A WIRED compendium
Dusting off a curated list of old WIRED articles
One of my New Years Resolutions is that I’m going to complete the second, more comprehensive read-through of the WIRED magazine archive in 2023.
The first speed-run of the archive was in 2018. I wrote about it for the magazine’s 25th anniversary issue. I started teaching a new class based on the research. I jotted down a ton of ideas that I’m now developing through this Substack.
After the first readthrough, sort of on a lark, I put together a list of WIRED articles that best captured the vibe of the magazine through time. I limited myself to three articles per year. I never got around to publishing that WIRED compendium.
I’m posting the list below. It runs from 1993, before the dotcom boom, to 2017, the start of the techlash. I’ll be updating and expanding it as a complete the reread in 2023.
If you’re curious about the way the “digital revolution” was contemporaneously portrayed over the past quarter-century, think of this as the audio-guide that you could take through a self-curated museum tour.
The Early Years
The first thing to understand about 1993 and 1994 is that the World Wide Web wasn’t really a thing yet. WIRED declared that the digital revolution had arrived, but that digital revolution was Interactive TV, Virtual Reality, the National Information Infrastructure, and the growth of Bulletin Board Systems.
The magazine’s earliest days are filled with wild, confident predictions about how digital technology is about to change the world. Much of this was too-early, but you can, at moments, pick out the shape of things to come.
1.Mitch Kapor, “Where is the Digital Highway really heading?”
Kapor’s essay is a great vantage point for understanding the promise and potential of the “Information Superhighway” in the years before the dotcom boom. The piece is at times optimistic, declaring the Internet can offer a return to Jeffersonian democratic ideals. But there are also foreboding notes that stop you in your tracks.
“In the worst case,” he warns,” we could wind up with networks that have the principal effect of fostering addiction to a new generation of electronic addiction to a new generation of electronic narcotics… their uses and content determined by mega-corporations pushing mindless consumption of things we don’t need and aren’t good for us.” <gulp>
2.Michael Crichton, “Mediasaurus.”
I’ve written about this piece elsewhere. Crichton is brash and wrong, insisting that American media will literally be extinct (“Vanished, without a trace.”) within ten years. But what makes it particularly interesting is the way he is wrong. He’s convinced that broadcast media will die because people are going to demand comprehensive and factually accurate information, they’ll find it on the internet, and they’ll pay for it.
The Internet has been about-to-end-journalism-as-we-know-it since before the days of Netscape Navigator. And journalism has definitely changed! The peril is real! I like Mediasaurus as a reminder that the digital news crisis is not so new.
3.William Gibson, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty.”
Early WIRED had this lovely habit of paying some of the biggest figures in cyberpunk (Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson) to travel around the globe and write nonfiction features for the magazine. Gibson’s “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” is the first entry in this genre.
4.Michael Schrage, with Robert D. Shapiro, Harry Shapiro Hawk, Don Peppers, Martha Rogers, & David Dix, “Is Advertising Dead?”
Squint and you can see the outline of surveillance capitalism. “The future of media is the future of advertising; the future of advertising is the future of media.”
5.Gary Wolf, “The (Second Phase of the) Revolution Has Begun.”
The wild thing about this article is that it’s the first feature story to talk about the World Wide Web, and it appears at the tail end of 1994. Wolf is introducing WIRED readers to Mosaic, the web browser that ushered in the World Wide Web. You can get a feel from this article of how the web looked to already-committed digital revolutionaries as it arrived.
6.Joshua Quittner, “The Merry Pranksters Go to Washington.”
A profile of the early days of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, riding high on their connections to Al Gore and the Clinton administration. Best vantage point for observing how the new Silicon Valley elite believed they would be able to transform Washington, D.C.
The Early Boom Years
1995 marks the beginning of the dotcom boom. Netscape and Yahoo went through huge IPOs. Wall Street started throwing money at any company with a .com in their name. Michael Wolff’s Burn Rate offers a great first-person account of what it was like to live through those “gold rush” years.
