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.

Re-Reading Plato’s Phaedrus

The concern for how technology will change how we communicate is ancient; in The Phaedrus, Plato recounts the myth of Theuth who brings writing Thamus, king of Egypt.thothpha Theuth claims that writing will make the Egyptians wiser. However, Thamus is skeptical: “this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it … their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are not part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom” (165). Theuth and Thamus’s dialogue could be neatly transposed onto debates about the advent of digital media; Wired becomes Theuth lauding the advent of computers, while Neo-Luddite Sven Birkerts and others like him take the role of Thamus questioning the value of this new invention. New media have sparked debate for millennia.

The anxiety caused by new media may be complicated because humans use technology to communicate and make sense of their world. In The Two Virtuals, Alexander Reid (2007) ties the use of technology to knowledge: “knowledge is produced through the process of externalization, through its articulation in symbols” (29). The cave paintings as Lascaux show early humans using dyes and charcoal to share their understanding of their surroundings. Unlike Plato’s Thamus who fears externalization, Reid argues that technologies are what create human knowledge and culture. People use tools to communicate and to live, and we cannot be separated from them. Tools like the stylus, quill, ink pen, press, typewriter, and dot-matrix printer work with developments like papyrus, velum, linen paper, and wood-pulp paper to help us share and shape our beliefs, our fears, and our hopes for the future. As WELL founder Steward Brand (1993) argues in the first issue of Wired: “The cutting edge of new media is the cutting edge of human cognition, which is the edge of what it means to be human” (43). Technologies shape how we communicate with each other. For example in Orality and Literacy, Ong (1982) claims that media like radio and television resurrect oral culture: “electronic technology has brought us into the age of ‘secondary orality.’ This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas” (133). In other words, new technologies can change how we read, how we participate in popular culture, and how we remain connected to our families.

Resources to check out:
Werner, Daniel S. Myth and Philosophy in Plato’s Phaedrus. New York: Cambridge UP, 2012.