[The Rise and Fall of Wired] [Stephen Downes]


It was a time of revolution, and they were rogues, all of them. Galileo, sanctioned by the church. Bruno, burned at the stake. But they were the bearers of the new technology - the microscope, the telescope, and the themometer - and a new world view. The Earth was no longer the centre of the universe. The Pope was no longer the undisputed authority.

It was 1620 and they were on the Edge. They knew their mathematics - hell, they were inventing the field. They knew their languages, and armed with Gutenberg's printing press they were reshaping media, printing a new version of the Bible, Shakespeare's folios, and the first newspapers. They knew, and were redefining, astronomy, geography, and anatomy.

And is was all based on one idea, simple, really: that the world should be viewed as parts, which could be exchanged and interchanged. Understand the relations between those parts, and you could understand the world.

In times of revolution, the Edge is found where the new science is found. It is found in the underground. It is found in rebellion. It is found at the point of change. It is found where new values collide with old. It is found in new understandings of the world. It is found in new senses of self.

The early Wired tapped all of those pulses. The later Wired does not.

When Marshall McLuhan penned The Medium is the Message, he was tapping into the core of the new understanding of the world on the brink of which we all stood. What he said, in essence, is that the content of the information being transmitted is no more important - and possibly less important - than the means by which the information was transmitted.

This theme echoes and reveberates through all facets of today's revolution. Put in most general terms, it is this: it is not only the parts which are important, but also, how those parts interact. Or: it is not only data which matters, but how data is processed. Or: it is not only individuals that matter, but how those individuals form communities.

When reality is composed both of parts and their interactions, then, when you change the interactions, you change reality. And with multiple interactions, you get a multiplicity of realities. Or - to return to McLuhan - if you take the same facts, and transmit them in different ways, you get different messages. And all of a sudden we change, from having one self, to having many selves, from having one community, to having many communities, from having one world, to having many worlds.

Data is what we have when we have a collection of parts. Information is what we get when we transmit those parts. Data is the currency of the old order. It consists in aggregates of things, things you can count, things you can measure. Information is the currency of the new order. It consists in interactions of things, which have substance and value over and above the mere aggregation of the parts.

Value in the old order was found in mass, in accumulating large collections of things. Value in the new order is found in creation, assembling things in new ways.

The major memes found in the old Wired are these:

  • The Underground - the Old Wired was relentless in its pursuit of the alternative. It understood that the process of creation occurs on the fringes, not at the core. Hence, we see such articles as The Incredibly Strange Mutant Creatures who Rule the Universe of Alienated Japanese Zombie Computer Nerds. (Wired 1.1), Hacking the Material World (Wired 1.3), Club Seen (Wired 2.01), Satellite Pirates (Wired 2.08) or Tired: NASA. Wired: Amateurs (Wired 2.11). In the early days, these articles were frequent, and their tone was one of at least understanding, if not admiration. In the later Wired, such accounts are few and far between, and the tone is changed to scepticism, if not ridicule, as in the case of Breaking the Law of Gravity (Wired 6.03).

  • Rebellion - the Old Wired covered rebellion angainst the established order a lot, and it promoted it as a good thing. The new Wired focusses a lot less on rebellion, and it represents it as a dead thing. So we see in the early years such articles as Crypto Rebels (Wired 1.2), The End of the Party Line (Wired 1.4), Wiring Japan (Wired 2.02), Billions Registered (Wired 2.10) and even as late as The Resistance network (Wired 4.01) and The Cutting Edge (Wired 4.03). But in the later years we see rebellion depicted in a much more negative tone, as in Is the Revolution Over? (Wired 6.01) and Che is Dead (Wired 6.02).

  • Change - Wired 6.01 proclaimed "Change is Good". But the change the New Wired promotes is not change as understood by the old Wired. In the new Wired, the change promoted consists in new ways of doing old things. This is most clearly illustrated in The New Blue Chips (Wired 6.06), where the mechanism of a Top 100 is preserved, and only the content is changed. The old Wired knew better: Techno-soaps and Virtual Theatre (Wired 1.2), Obsolete Skill Set (Wired 1.2), Post-Capitalist (Wired 1.3), Mediasaurus (Wired 1.4).

  • New Values - in the old order, the accumulation of things, especially as instantiated by money, was the ultimate good. In the new order, the process of creation - of new worlds, of new communities, of new senses of self - is the ultimate good. The old Wired understood this: Creating Created (Wired 1.1), Kay + Hillis (Wired 2.01), Gimme Two Records and I'll Make You a Universe (Wired 2.08), The (Second Phase of the) Revolution Has Begun (Wired 2.10), Shape Shifter (Wired 3.04). Even Hangin with The Fat Man (Wired 5.03). But in the later Wired, creation is devalued in favour of simulation - Channelling McLuhan (Wired 4.01), Web Dreams (Wired 4.11), Simnet (Wired 5.04) - and wealth becomes the dominant value - The Digital Nation (Wired 5.04), The Long Bloom (Wired 5.07).