I would periodize 1995-1998 as the early dotcom boom, and 1999-2000 as peak boom. In the early boom years, WIRED feels like the future is arriving. Everything is possible. But, also, you get the clear sense that it might all be a mirage.
The peak boom years have the vibe of Silicon Valley in 2021. The old economic rules no longer apply. Everyone is getting rich, even though none of their companies turn a profit. Everyone seems convinced that it will somehow go on forever.
7.Kevin Kelly, “Interview with the Luddite.”
I’m obsessed with this article. I’ve written bits about it twice before, and have a longer one outlined. Early WIRED was a deeply ideological outlet. Silicon Valley technologists, entrepreneurs and investors were the heroes, the driving force of history. Government regulators and technology critics were the villains. You can watch that ideology crackle and spark in this combative interview with “Neo-Luddite” author Kirkpatrick Sale. It culminates in Kelly badgering Sale into betting $1,000 on what the state of the world will be in twenty-five years.
(BONUS PICK: Steven Levy’s 2020 article revisiting the Kelly/Sale bet. “A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due: Has Tech Destroyed Society?”)
8.Gary Wolf, “The Curse of Xanadu.”
If you know who Ted Nelson is, you’ll want to read this piece for its thoughtful, thorough rumination on Nelson and his failed quest to build a different internet.
If you don’t know who Ted Nelson is, you’ll want to read this piece so you can find out.
9.Esther Dyson, “Intellectual Value.”
Esther Dyson with an early argument on how to rethink copyright for the digital age. Copyright will come to define at least the next decade of Internet history. This is what the brewing copyright wars looked like long before Napster was disrupting the music industry.
Bruce Sterling, “Greetings from Burning Man!”
Ever wondered what Burning Man looked like back in the ‘90s, before it had become BURNING MAN? Here you go.
Joshua Quittner, “Web Dreams.”
Before the blogosphere, there were the 90’s webzines. Quittner’s Web Dreams gives us a firsthand look at suck.com, a webzine that played a defining role in 90’s internet culture.
Gary Wolf, “Steve Jobs: The Next Insanely Great Thing.”
It’s an interview with Steve Jobs before his triumphant return to Apple. Cranky Steve Jobs is my favorite Steve Jobs.
Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, along with the entire editorial team. “Push! Kiss your browser goodbye: the radical future of media beyond the web.”
PUSH is bonkers. Read it in print if you have the opportunity. It is an outright manifesto, beginning on the cover page of the magazine and spilling out across pages of dense text. I have read it a half-dozen times. I have lectured on it three times. I still don’t entirely know what they are talking about.
Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden. “The Long Boom: A History of the Future, 1980-2020.”
90s WIRED was a mix of futurism, libertarianism, and techno-optimism. The Long Boom took these ingredients and baked them into a souffle. You might love it or hate it. You might snicker or nod in somber recognition. But there’s no better indicator of what 90s WIRED felt like.
Katie Hafner, “The Epic Saga of the WELL: The World’s Most Influential Online Community (And it’s not AOL).”
The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) is an essential piece of internet history. Katie Hafner takes us inside this essential early online community and helps explain what made it special and what made it a sign of things to come.
16. The entire fifth anniversary issue.
Just a fascinating compilation of essays, predictions, provocations, and reflections. This approximately marked the end of Louis Rossetto’s tenure as WIRED’s Editor-in-Chief. (Read Gary Wolf’s book, WIRED: A Romance for backstory).
Spencer Reiss and John Browning, “The New Blue Chips.”
WIRED magazine launches its own competitor to the Dow and the Nasdaq, “the WIRED Index.” The irrational enthusiasm is getting a little out of hand…
18. Po Bronson, “Gen Equity.”
It’s 1999. Silicon Valley is the “valley of riches.” Po Bronson renders a portrait of celebratory excess. Read this now, then jump ahead to 2014 to read Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s “No Exit.” The comparison is just astonishing.
