It's true what they say: We all wind up like our parents in the end. Five years into the Digital Revolution(TM), Wired(TM) has retired its retina-burning layout in favor of a more conservative design and a new mission.
Emblazoned on the January 1998 cover: "Change is good." At first glance, it looks like the voice of the Digital Revolution finally had to lose the nipple rings and get a real job. Day-Glo typefaces against electric-blue backdrops have given way to old-fashioned black-on-white printing in two easy-to-read columns. One of Wired's selling points has always been that it looks cool, even if you can't read it. Now that it's legible, it's also groping for something new to say.
According to founder Louis Rossetto's self-indulgent introduction, Wired's new schtick is "optimism." The new Wired is not an apologist for libertarianism. Nope, the new Wired is just darn tootin' sure that the future is bright.
But for all its efforts, the new Wired sounds just like the old Wired. "The Internet has mushroomed...into the fastest-growing medium, marketplace, and community in history. Genetic engineering is conquering disease, and new energy technologies promise to save our environment," Rossetto writes.
I'm not against optimism. In fact, I consider myself a pretty optimistic person. But optimism without reflection on the consequences of "individual choices" is effectively an abdication of responsibility.
Science has been like the drunk uncle of civilization, always promising to make things better. But for every new technology come to save us from ourselves, there's always a Superfund cleanup waiting in the wings. That's why I wonder if digital technology may turn out to be our old uncle's drinking buddy. But there's no more room for those doubts in the new Wired than there was in the old.
Anyone who believed that Wired could really change its spots need only scan the 40-page, self-indulgent, haikulike photo essay in the back of the book. Among its deep thoughts: "The future is in beta."
Same tired lineup of writers, same tired ideas. The new and improved Wired still reads like a pamphlet for Rossetto's personal political convictions and PR for his like-minded buddies. Too many of the writers are his cronies in the Billionaire Boys Club of the 1990s, the Global Business Network. John Perry Barlow, the ex-lyricist for the Grateful Dead and retired cattle rancher, writes with authority about the social and economic status of Africa. And, of course, science fiction writer and Wired regular Bruce Sterling tackles Mother Russia.
A true mark of maturity would be if the magazine actually made room for dissenting views or bothered to cover any segment of society, the very existence of which weighs in against this L. Ron Hubbard-ish view of the future. But everyone in Wired's warped view of the world has either already become an instant millionaire through the infinite grace of the benevolent Free Market, or they yearn to be the ones standing on the backs of people just like themselves to get there. (The Benetton-like use of photographs of developing-world misery as a hip design element doesn't count.)
It's a scramble to the increasingly small top of the heap: The last one up is a rotten egg--or worse, if you're on the bottom, an immigrant farm hand. For every million people on email, another million have been killed by the "obsolete" notions of war, poverty, and hunger. Of course, war, poverty, and hunger seem obsolete when your most pressing concern is the length of the line at Starbucks.
If the "media is the message," then Wired's message to its readership seems to be this: Sucker. Wired survives by being printed on pulped-up trees, harvested by "second-wave" laborers--for those of you not clued in to the hip Wired lingo, that means people who work with things other than computers. It is very likely printed in an industrial-age printing plant by unionized workers and delivered to our doors every month without fail by the bumbling, centralized postal workers hired by government bureaucrats Wired so regularly castigates as "clueless."
Does anyone else get the joke?
There has to be some irony in the fact that Wired has survived for five years by selling a magazine that predicts--nay, demands--the demise of itself at the hands of superior digital technology. Meanwhile, the venture's online component has been reborn in more incarnations than Shirley MacLaine and has shed workers with the regularity of Liz Taylor's husbands, with about as much success.
And as long as I'm ranting, what is the obsession with Burning Man, the high-octane neohippie rave held in the desert every year? When was the last time Wired über heroes Andy Grove and Bill Gates danced around a bonfire in little more than body paint, high on chemicals they've only encountered in clean rooms?
The last bit of dancing Gates has been up to was with Janet Reno. She led. It's hard to be fringe when you're holding all the marbles. Success equals failure. You become what you detest. Take those old punk-rock sentiments and stuff them in your next 40-page layout.
Lest you think my own little polemic stems from my employment by CNET, you can lay those fears to rest. Yes, we compete with Wired's online news service, but my irritation with the smug, self-proclaimed voice of the Digital Revolution(TM) started just about five years ago when it rolled off its second-wave printing presses, just as CNET was a twinkle in its founder's eye. Like the dissenters at Ralph Nader's conference on Microsoft, I've longed to proclaim: "Wired magazine doesn't speak for me." I suspect there's a large, silent group out there that feels the same. Life is more complex with more shades of gray than allowed for in its formerly Day-Glo pages.
At age five, Wired may have put away its miniskirts and stopped combing over its bald spot, but it hasn't grown up just yet. Instead, it's more like one of those creepy parents who tries to hang out with the kids but doesn't quite get it right. And it still doesn't speak for me.
Mean, old Margie Wylie is a big square who carves her screeds about the culture, politics, and inanities of technology on stone tablets from her cave every Wednesday.