The religion of technolibertarianism

Interview with the Californian writer Paulina Borsook -- a fierce opponent of the 'cyberselfish' culture of high tech

Paulina Borsook is one of the few writers who can claim to have a real and lively fan club. Her followers are so devoted that they have set up a home page called chez Justine -- named after the nom de guerre she used on the satirical webzine Suck -- linking to her online articles. Most famous is her piece Cyberselfish that she wrote for the magazine "Mother Jones" in summer 1996. In that essay, Borsook points to the irony that the anti-government leaning libertarian culture in the Bay Area around Silicon Valley grew up on massive state intervention. The technolibertarians "are creaming the profits from public resources -- from the orderly society that has resulted from the wise use of regulation and public spending", she told the readers.

Even though this case had been laid out by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron in their famous analysis of "The Californian Ideology" before, Borsook's essay stirred up quite a debate in the US and in California especially. She ”cast the ideology in real terms, in snappy language laced with the occasional personal anecdote, making its import and implications concrete not only to a global online audience, but to the offline readership as well”, as David Hudson points out in his book Rewired. A strong (and opiniated) net history.

Eventually, the article turned into a whole book with the same title. The style of the "extended mix" is the same as in the essay, making it a very personal, a very engaged story. But the making of the book -- that Borsook only refers to as "tdb" (that damn book) -- is a story in itself. First, the hardcover version was supposed to appear at HardWired, the former publishing arm of Wired Ventures (the mother of the magazine Wired, for which Borsook wrote some pieces in its early days). But as it turned out, Borsook’s lefty tone didn’t work out well with "Wired's" (old) party line -- especially, as she had recognized during her 'relationship' with the magazine that it was one of the biggest cheerleader of technolibertarianism and celebrated the Net as a perfect model of anarchism supposed to work.

Therefore the deal with HardWired was canceled after Borsook mentioned her thoughts about "Wired" in an interview with Hudson's online site Rewired. But finally, Borsook found a new publisher and after years of research ”Cyberselfish” came out in 2000. A year later, the German version is ready, which seems to be a good opportunity for an email-chat with Paulina who lives in Santa Cruz, California, just a few miles away from the heart of the Silicon Valley right at the Pacific ocean.

