Today I want to share a piece of writing that I’ve been fiddling with for the book project. I’m writing a book about the history of the digital future, leaning heavily on the back catalog of WIRED magazine to draw out some lessons from the repeat predictions of broad, positive social changes that never quite arrive as expected.
I was an editor at WIRED during the "startup phase," and I think this article makes the same mistake a lot of critics at the time did, in the sense that it overstates the extent to which WIRED "hyped" or was optimistic about the future. The hype was talked about plenty a the time, and plenty of pixels were wasted debating these same points in forums like The Well.
The nuance that was lost in those debates, and arguably here, is that startup WIRED wasn't optimistic per se; rather, our focus was on hearalding the significance and impact of a new technology that would transform our politics, our economy, and our culture. No one claimed to know exactly where the technology would take us, other than that it would likely be radically empowering and radically different than what came before. Better in many ways; maybe not so much in others. And by and large, that's proven correct! Even some of the stories that made me cringe a bit at the time — Push! and Long Boom being salient examples — proved generally correct over time (sometimes to my own surprise). Critics and other commenters here notwithstanding, tech DID change everything!
Then as now, WIRED was ultimately a Rorschach Test. People always viewed it through the prism of their own biases and anxieties, and critics most of all. Often, the criticism revealed more about the critic than it did about the magazine itself — and that was sometimes fascinating and sometimes really boring. Earlier in the year you said you are a "worrier," and that was a very familiar archetype in WIRED criticism. Alas, the worrier style has turned out to be a bit of a dead end, and likely will continue to be.
Technology does change everything, whether we want it to or not. Worrying and skepticism doesn't change much about that, really, except perhaps slowing the timeline of change somewhat. McLuhan remains the most useful narrator of what that process looks like, in that he skips the worrying and teeth-gnashing bits to focus instead on what the actual impact of the change is like to mean over time. In other words, the changes that endure.
All that said, you're spot-on about the distinctions to be made about WIRED as an editorial experience vs. WIRED as a business!
Interesting. There is a two-side issue here, I think. I recall (writing in) that period. The cultural outlook of WIRED was everywhere, also outside of WIRED itself, especially also in the main stream press of the day. Being an author of more critical articles, it was much harder to get published than it was for those from the 'tech will change everything' crowd. The same was true on broadcast (radio, TV).
Realism and hope are not friends, but I do hope that our current developments will lead to us humans starting to understand how our 'intelligence' really works and that its speed and efficiency goes together with a lot of 'autopilot' and with existing convictions driving observations and reasonings (and not the other way around), and that that understanding might lead to a society that values realism more. But realistically, the chances are pretty slim.
"unburdened by the oppressive hand of The State"? The Nats had their fists in every pie in the country. How did someone that dense manage to do anything?
I like the insight that WIRED acted like a startup. One thing many successful startups had was the presence (on the board or in the leadership) of old-school guys from places like HP and Fairchild who'd been through the process, or money men who understood business growth, and knew that at some point you had to move past moving fast and breaking things to supporting and refining the new thing that you've built, a very different set of skills and goals. The hype that was critical at the beginning becomes a liability if that's still the foundation of what you are.
Thank you for this article/essay and the memories it brought back. I di remember not only the covers of those two issues ("PUSH!" and "The Long Boom") but also where I was when I bought them. And we are talking about so many years ago.
I also remember that the one on Push! was about a company that doesn't even exist anymore, and that is Realplayer. At least I think it no longer exists or is no longer called like that.
As you write, those were numbers that marked the radicalization of Wired, and when I read them I just thought, "Aren't they going a little overboard?"
I'm not old enough to have experienced most of this startup phase of Wired, but it is unusually riveting and extremely intriguing to read about. Thanks for the insights, Dave. Keeping this info in my back pocket.