Wired Magazine – No Longer Cool

I wrote a chapter of my dissertation about the first five years Wired magazine. As I revise this chapter to turn it into an article for publication, I am struck by how much Wired has changed over the years. Unfortunately, these changes have not been good.

The founders and first editors of Wired, namely Louis Rossetto and John Plunkett, argued that the magazine arose as a response to a cultural revolution created by digital technology. In the opening pages of the first issue, Rossetto argues “The digital revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon – while the mainstream media is still groping for the snooze button. And because the computer ‘press’ is too busy churning out the latest PCInfoComputingCorporateWorld iteration of its ad sales formula cum parts catalog to discuss the meaning or context of social changes so profound their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire” (10). In other words, Wired was going to report on the biggest change in human culture. While the claim that the web is bigger than fire may be overstated, a claim that the web is as big as the printing press may not be.

Since it’s inception, Wired has undergone some big changes in how its published. In the early days, John Plunkett’s designs won awards for their Wired Coverinnovation. The magazine purposely pushed the boundaries of traditional magazine creation with its design and content. Plunkett rejected the traditional black print on a white page, three column design favored by magazines like Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, or even Vogue. Instead, the pages of Wired used non-linear designs, bleeding-edge to bleeding-edge color, and relied on graphics for story-telling as much as prose. The magazine was a different shape, used different paper, used a new kind of digital printing method. ’ In Greenwald’s twenty-year retrospective, Rossetto argues that in publishing Wired ‘The whole experience had to convey what it was like to be in this revolution. These were revolutionary times; this was a revolutionary publication. It had to look as jangly and electric as the times.’

The early covers of Wired featured a Who’s Who of the new wave of early adopters and voices of digital technology. John Perry Barlow, Mitch Kapor, Stewart Brand, Esther Dyson, and a host of other important figures at the rise of web culture contributed to the early pages of WiredWired reflected the libertarian-leaning and optimistic hopes of its creators and editors. In his dissertation, “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: How Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog Brought Us Wired Magazine,” Frederick C. Turner (2002) argues that Wired embodied the optimistic sensibilities of futurists, libertarianism, and the hippies: “Wired framed these captains of industry and politics [George Gilder, Newt Gingrich, Alvin Toffler, and Bill Gates] as the revolutionaries in a countercultural mode … Wired was explicitly designed to model the multi-media possibilities of the digitally convergent future. But its Day-Glo color scheme and collage sensibility also echoed the multi-media happenings of the 1960s” (257). In other words, Wired reflected the unabashed optimism of a larger digital technology community who believed computers and new media could revolutionize and improve the world. The content, the design, the contributors all worked together to make a unique magazine that changed publishing.

However, twenty or so years later, Wired has been reduced to a lifestyle magazine. Once Condé Nast bought the magazine back in 1998, the revolutionary fire died.  Since then, it has slowly become more like its Nast-y siblings, Vogue, GQ, and Vanity Fair. The flimsy standard sized magazine found on newstands today is almost unrecognizable. Only the cool logo remains, a testament.

Digital Privacy

I subscribe to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Spotify, and a host of other websites that ask me to sacrifice my privacy for their use. They ask me to tag my photos, mark my location, and indicate when they were taken.  My browser tracks my searches and pushes marketing materials to me.  Yes, I looked on Amazon to see if HEPA filters were cheaper there. Now the edges of Facebook alight with advertisements for HEPA filters.

How do I feel about this?  Pretty creeped out. If a human being trackedGoogle my behavior this closely, I would report him to the police.  I’m being stalked.  And yet, I keep using these resources.  Why?  In part, because everyone else is.  It’s how I keep in touch with my friends around the country.  In fact more and more, it’s how all of us keep in touch.  Some articles suggest that sites like Facebook are killing events like the high school reunion. Who needs to go back to a smelly school when a web page can tell you what your high school nemesis is doing?

And with all that, maybe I don’t want everyone to know what I’m doing?  Maybe I want to hang onto an outmoded Aristotelian public/private divide that is no longer feasible in this hyper-connected society we live in. Marshal McLuhan described our increasing interconnectedness as a global village. In Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) he writes, “And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence” (32).  Like a village, everyone knows your business and you depend on them for your existence.

Is this the world we want to live in? Will we all write in Newspeak someday?

Check out Carnegie Mellon University’s privacy grade website to find out how your apps measure up.