How did you get interested in technolibertarianism? How did you find out about these common threads in high tech, Bionomics, and the rest of Silicon Valley entrepreneurism?
Paulina Borsook: I've been knocking around high-tech for two decades now, so have had a long time to simply pay attention, process what I was observing, be in lots of different scenes. For example, as luck would have it, I attended the press conference releasing the first version of Windows at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan back in 1983 and I -did- end up at the first commercial conference on the Net back in 1987 where I met a lot of the early Arpanet and Internet guys and did become friends with Dan Lynch, the guy who in some sense fostered the whole Bionomics thing and I -did- (through a chain of circumstances too long to get into) get involved with "Wired" very early on, coincident with my move back from Manhattan to San Francisco back in 1993, when that whole scene got started. So the book was more a matter of articulating what I had been seeing for a long time, and trying to find the roots of the culture I perceived, rather than a case of not knowing what I would find, and simply working as a journalist on a mission of discovery/fact-finding.
I suppose I was interested in technolibertarianism because at first when I stumbled in high-tech, I thought the guys I was meeting were like the old Jet Propulsion Lab/NASA/Southern California aerospace guys I had grown up with (my parents' friends, for examples). However, I began to realize after awhile that there were some significant differences in how they viewed the world. For a long time I didn't at all understand what I was seeing; I would simply record the instance of whatever it was as 'oh -that-. there's -that- again, whatever that weird thing is...' it took a long time for me to form a coherent picture of what the 'that' was.
And since I knew, as a sector of society, these guys had suffered less and benefited more from the government than almost any other, I couldn't figure out why they were acting this way. When I don't understand something, that's when I realize something is worth writing about: that is, there's a mystery to be explored...
Is there a little technolibertarian in all of us? Most Internet users want the government to stay out off their little empire called cyberspace.
Paulina Borsook: There's a complex tension in all of us between wanting to left alone and wanting/needing to be part of society, that's true. And I certainly am a fierce -civil- libertarian. But recall that high-tech is not just the Internet; and say, protecting free speech on the Net is a different issue from say, thinking the government might have a place in persecuting frauds that take place there. Or thinking about whether it's appropriate for government to monitor/regulate the terribly toxic ways computer-equipment is manufactured.
What makes technolibertarianism so dangerous? Who are its main agitators?
Paulina Borsook: Technolibertarianism is more -religion- than -political movement-. It's more a way people in high-tech tend to frame issues, think about the world, than it is, say, a predictor of how they'll vote (note, for example, that both U.S. political parties had excellent fund-raising results in the presidential election of 2000.) So it's inaccurate to think of this as a movement with agitators; it's more useful to think of it as a belief-system that trickles out to the rest of the world. So, for example, the model of the start-up is NOT the only/best model for all of human endeavor and the market will NOT be the best test for the value of all human striving and the constant revs to software is NOT a model for how all of human institutions and relations ought to be. The danger lies in people outside high-tech believing that somehow the guys in high-tech are the philosopher-princes of our day, and that their behaviors and myopias ought to be a inspiration for us all.
In your book, you describe yourself as a real "luddite". Could you please elaborate?
Paulina Borsook: I describe myself as a "luddite" in the true sense of the word; that is, the original followers of Ned Ludd were early labor and environmental activists, rightfully decrying the horrific effects of the Industrial Revolution on their lives and bodies and livelihood. Even though I've been knocking around high-tech since 1981, I never -ever- bought its utopian vision of itself.
Let's talk about privacy. In Europe and in the United States the police and other agencies want to record all the telecommunication data, they want to spy on your email, they want to abandon anonymous surfing and anonymous remailers. Isn't the fear about too much government intervention a real issue?
Paulina Borsook: Government intrusion is always to be feared. On the other hand, -corporate- intrusions into privacy are just as bad these days -- and who might possibly have a ghost of a chance of protecting people from those -- except a government agency?
"Wired" put the crypto rebels and cypherpunks -- who you describe as one of the main groups believing in the cyberlibertarian vision -- on the front cover of its second issue in 1993. How is the relationship between the cheerleader of the 'digital revolution' and technolibertarianism?
Paulina Borsook: First, I don't buy into the notion of a 'digital revolution' -- or at least anymore than there was an 'automobile revolution' or a 'telegraph revolution' or a 'electricity revolution'. I actually think the 'digital revolution', as such, was less important than these others. But yes, "Wired", under the direction of its founders, was absolutely a libertarian propaganda rag, both shaping and reflecting the culture it was celebrating.
In "Cyberselfish", I performed a simple textual analysis on the first few years of "Wired's" existence. It was almost a joke, how consistent an anti-government an anthem (in terms of articles and news stories and opinion pieces) the magazine kept on playing. Even I, who had sort of intuited this a year or so into writing for them, was shocked by how constant the propagandizing was -- and by what points of view were not being articulated in the first mainstream technoculture magazine.
So how could "Wired" and how could a bunch of billionairs in Silicon Valley create all this hype around the Internet, the 'New Economy' and the immaterial worlds of cyberspace?
Paulina Borsook: Another clarification of terms: I don't believe there's any such thing as the New Economy, but that's a whole other story. I think the hype worked because there is a desperate human Need to Believe, and wouldn’t you rather believe that you are a convention-smashing hero of invention than just a geek? Also, it was to the advantage of Wall Street and the VCs to contribute to the hype, in order to drive up valuations, and hence, their management fees and their ability to flip stocks as quickly as possible. And the media is entirely to blame for so credulously buying into all this hooey.
In these days, the NASDAQ is a downer, the reign of high tech as well as the short summer of the Internet seems over. Isn't your book a bit late to spoil the party?
Paulina Borsook: I was thinking about the libertarian culture of high-tech (which seems to have existed since Silicon Valley and the Net got started, back in the 1970s) long before the Netscape IPO of 1995, which was when most people would date as the beginning of the dotcom irrational exuberance. This culture/religion mindset was there long before companies like the now-bankrupt March First were spending tens of millions of dollars on ad campaigns -- and will be there long after people will be too embarassed to admit that they bought stocks in the hypothetical So no, while the book does focus somewhat on the Bay Area technoculture of the 1990s, it really documents a culture that's been around for 30 years -- and will still be there when the Valley will have returned to its roots as being an engineering culture that's not regarded as terribly glamourous.
But isn't it easy to criticize the technolibertarians now that their dreams are shattered and it's obvious that there’s something wrong in this culture?
Paulina Borsook: I think your point is that it's easy for -others- to critique high-tech now that scads of silly-money is no longer being made and high-tech products don't turn out to salve all human misery. My position has really been the same all along -- I rather feel like Walter Benjamin, who with much despair for years kept speaking out against a totalizing, annihilating, ideology.
Are you looking forward to the summer? According to "The Economist" it’s going to be a very hot summer indeed -- with air conditioning outages due to the energy crisis in California.
Paulina Borsook: Well, Santa Cruz is a place that has always had erratic power (not sure why), so in some ways for -me- the summer may not be that different. Also, I don't have air-conditioning at all. What with the deepening recession and the high-tech bubble burst, yet with a new majority in the U.S. senate and California playing hardball with the Bush administration -- very hard to say how things will play out this summer.
Do you see a connection between the technoliberalistic culture in the 'Golden State' and its energy crisis?
Paulina Borsook: The energy situation in California is -not- about scarcity, but about market manipulations of all kinds, artificially-created shortages. There isn't a direct connection to technolibertarianism, except in the cultural sense, but that's worth describing a bit.
Most Europeans probably don't know that California, as part of its periodic fits of anti-government rage, created term-limits for state legislators ("no professional politicians! Three terms and you're out!") While this libertarian feel-good initiative sounds great in theory, in practice it meant that there was no institutional memory in the legislature, or folks with years of experience dealing with a particular issue or industry, and that many of the legislators were so naive/ignorant of whatever the issue was that they were being asked to vote on (understandable, given the complexity of so many issues) that they simply left it up to the lobbyists to more or less draft the legislation for them. Gee, I wonder if that means there will be legislation favoring a particular industry! Surprise! And guess who created the California "deregulation plan"? The California utility companies!
What's more, the legislators who were responsible for legalizing this mess have been 'termed out’ i.e. they aren't the legislature any more, so can't be held responsible.
Now it is true that libertarians complain that the California "deregulation plan" wasn't really true deregulation -- it turns out it merely created a means for certain companies (i.e. out-of-state energy companies) to game the system -- where when the in-state companies that basically wrote the legislation inaccurately thought it would be a way for -them- to game the system. Both in-state and out-of-state major players hoped for near-monopoly situations, and in no way wanted the diversity of actors/smaller operators that -true- deregulation might have lead to.
But the thing is, pretty much -all- attempts at deregulating formerly-regulated industries turn into cash-cows/monopolies for a few oligarchs -- and into messes for consumers.

Cyberselfish. A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech. New York (Public Affairs), 2000

In German: Schöne neue Cyberwelt. Mythen, Helden und Irrwege des Hightech. München (dtv), 2001

(Stefan Krempl)