July 27, 2003
'Wired': The Coolest Magazine on the Planet
ired 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 I.P.O.'s.
''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 Italy.
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
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.