The Collected and Ephemeral Works of
  Paulina Borsook
Two answers for Julia Stein
about my career as a technology writer


My writing about Silicon Valley was an accident of time and place, rather as if I had been a decent feller of trees in Maine in the early 19th-century when the great Yankee clippers were being constructed and American trade was changing the country and the world. There was work to be had and the practices of ship-building didn't scare me and I was interested in the people and artifacts involved. But I was never much interested in rounding Cape Horn in pursuit of the riches of the first California Gold Rush.

Specifically, I ended up working for a few software companies in the Bay Area because even back in the early 80s, that's where the jobs were. Then as now, a superfluity of overeducated liberal-arts-flakes colonized the Bay Area, so you had to adapt to what was on offer in your bioregion. My skepticism alas never abandoned me; only a year or so into my life in technology, back in the summer of 1983, I became acquainted with Chris Carlsson and his "Processed World" zine, a publication about and a focal point for critiques of life and culture as mediated by technology.

And when I worked for a computer-networking magazine in the middle 80s in New York, it mattered to me more that I did a bit of writing on the side for magazines like "Architectural Record" than that I had the assignment of attending the press conference at the Waldorf-Astoria where Microsoft launched Windows. Homesick, I plastered my office with images of California (an Ansell Adams calendar; photographs cut out of a PG+E annual report), but it is also true that I bought my the first computer back in 1986, a laptop --- and insisted it have a modem, even though such things were expensive add-ons at the time and only 10 percent of laptops were sold with them.

When I moved back to San Francisco in 1987, still employed by the computer network magazine, I obviously got to know live and in-person the companies and employees of Silicon Valley. I had coincidentally attended the first commercial conference on the Internet back around the same time (it was in Monterey) --- and of all the technology subcultures I had been introduced to, the original Internet culture interested me the most. Which led to my acquiring the email address I have retained to this day.

But I was also so damned glad to be back home and see my beautiful blue Pacific.

I left to pursue my MFA in 1989 --- and so supported myself by freelancing for other computer trade publications and also doing corporate hackwork --- which meant stuff like ghostwriting an article for the then-CTO of Cisco on the coming commercialization of the Internet.

When I was at Columbia, I had the good fortune to run into the one good writing instructor of my life, novelist and essayist Philip Lopate. After I workshopped a particularly awful and crabbed storylet, he took me aside after class to say "I think you have captured the pseudo-intimacy of the online world, and no one has ever written about this in a literary way. I think you should do it."

It was almost as if a lightbulb, as in a cartoon, got illuminated above my head: here was a way to take all my cranky anthropologist-from-Mars observations I had been warehousing for years --- and do something with them. Technology is a fine way to deform relationships of all kinds, and it seemed I would be the first write about it as neither academic nor poster on Usenet, witnessing from a literary point of view.

Through a very long chain of acquaintance (recall at this point I had been making my living through technology for a decade, but, to switch metaphors, more in the way of a laundress living in San Francisco during the Gold Rush than as a 49er herself) I ended up being sent the first issue of "Wired" magazine. I took one look at it and thought "ah, they'll get my fiction, even though no one else in the East Coast literary world has". So I emailed the then editor-in-chief on a Friday, and by Monday the magazine had accepted my novella "Love over the Wires", which is both the first literary treatment of
adultery as potentiated by email, and a post-modernist retelling of "The Dead", about how you never know the one you think you love.

I moved back to San Francisco in 1993, and was in the heart of the heart of the whole "Wired" magazine/South Park/dot-com cultural efflorescence.

My attitude towards technology was, as always, that it was a day-job and that my identity remained as a bellelettrist. "Wired" magazine put me on its masthead for the first few years precisely because I wrote about technology in a literary way.

But don't get me wrong; it was great to be alive during the 1990s in the Bay Area when, as during the 1960s, it seemed to be omphalos of the developed nations. I was glad to be home and in the heart of the heart of the happening world, and I was glad to be able to document the time and the place. Yet, while I was curious about the subculture around me, I was always wondering how I could stop being the equivalent of a gaffer in Los Angeles, and find a line of work other than working in the Industry. Yes, I was making my living in one of California's company towns (Hollywood, Fresno, Bakersfield, Eureka, and Sacramento are the other possibilities), but my attitude was more "Miss Lonelyhearts" than E! channel fashion commentator for the Academy Awards' ceremony red-carpet perp walk.

My agent asked me if I felt I had non-fiction book in me; he explained that if such a book did well, it would help create a market for any future fiction I wanted to publish.

Hmm, I said (and these now feel like famous last words), "I have been noticing this strange libertarian culture of high-tech for years. And no one has written about it and I think it matters."

And from this fateful conversation came TDB aka That Damned Book aka "Cyberselfish". In writing TDB, I felt I was speaking truth-to-power and would be able to check "activist" off the life list. TDB ate four years of my life and went through three publishers, appearing on the market just after the NASDAQ crash of 2000. I am pleased that when people read TBB now they find it still has value; in fact, given the current global apostasy from the religion of free markets, some people have commented that it is more timely now than it was then. Perhaps.

As for what other writers were or were not doing, I was irked at the general fetishizing of what was basically a change in infrastructure. It was plumbing, not True Religion, and with my allergy to fundamentalism and my authority problems, I couldn't help being house skeptic/loyal opposition. The number of techno-utopians, authors of sacred texts, and writers of business porn were too numerous to count; very few took the position that "it ain't necessarily so". I always thought academics Theodore Roszak and Langdon Winner were spot on; by contrast, I still retain a special abiding irritation with the writing of John Perry Barlow.

And an aside; while Julia has cast us panelists according to our books, I would say other things I wrote during that time period are as important, and maybe had as much reach as TDB: the fiction; a few feuilletons (one, the first literary discussion of web-stalking your Ex, written back in 1996; for another, sort of a Cosmo Girl's Guide to dating technolibertarians); and a mournful piece for on the hypergentrification of San Francisco.