Digital vsionaries 


In the past decade, the "digital revolution" went from overhyped pipe dream to inescapable annoyance to cultural watershed. From there, it was a few short steps to financial powerhouse, genuine social tumult and, finally, economic Superfund site. In the process, virtually every aspect of our social, cultural and political landscape -- personal communication, financial planning, watching the news, making a phone call -- was transformed to the point that it is now hard to remember how things used to be. And harder to remember how visionary and out-there the digital transformation used to seem. Here's a reminder: When a handful of California computer geeks and crypto-libertarians wanted to announce its onset, their first instinct wasn't to start a new tech firm or do a mass e-mailing, but to start an old-fashioned (well, actually, pretty newfangled) magazine out of ink and paper.

Gary Wolf builds his history of the rise and sale of Wired magazine on two literary conceits. One is that the story of Wired is essentially a romance, a tale of wild adventures in war and love. The other is that the narrative of a market boom is itself built on the steady conversion of skeptics into believers. "Only when the story's truth is more or less universally acknowledged," he writes, "do prices plateau and then plummet. Skepticism, a key ingredient, has run out."

Wolf writes about Wired with such grace and high spirits that I find it hard to imagine any fair-minded reader coming away unpersuaded that in its heyday the magazine -- a visionary monthly that promoted digital technology not merely as a technical marvel but as a genuine social, political and even spiritual revolution -- was a vastly important publishing phenomenon.

Launched in 1993 by Louis Rossetto and his partner Jane Metcalfe, Wired helped create the tech bubble that took off in earnest in 1995 -- even though the magazine's founders never finally figured out how to profit from the run on Internet investment for itself. In one of many small absurdities that make up the saga, the magazine was the first web publishing enterprise to put together an initial public offering -- and never got it off the ground.

In telling the story, Wolf simultaneously recognizes the absurdity of the wild claims that Rossetto and company made for themselves and their magazine and still, at some level, takes those claims seriously. Wired's techno-optimistic vision could be inspiring, utopian, ludicrous or all three at once. Wolf is able to take the vision seriously while mocking the execution.

I worked as the editor of a former Wired property, the late satirical webzine Suck.com, after Wired had sold it off to Lycos. I know many of the book's dramatis personae; Wolf performs tiny miracles of pith and observation. His portraits are devastating not because they're spiteful, but because they're unfailingly empathetic. Consider the elegance of this passage describing the pre-success itinerancy of Rossetto and Metcalfe: "Each move from here would be dependent on the charity of friends, which they were often forced to stretch beyond the limits of good manners. But their faith in the coming change, which they carried with them like a blessing, served to justify the hospitality they sought and took." Or the aphoristic deftness of this introduction to Carl Steadman, the brilliant and tormented co-founder of Suck: "A rural youth of extreme intelligence is almost certain to be unhappy."

In doing justice to his subject, the author must capture the perverse excitement of the 1990s for future generations. He must track Wired's curious financial history, one ironically out of step with the dot-com boom's overall trend. (Wired Ventures' fiscal fortunes tanked in 1996, during a now-forgotten market crash that turned out to be a mere hiccup on the way to that great hotdog-eating contest that was the tech sector of 1998 and '99.) He must explain how Rossetto and Metcalfe cashed out with a cool $30 million payday, and why even that was a fraction of what they deserved.

Wolf pulls all of this off; more impressively, he supports some of the magazine's epochal claims. Wired inspired in its detractors a knee-jerk skepticism that was as silly as the magazine's own relentless optimism. Large numbers of otherwise reasonable people still have nothing but harsh words for the magazine. If your mind is made up one way or the other, nothing I say will change it. Here goes anyway: The early Wired -- both the magazine and the libertarian, cyber-utopian milieu from which it sprang -- was as important to American culture as the early Time, Cosmopolitan, Rolling Stone or any other culture-making magazine of the 20th century.

In telling the story, Wolf's account is an unqualified success. When it comes to tracing the magazine's convoluted relationship with the last decade's tech hype, however, the genre of a romance -- which exalts narrative over analysis -- is a liability. Wolf poses but never answers a crucial question about Rossetto: "His success coincided with a great stock-market bubble. How much was he to blame for the larger mayhem in which he took part?"

Some of the best romances of modern times -- "Lawrence of Arabia," most of Tom Wolfe's nonfiction, or Warren Hinckle's "If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade," a memoir of Ramparts (another epochal San Francisco magazine) -- have explored this very question: the symbiosis between hype and actual history, the way media representation creates reality and vice versa. Wired's history is ripe for this kind of exploration. The magazine's transfigured, oracular tone, as much as its celebrated design and conceptual breakthroughs, blew air into the New Economy balloon. But on the big story, Wired was uncannily, maddeningly right: There really was a fundamental shift, partly or mostly technological, affecting the farthest reaches of civilization. There still is.

Those who cite the relative misery of the 21st century's first few years in order to scoff at that promise of transformation do so at their own risk. The romance of Wired took place in a world that now seems as remote as Cymbeline's or Yoda's. Gary Wolf's book rescues the myth and brings it back as vibrant, crucial history.

(This article appears courtesy of Featurewell.com)


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