have the money to buy band-aids to restore infrastructure so
nothing is happening.

I see libertarianism as a religion, not as politics. Religion means it is
mostly unconsciously held common set of beliefs. People do not give up their
religion. If you grow up in Europe or North America you are influenced by
the Judeo-Christian system. I don't care what you are, those values seep in.
The same counts for libertarianism. It's there, no matter what you think you
are doing. It's in the air that you breath. Libertarianism is so appealing
in its simplicity. Geeks are attracted by its simple rules and algorithmic
formulas and can't deal with adult discourses that does not reduce to
elevator pitches and feature humanity in all its complexity.

GL: Do you see a contradiction between 'Cyberselfishness' and the much
propagated hacker values of sharing information and code, free software and
decentralized systems?

PB: The title Cyberselfish was made up by editors at Mother Jones where the
original essay was published. It was snappy so we stayed with it. I
originally wanted to call the book 'My Visit to the Hall of the Mountain
Kings,' a reference to the Norse mythologies where the trolls guard the
gold, but nobody got the reference. There was the Homebrew Computer Club,
and there was the old Arpanet culture which is all about information
sharing. And there's a great part of civil libertarianism which fights for
free speech and against banning algorithms. The problem is that these people
often are rabid free marketeers. The may share code but do not have any
communitarian feeling about anything else.

Free software is all fine but what I am getting queasy about all this is its
sloppy economic model. We use the same term intellectual property for
software as we for the arts and they are not the same thing. There is this
old cultural leftover from the early Internet that everything should be
free. Authorship doesn't matter. We should all do it for the better
good--which is fine when it's a small group of well-intentioned scientists
talking to each other about network protocols. It's not so great when you
are talking about a photograph, a graphic image, a piece of fiction
endlessly reproduced for free all over the world. Doing that, you are
basically saying that art is worthless. There are issues of livelihood here.
Its too bad what TimeWarner is doing, not allowing satire and parody, but
not paying artists for their work is something else. I don't like the big
record companies either. But too often the Napster peer-to-peer evangelists
don't think about what they are doing to the creator. The science fiction
writer Harlan Ellison just started a campaign against kids uploading entire
novels onto the Net. These writers deserve to get royalties from their work.
Such actions are destroying the ability to make a living of your work as a
creator. I am not against freedom, there is a degree problem.

Take the example of the MacArthur fellow and Magnum photo-journalist Susan
Meiselas. She has become the cultural repository for the Kurds. She
published a book on it and has done magnificent work. She also worked in
Central America and make a famous photo, an homage to the Spanish civil war
partisan who died, falling. For some reason that image became the symbol of
the resistance. It got reproduced everywhere, without her permission. When
she came back to the country one year later and saw this she was flattered.
But on the other hand she has to make her living. She also has to deal with
the media concentration problem. Increasingly there are fewer outlets for
someone like her. Everything becomes focussed on celebrity, fashion and
corporate placement. That's not what she does. So she is getting screwed
from two sides, from the media monopolies and those who think that
everything should be appropriated. What is she supposed to do? The situation
is getting worse and the voices of the Meiselas are not getting heard.

GL: Are you in favor of a 'techno-specificity' where you say open source and
free software are fine but those principles should not be exported into
society at large without thinking about the consequences?

PB: Exactly. One thing does not have to do with the other. A lot of the free
software guys have day jobs. They do this for fun or hobby. One of the
notions you learn when you go into psycho-therapy is to distinguish: this is
not that. This person you interact with is not your mother. It is a
fundament insight of emotional and intellectual maturity. Even though I have
been in PR-mode over the last year promoting my book I always said to people
that I was not going to tell them what they were supposed to do. What I can
tell is to be aware that high tech is selling this religion and you don't
have to buy it. Make your own judgement rather then do I what I tell you.
For example in education. I think there are things that more important than
computers. If a kid is grounded in the body, knows how to read and write and
is literate, she or he will figure out pretty quickly how to work with
computers. Most kids already have enough technology and mediated experiences
in their lives.

GL: How were the responses to Cyberselfish in the United States?

