'Wired': The Coolest Magazine on the Planet [Was]
Freematt357 at aol.com
Freematt357 at aol.com
Sun Jul 27 06:36:04 PDT 2003
'Wired': The Coolest Magazine on the Planet
By DAVID CARR
Wired magazine, that storied artifact of a digital age, was conceived by its
editors as a ''a reverse time capsule. It would sail back through time and
land at people's feet.''
And so it has, most recently in the form of ''Wired: A Romance,'' a book by
one of the magazine's contributing editors, Gary Wolf. Our notions of the
future have a tendency to age quickly, and Wired, a magazine that served as both
Boswell and bomb thrower for the geekerati in the 1990's, seems to have aged
more quickly than most. The seminal publication, Wolf writes, was created in the
midst of a digital revolution that its high priest, Louis Rossetto, liked to
refer to as a ''Bengali typhoon.'' By the time Rossetto and Wired's co-founder,
Jane Metcalfe, were thrown clear, everything had changed, but not in the ways
that they once thought it would.
Wired was important not just because it was the first magazine to make the
computer world seem hip; it also trained its eye on the implications of the
onrushing new technology, not merely on appraising the newest machines and
trendiest gadgets. (Though Wired featured plenty of articles about those things,
too.) The magazine, Rossetto promised somewhat grandiosely early on, would foment
''a revolution without violence that embraces a new, nonpolitical way to
improve the future based on economics beyond macro control, consensus beyond the
ballot box, civics beyond government and communities beyond the confines of time
and geography.'' Rossetto's manifesto seems quaint just 10 years later, but
it found many disciples. Gary Wolf, an early Wired employee, was among them,
and he has written a deceptively deadpan recollection that reads more like a
libretto than a straightforward work of journalism.
Wolf expertly traces the magazine's heavily hyped ascendancy, though, sadly,
most readers will know all along that the magazine Rossetto saw as a Trojan
horse for revolution was eventually sold in 1998 to a corporation (Conde Nast)
like any common asset. (The magazine still exists, though it doesn't carry the
swagger and prestige it once did.) Wolf writes with a former true believer's
skepticism, a wan idealism rubbed out by subsequent events. As his book's title
suggests, Wolf is still a bit wistful about Wired's careering journey through
It's hard to blame him. The corporate-dominated magazine industry tends to
stay safely behind significant issues, while Wired was that odd indie
publication that actually enabled a movement by appealing to its nobler instincts. But
as Wolf demonstrates, Wired's purity of purpose -- Rossetto seemed to care
about money only as oxygen for his dream -- did not inoculate the magazine from
the ambient greed that reduced a hoped-for paradigm shift to a pile of failed
''Wired: A Romance'' is less a love story than a theological autopsy of a
religion that flourished and went away in less than a decade. Things happened
quickly for Wired -- remember ''Internet time''? At its height in the mid-90's,
Wired could be found in the lobbies of venture capitalists, on the light tables
of designers, underneath the coffee cups of computer geeks and in the middle
of the only conversation that seemed to matter. It was, briefly, the coolest
magazine on the planet.
This book is fundamentally a biography of Rossetto, a larger-than-life
personality whom Wolf compares to ''a magnet whose grip increased dramatically at
close range.'' In retrospect, it would be easy to mistake Rossetto for another
would-be Internet guru and Wired as a curio of a bygone time, but as Wolf makes
clear, the revolution that Rossetto championed was not about the Web.
Rossetto saw desktop publishing as a profound reinvention of the printing press. ''He
thought computer publishing would change the world,'' Wolf writes.
