This book review originally appeared in the January 2001 issue of Liberty magazine (Volume 15, Number 1, pp. 52-54). It has not previously been published on line.
Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech, by Paulina Borsook. Public Affairs, 2000, 256 pages.
Have you ever read a book that you simply could not set aside, so compelled were you to turn page after page after page? Perhaps it was Atlas Shrugged or Catch-22 or, in a lighter moment, a treatise on Swedish land-use planning.
Cyberselfish is not one of those books. In fact, I had to force myself to read it all the way through, much the same way one forces oneself to swallow bitter medicine, because I did not want to be accused, as a reviewer, of not fully engaging myself with the material. Of course, that would likely not be a problem for author Paulina Borsook, who goes to great lengths to avoid engaging the arguments she pretends to refute in this book.
Borsook is shocked, quite shocked, by the libertarian philosophy that infests Silicon Valley. (She limits her critique almost entirely to the high-tech world of Northern California.) Yet it is clear that her research did not include a single book by a libertarian thinker or about libertarianism. She mentions some books — such as Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies — in a feeble attempt to prove her credentials, but her lack of engagement with the arguments and her frequent errors of fact show her self- described credentials to be fraudulent.
Two examples of error leap out at the reader. In the introduction, she says the Libertarian Party “is the party that routinely nominates Harry Browne as its presidential candidate.” That’s like saying the Democratic Party “routinely nominates Bill Clinton as its presidential candidate.” It hardly takes into account the fact that in every election since 1976, the GOP ticket has included someone named Bush or Dole. And, for a book that was published on June 6, 2000 — one month before Harry Browne became the first person in the history of the Libertarian Party to be nominated twice as a presidential candidate — it demonstrates a high degree of ignorance of the Party’s performance, not to mention its core beliefs (more on this later).
Toward the end of the first chapter (titularly about “bionomics” but really about so much more), Borsook says the Cato Institute has been “hugely funded since the late 1960s and early 1970s” Borsook says the Cato Institute has been “hugely funded since the late 1960s and early 1970s” — a neat trick for an organization established in 1977! (66) — a neat trick for an organization established in 1977! Although Borsook acknowledges Cato’s pride of place in the libertarian pantheon — such as it is — she obviously knows nothing about the Institute itself, much less the philosophy that animates it. (On page 17, she says of Cato: “To them, government is fine for dealing with the anachronism of nation-states [foreign policy, defense, import-export hassles] but is irrelevant to all else and should just get out of our way.” Someone should alert Ted Galen Carpenter before he decries non-interventionism again.)
Not only does Borsook fail to engage her opponents, she often fails to sustain her own arguments long enough to bring them to a suitable conclusion. When I say she fails to engage her opponents, I do not mean she does not argue with them. She does, but more often, she merely mocks them. She does not even take the trouble to set up straw men to knock down. Instead, she avoids ideas and focuses on tone and attitude. (Borsook’s personal tone is a breathless, neo-Joycean style of stream-of-consciousness that is exasperating at best, frustrating at worst.)
In a series of anecdotes about conferences sponsored by The Bionomics Institute (TBI), later taken over by Cato, Borsook talks about the types of people there, how they dress, where they come from, their preferences of suburban locales over downtown conference sites. She never once mentions an idea the participants or the speakers address. For instance, in describing one conference speaker, Peter Huber, she cites a paper he wrote on telecommunications deregulation, asserting that it posited that “in the realm of communications, everything would interconnect and self-heal and route most efficiently if left on its own without the Great Satan of regulation and the devil would take the hindmost and, as I think it was said by a terror of the Counter Reformation, ‘God will sort them out'” (68), going on to explain this reference to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre — but never once telling us readers what Huber himself said, in the sense of quoting his spoken words at the conference or the text of the paper Borsook so colorfully critiques.
Nowhere in the book is there a mention of the non-coercion principle. Her only substantive mention of Ayn Rand is to attack — no surprise here — not Rand’s ideas, but her attitude (“her fiction demonstrates all the humorlessness, lack of irony, 2-D heroes, and political exhortation of the collectivist world she despised” ). The word “objectivism” cannot be found in the book. To Borsook, libertarianism can be summed up as the belief system of people “violently lacking in compassion, ravingly anti-government, and tremendously opposed to regulation,” while libertarians themselves are the embodiment of “nastiness, narcissism, and lack of human warmth” (5). She writes of “the most virulent form of technolibertarianism [as] a kind of scary, psychologically brittle, prepolitical autism” (15). No wonder she describes her “fascination” with libertarianism as one of “mongoose-to-cobra style” (4). She doesn’t have to understand the snake in order to kill it.
At the same time Borsook makes it clear which thinkers she admires, to wit: “The ‘Communist Manifesto’ has it right... Marx and his pal Engels had other relevant things to say about the spread of global capitalism (much more accurate for the description of what is happening at the end of our own century than at the end of his)” Borsook talks about the types of people there, how they dress, where they come from, their preferences of suburban locales over downtown conference sites. She never once mentions an idea the participants or the speakers address.(44). And: “I am a Luddite — in the true sense of the word. The followers of Ned Ludd were rightfully concerned that rapid industrialization was ruining their traditional artisanal workways and villages. . . . like the Luddites, I am not so sure most change benefits most people” (47-48). (I guess that’s why stagnant, traditional societies in the Third World have the longest life spans, the lowest rates of illness, the lowest infant-mortality rates, universal literacy, such high standards of living, and such low levels of pollution. Oh, but they don’t, you say? My bad!)
Borsook’s eschewal of intellectual engagement goes a long way toward explaining why this book lacks a bibliography or references of any kind. One cannot list the works one has used for research if one has not read any articles or books on the topic one writes about. (At least no one will ever accuse Paulina Borsook of plagiarism.)
Some other writer may come up with a convincing critique of the rampant technolibertarianism” that Borsook has discovered in Silicon Valley. In order to do so, however, that writer must first understand what libertarianism is, who its major proponents are, and what those proponents say about it and about public policy issues as well as philosophy. Borsook has failed in all three tasks, and as a result has given us a dense, unreadable book about what could be an interesting and engaging topic.