Slash and Dash in Cyberland

December 21, 2000

Book Review
By Philip J. Davis

Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech. By Paulina Borsook, Public Affairs, New York, 2000, 256 pages, $24.00.

Le style est l'homme mÍme. ---Buffon

About five years ago, wearing my "SIAM News columnist" hat, I made my first, and to date only, visit to a prominent Silicon Valley industrial campus. I lucked into a few moments with the CEO---since booted out with a platinum parachute and subsequently rebooted elsewhere to still higher glorious undertakings. I came home, wrote up my experience, and had it rejected by my gentle editor. Well, I needn't have fretted about a possible information loss. Paulina Borsook has done it for me, far, far better than I ever could, and has set it all down in words that bubble and bite.

Sign up for this book and you will enjoy a guided tour of Silicon Valley in its zoological and ideological aspects. Borsook will guide you with knowledge gained from long personal experience. She will introduce you to the geeks, the dweebs, the cyber- and cypherpunks and coolies, the whackos, the programmer-droids, the hackers, the ravers, the gilders, the anarcho-capitalists and crypto-anarchists, the suits, the dealers in spook-spinoffs, the startup gurus, the extro-pians, the polyamorists, the H-1B visa holders, the mech-warriors; above all, you will meet the techno-libertarians who reside in this steaming, turbulent, Darwinian, "red in tooth and claw" jungle of transient ideas and products, where rugged individualism espouses new-age religiosity, where opportunism breeds money and greed galore, where social and communal disregard thrives. These categories of individual may overlap.

Enter this world, which with our silent complacency and our enthused shelling out of bucks for its never-ending list of useful and never-to-be-used products has permanently colored the 21st century, fashioning everyone's future along digital lines. You will enter a world that is largely hidden from the view of the little school children who are herded into computer pods; a world that is largely hidden even from us innocent applied mathematicians who do not yet worry about copyrighting our products and branding them, like Texas heifers, with our proprietary trademarks. You will enter a world with its own language, mores, philosophy, its own self-delusions, its own visions of heaven and of hell, and infinite amounts of self-replicating money, most of which sits there waiting to be let loose, whether to create, to corrupt, or to be thrown into the trash bins of triviality.

This is a world of startups of which nine out of ten are said to fail, where feature-creep can substitute for creativity, where hermetically sealed off geeks produce large quantities of vaporware whose exhalations are changing our habits and our language.

Paulina Borsook, a slash-and-dash-out-of-breath-from-too-many-words polemicist/practitioner of the new-Net-style of journalism/fiction, a Santa Cruz Californian, a feminist after her own fashion, a former writer for Wired, and now something of a cult figurette, has, among her best friends, some of the aforementioned geeks and libertarians. She knows the taxonomy and the contours of cyberville like the back of her own hand. And in this memoir, driving and seething with indignation, she has given the back of her hand to its culture and its personalities. Her spotlight is focused principally on a type she calls "the techno-libertarian," of whom she gives an intimate and devastating portrait. Libertarianism being a deeply held state of mind, if not a surrogate religion, such people and their critics come in more varieties and Boolean overlaps than is now the case with dry cereals at your friendly supermarket. Her characterizations must therefore be understood as taxonomic idealizations.

Since I am a frequent writer and am thus alert to styles, I want first to write about the prose style of Borsook and her netpeers. It is gushing, punchy, overheated, colorful, graceless, redundant, unrelenting, drowning the reader (as does hypertext) in facts, opinions, asides, and footnotes. Occasionally, Borsook creates sentences so convoluted, so full of acronyms and nonalphabetic symbols, that the ghost of Henry James himself would find difficulty in extracting their meaning. Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at Stanford, opines that "a new kind of writing that is quite literally unprintable" may be emerging from the laptops of netjournalists and presumably diffusing to the whole community of writers.

I am not a follower of Rudolf Flesch (one of the early pioneers in the mathematization of prose style), and I don't have available any of the style-analysis software widely employed of late to analyze the speeches of presidential candidates, so I cannot figure out how exactly to characterize Borsook's style. One feature that appears on practically every page, standing out like the proverbial fish in the milk pail, is long strings of words concatenated by slashes or dashes. Three examples:

"non-high-end/non-best-of-class/but-maybe-with-quiet virtues of its own . . ."

"this love-hate, we-are-hurt-and-angered-by-what-it's-turning-out-to-be-but-there's-no-greater-publication-on-the-planet-right-now reaction . . ."

"one of those divorced-in-her-forties-with-two-teenagers-to-raise-while-trying-to-reenter-the-workforce sad stories . . ."

I suppose this is a kind of forced compactification of ideas, an attempt to express in one neologism what the English language lacks by way of a terse description for many current multidimensional, polychromatic, digital experiences. It's algorithmic insofar as it sets up standardized life categories. Mathematician Lewis Carroll (1832-98) went in for this kind of blending. He called his simple compounds "portmanteau words," and I would call Borsook's polyhyphens "steamer trunks." They certainly remind me of some of the endless Web addresses we all encounter, e.g. http://www.paulinaborsook.com/Doco/virtual_romance.html, where you will find posted Paulina's ho-hum romance---possibly a satire and I missed it---in which a female and a male weep much more over equipment blues than over erotic e-feelings.

