Now that the computer has revolutionized business and communications, it would be interesting to look into the soul of the machine, to see what cultural values lurk behind the digital curtain.
Paulina Borsook takes a highly personalized look in "Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech" (Public Affairs, 256 pages, $24).
What one hopes when reading a first-person account of something as vague as high-tech culture is that individual impressions can be generalized into something meaningful for the wider audience. "Cyberselfish" falls short on that leap from the personal to the general, and the reader is left mostly with Borsook's anecdotes.
That can be entertaining. Borsook writes in creative, frothy style, stringing together images and descriptions that create a heady sense of her subject. Here's part of her take on hacking:
"The cypherpunk-criminal elements of high tech -- hackers, crackers, and street users of technology -- are but more madcap manifestations of other, better-known, individualistic and asocial qualities that are already present in techno-culture: not giving a damn about conventional notions of dress or grooming; keeping vampire hours; amping out for workaholic or recreational overextended stretches of time at the computer; breaking into computer networks and systems in an impish, playful, Kilroy-was-here, and definitely not malicious way; tweaking federal government Web sites to demonstrate that they are not secure, but doing nothing to mess anything up."
Borsook's point of view is that computer culture lacks the human touch and fails to recognize the value of government underpinnings.
"So although programmers fancy themselves sky pilots, they are taking advantage of mass labor and social organizations, whose handiwork is almost entirely invisible as they seek to create wealth where they sit. And the government's part in all this (R&D, for example) is similarly out of sight."
A reader already inside the wired world will probably get more out of "Cyberselfish" than the outsider trying to get up to speed. The issues are there, but it's hard to distinguish between them and Borsook's perception of them.
She admits some of the shortcomings. The author, a Californian, is mainly concerned with Silicon Valley and makes little note of other computing capitals. Seattle is dismissed:
"Microsoft is generally regarded as Borg monoculture that resembles only itself, or perhaps IBM at the height of its computer-industry hegemony in the 1970s and is not so very much like the rest of high tech," she writes.
She also admits to using "libertarian" in its broadest sense, which, for her, equals greed and not the ideal of individual freedom.
Dealing more in impressions than in ideas, expanding on her own Wired magazine stories about conferences, meetings and even dates, Borsook invites the reader to have feelings rather than thoughts. That's one way to look at computer culture. A subjective way.
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