'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

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 
the 90's. 
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 
fortunate colleagues. 
''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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