By Keith White

(Reprinted from The Baffler - "The Journal That Blunts the Cutting Edge")


The Gateway to the Consumer

Earlier this year, some sixty slathering publishing would-bes jammed
the upstairs of a brew pub in San Francisco's SOMA district to hear
the fifth in a series of "soirees" sponsored by the San Francisco
writer's guild. The soiree organizers looked warily at their
dwindling stack of folding chairs -- never before had one of these
informal gatherings drawn more than ten or fifteen chronically
unemployed writers. Tonight, however, was different; as pierced and
tattooed writers and artists jockeyed with smartly dressed young
execs for a position close to the evening's attraction -- a soft
spoken man in his forties who was chatting with some lucky,
starry-eyed fans. For the focus of this gathering was not just
another lecture on such pedestrian aspects of publishing as "copy
editing" or "fact checking." This was a chance to meet face to face
with the "artistic visionary" behind the nation's hottest lifestyle
magazine, a journal that had raced to over 160,000 readers in its
first year, pausing only to pick up a National Magazine Award for
general excellence and a big injection of cash from Conde Nast's Si
Newhouse. This was the magazine that had so successfully captured
the zeitgeist that Newsweek was breathlessly labeling it the
"Rolling Stone for the Computer Generation." We were here to listen
to John Plunkett of Wired.

Plunkett's address, as it turned out, was rather mundane. He
divulged such secrets as why the first four pages of each edition
are filled by extending a drop quote across computer generated art
("We originally did it to fill up some space"), along with the
reason that so many of the magazine's articles are hard to read ("I
sometimes have to sacrifice readability when I'm pushing the edge of
the envelope on design").

Wired's distinctive look of maimed typography and fluorescent hues
may be interesting, but the magazine's truly marvelous feature is
its business-cultural mission. Wired is technology's hip face, an
aggressive apologist for the new Information capitalism that speaks
to the world in the postmodern executive's favored tones of chaotic
cool and pseudo-revolution. Wired's expeditious rise was the payoff
of perfect product positioning by its founders and their flawless
implementation of an age-old publishing plan. For Wired is to the
new cyber-samurai of business what The New Yorker was to the
Organization Man (God rest his soul): at once captious doyenne and
encouraging confidante to aspiring members of a new, socially
insecure elite. Wired works, on the most basic level, by tweaking
its readers' anxieties, constantly reminding them that they are
hopelessly behind the times on the latest developments in technology
and underground hacker culture. It simultaneously offers careful
instruction in vocabulary, name-dropping, thinking, and purchasing
to allow readers to retro-fit their resumes, apartments and
lifestyles in a manner more 'on-line' with current
techno-opportunities. Wired then calms advertisers wary of its
"phreakish" posturing by penning gooey appreciations of Silicon
Valley CEOs and paeans to the macho individualism of your local
cable provider.

Voila -- a magazine with an affluent and impressionable subscriber
base, eager to purchase the accouterments that make up this
fascinating new mode of living. Wired tells its readers, in great
and explicit detail, how to spend their money on consumer luxuries
(some expensive, some cheap, all hip). It answers their most
pressing info-consuming questions: Which laptop will look the
coolest in my meeting? Which on-line service's e-mail address suffix
will give me the proper balance between cache and credibility? Whose
name should I drop to my boss -- Peter Schwartz or Phiber Optik? The
magazine's miscellaneous consumption column -- "Street Cred" -- is
full of the types of things that young professionals have the money
to buy, month after month. Ordering is as easy as reading, since
Wired is courteous enough to include phone number and e-mail
address alongside every product they showcase. Big ticket items and
limited availability prototypes are covered in a section called
Fetish ($10,000 digital Nikons, $49,000 virtual reality headsets),
but if you haven't moved that far up the pay scale yet, there are
plenty of ads showplacing what you can afford from the likes of
Compaq, IBM, Microsoft, Absolut and Dewars. This is what's known in
the business as "selling up by stepping down"; in others words, I'll
show you the Lexus and you'll know you'll at least need the Toyota.

But car manufacturers and distilleries are small potatoes in the
Wired revenue stream. Game manufacturers are where it's at,
appearing on the cover more than any other single group. Perhaps
that's because Wired views these "convergence plays" (where film,
games, and merchandising meet) -- also known as video games -- as
the highest form of art, more meaningful than literature (ha!),
painting (ha ha!), film, or even the internet. The culmination of
civilization, according to Wired, is the video game, and to play is
the ultimate expression of one's self in the Information society. Or
maybe it's because, as Wired often notes, the gaming industry takes
in over $6 billion in revenues, which makes it the single largest
component of the infotainment industry. Either way, each gaming
product launch -- 3DO, Rocket Science, Doom 2, Myst -- is welcomed
as the future of the art and given generous coverage in Wired
("smart money is betting that this audacious upstart might just hold
the secret recipe for some of the tastiest thumb candy to come!"),
complete with glowing profiles of the game's creators (variously
described as "introverted" artists and guitarists who are "gamers,
in every sense!") and never leaving out the most important elements
("the per unit margins are huge!"). The favor is generally returned
by manufacturers who take out multiple full page ads over the next
few months as they set about hawking their product.