PB: I was surprised how my audience skewed older. People of older
generations are not too happy where society is going and remember when
things were different. They feel vaguely uneasy and don't know why. The
other surprise was how many from faith-based communities were responsive to
the book. From Christian fundamentalists to observing Catholics, they loved
my book. These people have values which matter deeply to them and are not to
be tested on the marketplace. Then there is the responses of either rage or
envy. Some said to me: Why don't you go back to China? A lot of people
didn't seem to have read what I said and instead fantasized about my
position. I am getting adolescent libertarian raving via e-mail and write
back saying thank you, you proved my point, but they don't seem to get that.

GL: Techno-libertarians don't seem to have real opponents. Wired was a
magazine without enemies. The Old Economy CEOs were the first to sit down
and listen.

PB: One thing I do agree about with Louis Rosetto, Wired's founder and
editor-in-chief, is that I do believe in the Eastcoast media establishment.
Wired could only have happened in San Francisco. You couldn't get a general
interest technology magazine with culture and design in it up and going in
New York of the nineties. Yet I could not figure why so many people in the
high tech world at that time felt so marginalised and left out. The
government had been great to them. They had good jobs. To some extent we are
talking here about the revenge of the geek guys at highschool the liberal
arts types didn't want anything to do with. You could say that American
society is based on such forms of victimhood and resentment. Sillicon Valley
geekdom even got exported globally. If you to Northern Europe and see all
the schools and roads you wanna cry. It all works. So why should they be
aping what these kookie Americans are doing? Also in Canada people are
envious about Sillicon Valley and I kept on saying: be careful what you wish
for. As a Californian visiting Canada, I thought 'this seems pretty good
what you have going here and there are real tradeoffs to be made.' But there
is never talk about the downside of Sillicon Valley as a global model.

GL: . not to mention the electricity blackouts and the environment troubles
about toxic waste. Funny enough a lot of the IT-staff has a high
consciousness about ecological issues.

PB: . and don't forget the huge amounts of water the Valley is wasting. The
programmers may go backpacking in the Sierra, they may be vegetarians but
they are not thinking about the larger context and they bought the fantasy
that it is a clean industry. Friends of mine made the documentary called
Secrets of Sillicon Valley. They feature a labour union activist who is
looking into the working conditions at one the Hewlett Packard plants.
People in the Valley buy the idea that it is virtual, disembodied, it's bits
not atoms. They don't think about the plastics having been made somewhere.
Then there is the problem of dumped old PCs, filled with lead. The
manufacturing is now being transferred to more 'business friendly'
environments such as Arizona or Malaysia. I didn't touch it in the book
because a wonderful organization, the Sillicon Valley Toxic Waste Coalition
is already doing this type of work. What I focussed on is the ideology
behind it all: we don't need regulation, we are different from other people.

GL: An irony of the dotcom craze was that so much money which was made
disappeared not into virtuality but in real estate and high rents.

PB: When I wrote the article How the Internet Ruined San Francisco (Oct 27,
1999, I got so many responses. 'Have you been to Boston, Austin,
London lately?' What I described appeared to be global phenomena. Up until
the Netscape IPO in 1995 (which we can now date as the beginning of the
crazy time) high tech was about technology. After 1995 it became about the
business play. Not much new technology was created. The late nineties were
not particular innovative period. Think about Tokyo in the eighties.
Speculative capital always dumps its money into real estate and won't invest
in long-term research. It was financial speculation based on nothing much,
just as the bubble in Manhattan in the eighties. The 90s boom had the
rhetoric of technology and innovation to justify what was going on. A few
years after the dotcom boom venture capitalists started complaining that
they were not seeing anything new. There has been a whole new generation of
kids going to computer science departments, thinking how can I get funding
for a business idea as quickly as possible as opposed to what is interesting
hard problem I can work on? Dotcoms were not about technology, they were
about business. John Doerr, perhaps the most evil venture capitalist talks
about this period as the biggest legal wealth creation in history. No,
wasn't not. It's been the greatest legal transfer of wealth, taking it from
pension funds and middle class people to the VCs, executives and add
agencies. The money has not been created. In response to the continuing
gloomy business data Doerr recently recanted like the Pope apologizing for
2000 years of institutional anti-Semitism (Oops. Sorry about the pogroms and
the crusades and the inquisition and all). In California, the dotcom money
actually ended up in real estate which has eaten up agricultural land.
California is the breadbasket of the world, most of America's cotton is
produced here, it's not just oranges plus movie stars. I don't want to
defend the farmers here who depend on cheap government-subsidized water to
basically make semi-desert arable but that's what is going on. We socialize
the risk and privatize the gain and the commons becomes the property of
corporations whether it is mining, timber, farmland or gold--or the Net.