19. Kevin Kelly, “The Roaring Zeros.”
You can feel the excitement at the peak of the dotcom boom. Good times are here. They will never leave.
20. Charles Platt, “You’ve Got Smell!”
Probably WIRED’s most famous wrong-call cover story. Charles Platt profiles a company, Digiscent, that promises the “next Web revolution,” by digitally encoding smells and selling hardware that can let you send smells through the Internet. The idea is so bad, the company so ridiculous, and proposal treated so seriously.
The Dotcom Crash Years
2000-2002 are the crash years. It takes a little while for the writing team to shake off the denial. And it takes even longer — basically until 2004 and the dawn of Web 2.0 — before the magazine finds its groove and gets excited about building the future again.
21. John Heilemann, “Fear and Trembling in Silicon Valley”
John Heilemann reports on the Microsoft lawsuit. It’s a great reminder of how the Silicon Valley ideology treated antitrust actions in the years before the US stopped enforcing antitrust.
22. Bill Joy, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”
Another iconic WIRED essay. Bill Joy asks whether Artificial Intelligence will replace humanity, and ponders how we should feel and what we should do about it.
23. Charles Platt, “The Future Will Be Fast but Not Free.”
There’s a radical subtext to Platt’s article on the future of broadband. It’s 2001, WIRED is beginning to reckon with the bursting of the tech bubble, and Platt is revisiting the old techno-optimist bromides from the likes of George Gilder. “You want broadband. You’ll get it. You’ll pay for it. You’ll like it.” (Three out of four ain’t bad. Everyone hates their cable provider.)
24. Kevin Kelleher, “Death of the New Economy R.I.P.”
It took a while for WIRED to come to grips with the end of the dotcom boom. Kelleher’s article is the key juncture where the magazine engages in critical reflection on what the tech boom boosters had overlooked.
25. Nicholas Negroponte, “Being Wireless”
What did the future of Wi-Fi look like, when wireless data was just starting to gain traction. Nicholas Negroponte, the founding director of MIT’s Media Lab, walks us through this puzzle with the same trademark style that defined his 90s WIRED back-of-book columns.
26. Andrew Sullivan, “The Blogging Revolution”
“Weblogs are to words what Napster was to music.” It’s the dawn of the blogosphere, and Andrew Sullivan is here to tell us about the revolution that is about to occur.
27. Thomas Goetz, “Open Source Everywhere”
2000-2003 are the philosophically lean years for the magazine. The bubble has burst, the shock of 9/11 has raised deeper questions about the new era of globalization, growth, and stability. Digital technology is still making a big impact, but the stories that dominate are about companies like Napster and the fight against digital piracy.
Goetz’s “open source everywhere” marks the turning point, where the tech community draws broader lessons from the success of the Linux operating system and starts building a new framework for understanding how the Internet is changing society for the better.
…Basically, this article is about Web 2.0, before Web 2.0 was a thing.
28. Gary Wolf, “The Way We Were”
This centerpiece of WIRED’s 10th anniversary issue, providing a retrospective on just how much the world, technology, and the magazine changed from 1993-2003.
The Web 2.0 Era
29. Chris Anderson, “The Long Tail”
As the Web 2.0 era arrived, WIRED became known for big-picture essays that grappled with how the fundamentals of media, the economy, and society were changing. Many of these essays were turned into business books. The Long Tail, by Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson, is an iconic example of this type of essay.
30. Gary Wolf, “How the Internet Invented Howard Dean”
Howard Dean is so important to how digital media is used in politics today. The Dean campaign was also an inflection point, signaling that developments online could have offline impacts too big to be ignored. Gary Wolf’s piece will let you see how technology was impacting electoral politics before anyone had heard of Barack Obama.
31. Multiple authors, “The Complete Guide to Googlemania!”
What did the future of Google look like in 2004, just as the company was about to become publicly traded? This article is just a fantastic message-in-a-bottle.