But new compounds---"suck-uppy," "tech-rich," "cybergenerous," "jargon-osphere"---can be expressive. Special terminologies and arcane acronyms of the business salt and pepper her pages. This is inevitable: Every specialty, every craft, is entitled to its nomenclature and generates a characteristic style. All writers create personal vocabularies, sending the spellers in word processors into convulsions; but they don't do it with the high Borsookian frequency or with the intricacies of Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

Here and there in this review, I've tried to imitate/parody this style. All right: It's easy/contagious.

Language reflects life. Reciprocally, life creates language, and as I read along, I wondered whether the prose style of this book reflects the writer as an individual or the frenetic/symbolic talk of siliconsoc as it gerbills along in the cube-cities of Siliconia.

Except tangentially, Borsook reveals little of her own life. In the 70s---her postgraduate years---she was at Berkeley, "studying acting, grovelling at tables, working for a peace group." She's a bit of a misanthrope. She twists her knife into well-known cyber personalities. Thus, she calls one person "a high tech grand high poo-bah and technology-sibyl." Three people are described as "geeks" who see themselves as "warriors in a Just War." Another is a "venture-capitalist poster boy." Still another is "the raver, Wild West neo-hippie." It's not clear whom Borsook respects. But fundamentally, she has a good heart, an eye for what is phony or wicked, for which we can be thankful, and she loves humanity generically.

Borsook is a self-confessed Luddite: "I am a Luddite in the true sense of the word. I am not so sure most change benefits most people." She devotes two pages to the dangers of de-skilling, but she is also a Luddite who sings a love song to the late lamented Diconix printer of blessed memory that accompanied her as she made her way through the wired Wired world. And, she writes, "I'll remain one of the many whose heart was broken by the promise of this magazine."

Now let's hear Borsook's characterization of the techno-libertarians/siliconized geeks. (In a bold act of data compactification, I'm going to call them TLs.) Firstly, to avoid confusion, since there is a Libertarian political party in the USA, Borsook points out that as regards politics, many TLs "may be registered as Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, or as independents, or may not have voted in years. . . ."

In their imaginative/professional lives, TLs have a tendency to be infantile-cyber-Tolkein-Peter Pan-ish: "High tech is locked into a perpetual youth culture mind-set, even if that doesn't match the actual chronological age of many who work within it."

TLs prefer the world to be deterministic/algorithmic in its essential nature, and resent it when it's not. "Nerds are always looking for algorithms or heuristics to model the world." Six pages discuss the extent to which "TL culture is morbidly hypermale" and the frequency of polyamory. TLs are averse to long commitments: "From a purely socioeconomic viewpoint, it's anomalous that many cypherpunks are not married, have never been married, and have no kids." According to their in-world joke, the good news is that the problem is self-limiting---the TLs may not reproduce themselves. Reciprocally, SilVal companies are averse to long commitments to their TLs.

Though the drawers-of-water and the hewers-of-wood among them may not be able to afford local housing, TLs really live in cyberland, which is located neither in Santa Clara County nor in the clouds; hence, they have an attachment neither to cities nor to the Planet Earth. "High tech has historically had a city-loathing/urban problem-avoiding bias." TLthink asserts: "Homes; who needs them except as satellite offices?"

TLs are out-for-themselves solipsists flying the I've-made-it-big-and-so-can-you-if-you-want-to flag. The TLZs (techno-libertarian-zillionaires) are far less generous, proportionately, than your average/run-of-the-mill homo sap. At best, TLZs are cheese-paring micro-philanthropists; and when they do give a few millions away, their giving tends to follow what Borsook calls the "cat-dead-rat" pattern. That is, they give what pleases them, e.g., computer stuff, and not what the larger community might itself think would be of profit.

TLs are virulently antigovernment, except possibly when looking for government contracts/bailouts/export licenses. They are antitax/anticontrol. "TLs are sick of being reminded that the Arpanet, the precursor of the Internet, was a government-funded research project . . . sheltered from commercial pressures . . . in its first fifteen years." They refuse to believe that the success of the whole digital program/outlook requires a reasonably well ordered and governed world as basic infrastructure; they believe, au contraire, that the meta-mediaroad is the guaranteed road to such stability.

It is very likely that all the attitudes detailed in Cyberselfish are changing, if only gradually. It is possible that what Borsook describes is already ancient history. Shall we read her book as a description of eo-webculture, simultaneously enjoying it and shuddering, much as we now read the history of the French aristocracy in the preguillotine days? And will future generations communicate in siliconsqueak even as old fogeys and antiquarians deplore the elimination of the English curricula in which Hemingway and Mailer were once offered up as paradigms of perfect prose?

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.


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