GL: Europe has by and large been absent in the technology game of the last
decade. It felt being behind and, in part, had to focus on other topics. Do
you make fun of the old continent's tragic position?

PB: No. I understand that some values have more priorities then others.
Europe had other stuff it had to deal with. But be careful what you wish
for, things are a mess here. Specially young people are not equipped to deal
with the current recession. They grew up in the full employment era where
the most ridiculous jobs would get a high pay. There is no next tech wave
coming immediately. Forget those who are preaching a quick recovery. People
bought the idea what they were doing was deeply creative. Now that there is
no funny money anymore to finance all these nonsensical websites they are at
a loss. Young people don't have the intellectual framework at the moment to
interpret what this was all about. I came of age when the first PhD
graduates started driving cabs--and so I don't have that attitude of
ferocious entitlement that was so common amongst dotcommers. For good
reasons young people rebelled against the Stalinist PC post-colonial gender
crap they had to study--and bought into the libertarian free-market
fantasies so common in high-tech.

GL: What do expect from new media arts? Do you see attempt to culturally
embody the high tech world?

PL: The tools are still cruddy and so hard to master. They seem to require
using a different skill set than that of people that really have creative
talents. Seems to me the way people with artbrains' minds works is not the
way a programmers mind works. The tools are overmastering the creators and
that's why the output is not so particularly interesting. The 010101
exhibition at SFMOMA (Spring 2001) reminded me what geeks were doing as a
hobby seven years ago. Was there ever interesting telephone art or
electricity art? I don't know. Maybe this is not the right medium. I saw
more interesting, real wacky stuff done on 16 mm film. The fact that we all
have access to digital sound editing software doesn't mean that more
interesting music has been created. It may be too early to judge and perhaps
the right people have not been born yet who can produce interesting
material. How do you make a compelling narrative? That's got nothing to do
with the tools. Computers are fundamentally not an aesthetic culture.

A year or so ago a guy called me up who wanted to do a television show
called L.A. Engineer (like the television series LA Law). He said something
which implied 'if we could glamorize engineering we could get sexier babes.'
I told him that the reason we could have a show like LA Law because law is
dealing with fundamental human drama. Conflicts over money, sex, power,
mourning, elements everyone can relate to. The latest software is
interesting for those involved but it takes you twenty minutes to even
explain it! You can't see it. Medicine or cop show deal with human drama,
engineers don't. At best people would understand the office politics part.

In general there is not much literature about work. Po Bronson's The First
Twenty Million is the Hardest was not about the Sillicon Valley that I knew.
His Bombadiers about bond traders in San Francisco of the eighties is much
better. There is no Upton Sinclair or John Dos Passos of the Valley because
it is business culture you're dealing with. I like John Brunner. He was a
British dystopian science fiction writer of the late sixties. He is best
known for Shockwave because it apparently anticipated the Net. His more
important works were earlier ones. They deal with issues such as
overpopulation and eco-catastrophes not some artificial intelligence like in
the movie The Matrix. Geek culture does not really want to face the fact we
are all truly and deeply interconnected. It is entertaining to draw up an
image of the butterfly in China causing a tornado in Kansas. But it's much
more messy and distressing to get an understanding why the Inuit natives in
Canada are having more lead in their blood then Detroit inner city kids
because all of the US-power plant pollution blowing over the border. Geeks
don't get that. For them it is more fun to get excited about the next
digital organism.

Paulina Borsook, Cyberselfish, A Critical Romp Through the Terribly
Libertarian World of High-Tech, New York: Little, Brown and Company 2001
(paperback edition June 2001). URL: Unofficial home

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