Magazines that cover particular industries are always tempted to let
down the wall between advertisers and editorial, since the subjects
of their articles are also the buyers of their ad pages. Most
publications work hard to at least maintain appearances of
objectivity, but with the chaotically joyous blurring of boundaries
accomplished by the Information Revolution, such rules are no longer
as binding, a fact which Wired, naturally, has been among the first
to exploit. The magazine seems to aim, quite simply, to facilitate
the moving of product by the technology industry. As such, Wired
strives to be more than just a magazine; it wants to be a market

The Killer App

Everyone in business now realizes that the changes being brought by
information technology are real enough, and plenty of corporate
vice-presidential-level effort has been devoted to trying to predict
the cyber-future. The big prize for which every Information Age
corporate adept is questing is the elusive "Killer App," the
computer program that will mesh together all the rapidly converging
technologies, will successfully transform life into a jolly
interactive game, and will consequently keep consumers happily
paying their info-bahn bills. While the rest of the corporate
America pursued the grail by debating the merits of cable vs. fiber
optics, a cadre of San Francisco techno-philes were building their
own killer app with existing technology, a mere magazine. Print, as
it turned out, would be sufficient to meet the ideological goals of
the great quest, exploiting the new affluence of those on the
"digital vanguard."

The brilliance of this idea was not readily apparent. What was
apparent was that the computer industry continued to suffer from a
serious public relations problem that had developed during the dark
days of the Cold War. In the public mind computers were associated,
at worst, with world destruction, the blown tube that caused a
nuclear war in Fail-Safe, at best with the cold mind of the
corporation. That quintessential volume of the l950s, The
Organization Man, came wrapped in a dust jacket decorated with IBM
cards, emblems of a repressive number-happy society. As Steven Levy
has noted, participants in the counterculture almost universally
regarded computers with suspicion: "computers fueled the War
Machine, that grinding, wheezing hunk of Kafka that murdered little
babies and told us to report to 400 North Broad Street for a
physical." But as the ideology of the counterculture became the
ideology of Corporate America, a major transformation in the image
of the computer had to take place. Information technology would have
to undergo a gigantic face-lift to achieve proper acceptance in a
business world increasingly fascinated with notions of chaos,
revolution, and disorder. The famous TV commercial that introduced
the Macintosh in 1984 as an implement of conformity smashing
suggested the course that ideologues of the computer should take;
Wired simply picked up where the TV advertising left off.

Wired's founders put together an ideological packaging for
information technology that screamed nonconformist. The magazine's
constant references to an interactive 'underground' as its primary
means of giving computers the rebellious image they required. Its
layout utilizes the now-fashionable fractured, illegible typography
that is the calling card of such radical publications as Raygun,
Sassy, and Inside Edge. In addition, appearances by leading pop
ideologues like Camille Paglia and R. U. Sirius signaled the
direction in which the magazine was headed: straight into the hearts
of what one Ogilvy & Mather executive giddily describes as the

This fall, Wired made public its "HotWired" site on the World Wide
Web, and created a media sensation by becoming one of the web
providers to offer advertising. In addition to the plaudits they
received from major agencies, the service attracted the advertising
of over 14 big name clients (including AT&T, MCI, Sprint, IBM). Ever
the rebels, Wired restricted the use of its site to those who
registered by name and e-mail address, which will no doubt come in
handy later for merchandising opportunities. Unfortunately, within
two months, HotWired's executive editor had quit. "A glib and
probably unfair way to state our differences is that [founder] Louis
[Rossetto] wanted to create something cool for the sponsors and I
wanted to create something cool for the people on the Web," said the
departing executive editor. Needless to say, the advertisers remain.

Wired refers to its readers as "digital revolutionaries," but don't
be fooled: the "r" term is being used in the same way it is
elsewhere in recent management literature -- to signify a
particularly unscrupulous type of executive. In fact, according to
Advertising Age, some 84% of Wired readers are made up of managerial
professionals with a median household income of well over $80,000.
They may be revolutionaries, but they also happen to be the legions
of MBAs graduating each year from business schools around the
country, where Wired is a must read. This group is rooted
economically rather than geographically, and must keep up with the
latest thinking on the frontiers of Information if they are going to
kick ass like their parents did.