32. Kevin Kelly, “We are the Web”
Of all the pieces Executive Editor Kevin Kelly has written for WIRED over the years, this is probably my favorite. As part of a ten-year retrospective on the Netscape IPO, Kelly thinks through the past, present, and future of the Web, and in the process delivers a sort-of sermon on how the medium is changing us all for the better.
33. Daniel Pink, “The Book Stops Here”
My favorite thing about mid-2000s WIRED is you run into a series of first-time-big-features about iconic platforms that still define our online experience today. The Book Stops Here is WIRED’s first deep profile of Wikipedia. Read this article to see what Wikipedia looked like before it was cool.
34. Jeff Howe, “The Hit Factory”
This story is about MySpace, and how the new, dominant social network was transforming the music business. It’s the MySpace article!
35. Charles C. Mann, “How Click Fraud Could Swallow the Internet.”
mid-2000s WIRED wasn’t all Web-2.0-boosterism-all-of-the-time. There were also thoughtful warning sirens, alerting us that the economics of the new digital era were no less fragile than the economics of the previous digital era.
36. Bob Garfield, “YouTube Vs. Boob Tube.”
A portrait of YouTube when it was still a young company (just acquired by Google).
37. Steven Levy, “The Perfect Thing”
Steven Levy on the story of the iPod. This is an excerpt from his book by the same name. It is vintage Levy – deeply reported, engaging prose that reveals the social significance of new technologies without veering into wild speculation about the future.
38. Wired Staff, “A Second Life for MTV”
Second Life is here. And Second Life is the future.
39. Frank Rose, “Lonely Planet: How Madison Avenue is Wasting Millions on a Deserted Second Life.”
The Web 2.0 era included an awful lot of digital gold rushes that left behind digital ghost towns. These two articles let you watch the process as it unfurls.
40. Fred Vogelstein: “Saving Facebook: How Mark Zuckerberg Turned Facebook into the Web’s Hottest Platform.”
This is the first big WIRED feature on Facebook. It won’t be the last. It’s worth reaading this alongside Felix Salmon’s 2012 article “For High Tech Companies, Going Public Sucks” and Fred Vogelstein and Nick Thompson’s 2018 masterpiece, “Inside the Two Years that Shook Facebook—and the World.”
The iPhone debuts in 2007, but doesn’t it takes a little time for it to become an era-defining device. You get an inkling of the change in 2008, and then mobile really starts to take hold in 2009 and beyond.
41. Fred Vogelstein, “the Untold Story: How the iPhone Blew Up the Wireless Industry.”
How the iPhone was viewed upon arrival.
42. Chris Anderson, “Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business.”
Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson returns with another big-picture argument about the future of business in the digital age. Like “The Long Tail,” this article was a launchpad for a book. I personally think The Long Tail has aged better than Free, but they’re both excellent markers of how major Web 2.0-era thinkers made sense of the social changes that were underway.
43. Chris Anderson, “The Petabyte Age/The End of Theory”
Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson declares that a new age of Big Data has arrived, rendering theory and the scientific method obsolete. This piece feels particularly relevant at this point in the Generative AI hype cycle. The AI fuure is not the Big Data future, but they certainly do rhyme.
44. Mat Honan, “I am Here: One Man’s Experiment with the Location-Aware Lifestyle.”
Smartphones have changed how we access and use the Internet. This 2009 piece does a nice job of thinking through just what the mobile web is going to mean for public life.
45. Gary Wolf, “The Tragedy of Craigslist”
CraigsList is such a weird and important website. It’s the one that got big without every monetizing and getting rich. This is just a great piece that grapples with Craigslist’s role in the ecology of digital life.
46. Evan Ratliff: “Gone.”
Writer Evan Ratliff tried to vanish, and challenged WIRED readers to find him. “Gone” tells the story of how he tried to hide and how he was eventually found.
