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Cyberselfish

Silicon valley, one of the country's biggest recipients of government largesse, would like to bite the hand that feeds it. Paulina Borsook, a Wired magazine contributing writer, reports on the growth of cyberlibertarianism.

I grew up in Pasadena, California, attending school with the sons and daughters of fathers (yup, in those days it was only dads) who worked at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. These parents of my classmates were my first encounter with technologists, and they were, to a man, good liberals. These were the kind of folks who would have Pete Seeger do a benefit concert for our school. They voted New Deal Democratic; they were the grateful recipients of all the money the U.S. government had poured into science, post-Sputnik; they had a sense that the government could do and had done good things, from building Boulder Dam to pulling off the Manhattan Project to putting a man on the moon. And, as beneficiaries of government largesse in ways they were well aware of -- from the GI Bill to interest deductions for home mortgages to the vast expansion of government funding for R&D -- they felt society in general, as manifested in the actions of the government, had an obligation to help everyone in it.

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They were also fully aware of the positive value of government regulation, from the reliability of the FDA-mandated purity of pharmaceutical-grade chemicals they used in their research to the enforcement of voting rights for African-Americans in the South. And what with the very visible air quality problems in the Los Angeles basin (their government-funded studies had recorded the smog death of trees in the encircling San Gabriel Mountains by the 1960s), they were able to see the benefits of regulation in the local ban on trash incineration, the regulation of refinery effluents in the L.A. area, and the implementation of federally stipulated smog devices on automobiles.

So it came as a shock, when, 20 years later, I stumbled into the culture of Silicon Valley (my first job at a software company, 1981; first job at a computer magazine, 1983; attendance at the first commercial conference devoted to the Internet, 1987; token feminist/humanist/skeptic on the masthead of Wired magazine, 1993). Although the technologists I encountered there were the liberals on social issues I would have expected (pro-choice, as far as abortion; pro-diversity, as far as domestic partner benefits; inclined to sanction the occasional use of recreational drugs), they were violently lacking in compassion, ravingly anti-government, and tremendously opposed to regulation.

These are the inheritors of the greatest government subsidy of technology and expansion in technical education the planet has ever seen; and, like the ungrateful adolescent offspring of immigrants who have made it in the new country, they take for granted the richness of the environment in which they have flourished, and resent the hell out of the constraints that bind them. And, like privileged, spoiled teenagers everywhere, they haven't a clue what their existence would be like without the bounty showered on them. These high-tech libertarians believe the private sector can do everything -- but, of course, R&D is something that cannot by any short-term measurement meet the test of the marketplace, the libertarians' measure of all things. They decry regulation--except without it, there would be no mechanism to ensure profit from intellectual property, without which entrepreneurs would not get their payoffs, nor would there be equitable marketplaces in which to make their sales.

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