And Rossetto knew a thing or two about revolution. As Wolf points out,
Rossetto, a former anarchist who obtained a master's degree in business
administration from Columbia, was a global itinerant, a gaunt, hippie-ish Zelig who just
happened to be in the neighborhood when the Shining Path emerged in Peru, when
the Tamil rebellion began in Sri Lanka, when the Red Brigades sowed chaos in
Small wonder Rossetto ended up in San Francisco in the early 90's with Jane
Metcalfe, then his girlfriend, on the cusp of another kind of insurgency, both
of them working to finance a new kind of magazine. Rossetto wanted to call
their journal DigIt -- as in either ''digit'' or ''dig it'' -- a bad idea that
Metcalfe mercifully talked him out of. The new magazine would be named Wired.
With the help of $20,000 from a sympathetic Dutch entrepreneur, the pair
managed to get inexpensive access to a Canon color copier -- an exotic technology
at the time -- to produce a prototype. Several of Wired's more durable angels,
investors with real money who bought Rossetto's conceits, signed on later.
And John Plunkett, the man responsible for Wired's neon-suffused, anarchic
design, committed to joining the magazine in spite of himself. This glossy fever
dream of a magazine made its debut at the Macworld conference on Jan. 2, 1993.
The early adopters snatched it up and Wired was on its way.
But Wolf demonstrates that Rossetto always seemed to keep his ambitions just
ahead of his funding. Chunks of the enterprise were handed out to investors so
that Wired could expand to the Web, to television, to Europe and beyond. The
magazine's Web site, HotWired, turned out to be a particularly effective way
of making money disappear.
Wolf, who became HotWired's executive editor in 1995, appears in the
narrative at this point, saying that after meetings with Rossetto he left his boss's
office with ''the light step of a person who has been given permission to be
bad.'' But Wolf's efforts to enrich his writer friends with lucrative freelance
assignment for the Web site comes off as a misdemeanor in felonious times. The
pressure to move Wired toward an initial public offering drove an ill-advised
effort for bigness at all costs. No one cared about profits, and deals were
made willy-nilly to build the hypothetical value of the company, including
adding a search engine, the gewgaw of the moment.
The pranksters at Suck, a sardonic (and now defunct) site built by Wired
employees on the sly, captured the era's ethos with carnal clarity. In an essay
written at the very beginning of the Web boom, Wolf writes, ''The Sucksters'
advice was to fluff up a site, locate a rich, stupid buyer and then run away fast
before the concoction deflated.''
To his credit, Rossetto never saw how giving away content free on the Web
could make anyone rich. Wolf describes -- in too much detail, because he happened
to be in the middle of it -- how Rossetto fought to make visitors to HotWired
register, which some believed violated the Web's ethos. By this time, bankers
and shareholders were looking over his shoulder, accusing him of being a
profligate Luddite at a revolution he once led.
While charting the Nasdaq's rise and eventual fall, Wolf shows Rossetto and
Metcalfe readying Wired for a ''liquidity event,'' that supremely validating
90's moment. But when they hit the road in October 1996 to pitch investors,
Rossetto's overweening ambitions and the market's gyrations left Wired's public
offering dead on arrival. Rossetto become so preoccupied with saving the
business that he eventually handed leadership of the magazine over to Katrina Heron,
a former editor at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Heron, who is now a
consultant for The New York Times, proved to be an able and popular steward of the
magazine, but in stepping aside Rossetto had built his own gallows.
The money men who had attached themselves to Wired set up a series of
impossible financial targets for Rossetto, and in March 1998 he and Metcalfe were
cast out of the future they had built. The magazine was eventually sold to Conde
Nast, and its two founders ended up with $30 million and a profoundly bad
taste in their mouths. Wolf allows Andrew Anker, the ferociously ambitious C.E.O.
of the company, to serve up an epitaph for the ideals that once drove Wired.
With the sale of the magazine on the table, Wolf recounts how Anker and other
senior Wired employees went to a bar in San Francisco for an impromtu wake.
Anker gleefully tallies up his substantial gains to the outrage of his less
''What is this, 'Sesame Street'?'' Anker said. ''Every man for himself means
every man for himself!'' The future, it turned out, would still be written by
Charles Darwin in spite of Wired's best efforts.
David Carr is a media reporter for The Times.
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