The Slowdown of Internet Time
2010 is roughly the inflection point for what I have called the “slowdown of Internet time.” WIRED keeps producing feature stories about the Next Big Thing in tech. Many of those technologies are still imbued with potential today (3D printing, wearable tech, AR/VR, crypto). The pace at which we can judge whether these potential new digital futures just seems to slow way down.
47. Chris Anderson, “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms are the New Bits.”
This is a big feature article on 3-D printing and the rise of the Maker movement. Close readers of the magazine might notice the reference to an old Nicholas Negroponte-ism. Negroponte explained in the 1990s that the heart of the digital revolution was bits replacing atoms. Anderson is inverting this observation, helping us to think about what a world with easy access to 3-D printing might look like.
48. Steven Levy, “How the Tablet Will Change the World.”
At the dawn of the iPad, Steven Levy and 13 of his peers speculate on how tablet computing will change everything.
Personally, what stands out for me in this essay is that tablet computers seem to have been much less of a revolution than expected. The iPad, for many of us, is just an iPod with a larger screen. For a technology that has succeeded in the mass market, it’s a bit of a surprise to look back at what we imagined success would look like, compared with where we are eight years later.
49. Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff, “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet.”
The fifth and final big-picture provocation from Chris Anderson in this WIRED compendium. Anderson’s predictions in this essay manage to seem both right and wrong when read with the benefit of hindsight. It’s a piece that leaves you speculating on how the web was changing, and has changed, in the years since it was published.
50. James Surowiecki, “Going, Going, Gone: Who Killed the Internet Auction?”
I like to assign this article alongside William Gibson’s 1999 ode to eBay, “My Obsession.” Together, they give a great feel for the waxing and waning of internet economics, and how that ends up shaping internet culture.
51. Adam Davidson, “The Economic Rebound: It Isn’t What You Think.”
WIRED partnered with NPR Planet Money’s Adam Davison to produce a five-part special report on “smart jobs” and the future of the economy. It’s a noteworthy shift from the boundless optimism of 90s WIRED, and also a much more sobering account than you would have seen in the magazine in the 00s.
52. Quinn Norton, “How Anonymous Picks Targets, Launches Attacks, and Takes Powerful Organizations Down.”
Norton tells the story of Anonymous like few others can. Her article shines a light on the darker side of the Internet, giving the reader insight and understanding of what motivates this iconic troll network.
53. Alexia Tsotsis, “For Limo Service Uber, Downtime and Idle Resources are Fuel for Profits.”
This is a profile of Uber, written when the company was still a young upstart, filled with the promise of the “sharing economy.” It’s a splash-of-cold-water reminder of what we originally imagined the company was going to become.
54. Mat Honan, “Kill the Password: A String of Characters Won’t Protect You.”
This article is brilliant and terrifying.
55. The entire 20th Anniversary issue (May 2013).
It’s so good. It’s just so good.
56. Tom Vanderbilt, “New Rules for the Platinum Age of TV”
The Internet was supposed to destroy television. That was a repeat prediction throughout the 1990s. Television was never going to survive the Internet. By 2013, it was clear that instead of destroying TV, the Internet was making TV awesome. This cover story from the April 2013 issue helps you understand how we arrived at Peak TV.
57. Bill Wasik, “Heads Up: Why Wearable Tech Will Be As Big As the Smartphone.”
Much like the 2010 cover package on tablet computers, what I find so interesting about Wasik’s January 2014 cover story is that today, nearly five years later, wearable tech is nowhere near as big as the smartphone. It’s worth looking back at what we thought wearables would become and thinking about why we ended up on a different trajectory.
58. Gideon Lewis-Kraus, “No Exit: One Startup’s Struggle to Survive Silicon Valley’s Gold Rush.”
Such a rich portrait of the real struggles and challenges that make up present-day Silicon Valley startup culture. One of the best pieces ever published in WIRED. It’s noteworthy that this appears in 2014 — before the techlash, but after the Web 2.0 enthusiasm has worn down a bit. I don’t think a cover story like this gets published in ‘90s or ‘00s.