Wired has staked out a classic market niche for itself; the kind of
ready-made ideological profit-center that only comes along once
every ten or twenty years. It is more than a mere high-end
showplace, but a full-blown lifestyle guide, like Vanity Fair was
under Tina Brown, speaking to its status-seeking readers with a
familiarly curious blend of sympathy and exacerbation. It
understands what they want, but it is forever scolding them for
being slightly behind the curve.

The Rationalizer

Wired's vision of the good life is impressively consistent: money,
power, and a game boy sewn into the palm of your hand. Equally
consistent is the absence of any serious consideration of the
problems that come with business control of Information technology.
In order to reconcile its standard pro-business politics with its
rebel image, the magazine makes a great display of embracing a
certain strain of extreme information antinomianism.

The perennial favorite issue in this strangely contentless variety
of "revolution" is the clipper chip, which has made it into about
eight issues in the last year. The clipper chip is a device invented
by the National Security Agency which would allow them to "listen
in" on all on-line conversations. However 'radical' Wired's
diatribes about the chip may sound, nobody's going out on a limb by
supporting this one around the office: business information is as
closely guarded as the plots of anarchists once were. Furthermore,
the NSA's plan calls for companies to bear a substantial financial
burden in installing the chip. By setting itself in opposition to
this ludicrous remnant of the Cold War state, Wired encourages its
readers to imagine themselves revolutionaries when all they are
doing is standing up for their first amendment rights.

Another Wired cause celebre is the outlaw hacker. In almost every
issue, it seems, the editors find a new way to stir readers' outrage
over the fate of one Phiber Optik, a jailed hacker described as
having a "colorful urban style and a near suicidal willingness to
demonstrate his prowess at picking the locks on telephone company
systems." While Wired's ongoing loyalty to the troubled young man is
admirable, its frequent stories do little more than use him to
reaffirm the myth of the rebel entrepreneur so celebrated in
contemporary management literature. The bottom line, as usual, is
that computers are empowering, and that we, too, can best the stodgy
Organization Men, a la War Games, if we show a little pluck.

For all its radical posturing, Wired's chosen cultural duty (and
market niche) is as the Great Rationalizer of the new technology.
While Time and Newsweek might devote special numbers to the
internet, every issue of Wired blares forth the party line: being
Wired directly to manufacturers will mean more democracy,
increased power for the little guys, greater freedom for consumers
who will be able to order goods and talk to their friends (finally!)
through an electronic medium. As the magazine maintained recently,
"Life in cyberspace is more egalitarian than elitist, more
decentralized than hierarchical. We might think of life in
cyberspace shaping up exactly as Thomas Jefferson would have wanted
it: founded on the primacy of individual liberty and a commitment to
pluralism, diversity and community." Further down the page, the
Jeffersonian ideal is said to include "all the dazzling goodies of
home shopping, movies on demand, teleconferencing, and cheap,
instant databases." And we thought he would have been happy with a
mere Northwest passage. But wait -- it gets even better. Not only
will the new information technology empower each and every one of us
beyond our wildest dreams, it will also allow us to implement all
those neat Gingrichian platitudes about government that we've been
mouthing for so long: "The net is merely a means to an end," Wired
notes sagely, "the end is to reverse engineer government, to hack it
down to its component parts and fix it."

Wired has a simple message from which it never strays very far:
computers are not implements of conformity, over-organization, and
all those other evils of the 1950s; on the contrary, computers are
fun. They are liberating. It will be a good thing -- hell, let's go
all the way: it will be a bona-fide utopia when we are all finally
Wired electronically together, the big culture conglomerates
acting as intermediaries. Rebels with funky hairdos and rockin'
attitudes will rule, we'll finally get to tell those stiff gray guys
what to do. No, wait, it'll be even better than that, we'll get to
choose from 200 channels. Can you imagine?

Naturally, there is nothing wrong with corporate control of the
cyber-future. In fact, Wired does its best to present the masters of
the "business community" as hip fellow-hackers. The recent cover
story about TCI's John Malone, which featured a photograph of this
eminent Captain of Information "raster mastered" (Wired-speak for
computer imaged) to a picture of Mel Gibson as the Road Warrior,
showcases this approach at its wryest. Even though the guy has been
screwing consumers with high margins for years (to the point where
those meddling feds had to step in and put an end to his
monopolistic plundering), he's still depicted as a self aware
hipster who you can feel comfortable admiring.

The secret of Wired's success is rather a simple thing, when you
come right down to it. The magazine's founders identified the
direction in which American business was moving, the strange cross
between 60s countercultural ideas and the usual exploitative
behavior which was coming to dominate the boardroom. And then they
put themselves out in front of it. Being a corporation isn't dull
and conformist anymore -- it rocks! And though it may sound bad to
spend all your free time imbibing corporate product, it's really a
form of rebellion: just look at those excellent typefaces, the way
we run the lines into one another, stood up to all those guys that
insist on readability and other such implements of patriarchy.

--Keith White