59. Peter Rubin, “The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality.”
The beginning of the new VR hype cycle. The Metaverse has been ~5 years away for almost nine years now.
60. Joshuah Bearman, “Silk Road: The Untold Story.”
A giant, multi-part expose that spanned two issues of the magazine. When people say that cryptocurrency is good for crime and not much else, the story of Silk Road is often lurking in the back of their mind. This is about the dark corners of the web that Silicon Valley boosters usually pretend do not exist.
61. Mat Honan, “Inside the Buzz-Fueled Media Startups Battling for your Attention.”
It’s a great piece on the attention economy, two years before we started fretting over weaponized digital propaganda.
62. Amy Maxmen, “The Genesis Engine.”
An essential WIRED guide to Crispr and the coming era of gene editing.
63. Jason Tanz, “The End of Code.”
The title of this article makes it sound like a Chris Anderson-style think piece. That’s deceptive. Instead, Tanz reports on artificial intelligence breakthroughs in constructing neural networks, and what that will likely mean for the future of computing. A good precursor to the current breakthroughs in AI.
64. Kevin Kelly, “The Untold Story of Magic Leap, the World’s Most Secretive Startup.”
Magic Leap was going to be for augmented reality what Oculus was going to be for virtual reality. Maybe it’s still too soon. Maybe Meta or Apple or some other company is about to have a consumer product breakthrough. But read this piece from 2016 and ask yourself whether the tech promises in 2023 are much different from the tech promises of 2016.
65. November 2016 issue, “Frontiers.”
President Barack Obama guest edited this issue. It’s packed with stories and interviews about the major social challenges and the potential of digital technologies in helping to alleviate those problems. The whole issue feels ripped from a different timeline, a last moment of hope before Trumpism and the techlash.
The last year of WIRED that I read for my initial speed-run through the archive. The first year of the techlash.
66. January 2017 issue, “Tales from an Uncertain Future.”
It’s an entire fiction issue. It’s WIRED embracing its mid-90s roots, when William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Bruce Sterling wrote for the magazine. If you’ve read this far, you deserve a little palate-cleanser. Enjoy the fiction issue.
67. Gabriel Snyder, “The News in Panic: How The New York Times Is Clawing Its Way Into the Future.”
Reading Snyder’s deeply reported story on digital transition at the Times is a signal of how far we’ve come in the quarter-century since Crichton’s “Mediasaurus.”
68. Nicholas Thompson, “The great tech panic of 2017: Instagram’s Kevin Systrom Wants to Clean Up the Internet.”
As with Snyder’s piece, the particularly striking thing about this article in historical perspective is just how different the tone is from early WIRED. The brash techno-optimism of 90s WIRED is gone, replaced with a critical concern over the social forces that digital technology seems to have unleashed.
That’s sixty-eight articles. It’s just a tiny portion of the WIRED archive. I offered commentary on other interesting pieces using the hashtag #WIREDarchive on Twitter in 2018. Since I’m the only person who has ever bothered to use that hashtag, it remains a nice, searchable repository up until Elon ruins that too.
I think of this list as a curated tour through the digital WIRED museum. There are great books, documentaries, and podcasts that cover these topics as well. Eventually I’ll post my recommendation lists for those media as well.
But, in the meantime, if you find yourself curious how the digital future was displayed in decades past, this list is a nice place to scratch that intellectual itch.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Apparently one can't read these without subscribing to WIRED. Is anyone else having this issue? (They're currently offering subs for $5, but honestly I subscribed to the print magazine from 1994 until, I dunno, 2005? But I don't know if I'm feeling $5 worth of nostalgia today.)
This is wonderful, thanks for the links and commentary. Having worked in tech through this whole era, but not having often picked up a WIRED in a shop, it’s fascinating to see not just the facts of what was happening but the hype and perspectives of each moment.