  • New World View - this is the Something Wondeful is Going to Happen meme. The creation of worlds. Understanding worlds as unified, interacting wholes. It surfaces often in the early Wired: Cyberpunk R.I.P (Wired 1.4), Mission to Planet Earth (Wired 1.6), The Medium is the Message and the Message is Voyeurism (Wired 2.02), Guerillas in the Myst (Wired 2.08), A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain (Wired 3.06), The Human Macro-organism as Fungus (Wired 4.04). It surfaces in the later Wired in only one lonely article: The Big Picture (Wired 6.01).

  • Sense of New Identity - in the new paradigm, the self is a created entity. It is in defense of this definition of self as self-actualization that Wired is defending when it defends such things as freedom of speech. For in such defense is the defense of the right to define who we are. Wired has been consistent in its defenses of freedom throughout. But its understanding of the sense of self, prominant in the early years, has waned in the later years. Thus we have from the early days: The First Online Sports Game (Wired 1.6), Guerillas in the Myst (Wired 2.08), Billions Registered (Wired 2.10), We're Teen, We're Queer, and We've Got E-mail (Wired 2.11), Not Human Resources, Humans (Wired 3..04), Interview with the Luddite (Wired 3.06). In later issues: nothing.

  • Interactivity - as a fundamental concept, as discussed in the old Wired:Is Interactive Dead? (Wired 1.1), It's the Context, Stupid (Wired 2.03), Living Data (Wired 2.11), Stochastic Screening (Wired 3.02), Revolutionary Evolutionist (Wired 3.07), Deep Technology (Wired 3.10). The closest the New Wired gets to it is The Promise of One to One (A Love Story) (Wired 6.05), in which interaction is depicted primarily as a marketing tool.

Instantiations of the new world view used to form the core of the topics covered in Wired. The magazine's coverage of these, and the tone of that coverage, has changed substantially over the years. Here are some of the key topics:

  • Hacking - to hack, in a broad sense, is to use tools in ways there were never intended to be used. Hacking is about pushing the limits of the technology, of forcing it to express itself in new ways. The primary goal of most hackers is to show people, I can do this. Hacking was represnted as a virtue in the old Wired: Hacking Chips on Cellular Phones (Wired 1.1), Hacking the Material World (Wired 1.3), The Bucklands Boys and Other Tales of the ATM (Wired 1.5), MindVox: Urban Attitude Onlinered 1.5), Stealth Watchers (Wired 2.02), Hackers: Threat or Menace (Wired 2.11). The topic gradually disappeared from Wired's pages; the best we get in later years is the pessimistic Heart of Darkness (Wired 5.11).

  • Copywrong - the old adage was "information wants to be free" and Wired took it to heart in the early days, describing with praise those who fought the copyright demon. Thus we have Copywrong (Wired 1.3), In the Kingdom of Mao Bell (Wired 2.02), Patently Absurb (Wired 2.07), Satellite Pirates (Wired 2.08). This view changed dramatically in the new Wired. Now the point of view - and the support - is with the copyright cops: Information Wants to Be Free - But This is Ridiculous (Wired 3.10), Caught by Coherent Light (Wired 4.05), Digital Underground (Wired 5.01), Warz Wars (Wired 5.04).

  • New Media - Wired used to subscribe to the belief that the new media introduced a difference of kind, the idea that we were doing a new thing, and not merely an old thing in a new way. Thus we have such articles as Obsolete Skill Set: The 3 Rs (Wired 1.2), Cyberpunk R.I.P. (Wired 1.4), Muriel Cooper's Legacy (Wired 2.10). The new Wired sees new media on a continuum, with the old, staking its position with three key articles in Wired 3.05 and following up with Toward a Universal Library (Wired 3.08), Enclyclopedia Britannica Online? (Wired 3.08), Agent of the Third Culture (Wired 3.08), Interactive Entertainment (Wired 3.09), and more. Wired's Enclyclopedia of the New Economy and WiredEprints are two more recent examples of the New Wired's abandonment of new media.

  • Empowerment - this is the idea that people have the power to define themselves, that they obtain their identity by what they themselves do as opposed to what collection they are a part of. It is reflected in such ideas as direct democracy, Wired used to support empowerment: Direct Democracy (Wired 2.01), Power to the People (Wired 2.12), The Battle for the Soul of Corporate America (Wired 3.08), Anarcho-Emergentist-Republicans (Wired 3.09), The Net as a Public Sphere? (Wired 3.11). In later years, Wired saw personal power as flowing from and being a properly of groups, in particular, but not limited to, the Digital Nation.

  • Community - what you get when you interact individuals (either real or constructed) is community. Wired used to be very good at understanding online communities from the inside: The Dragon ate my Homework (Wired 1.3), Love Over the Wired (Wired 1.4), Johnny Manhattan meets the Furry Muckers (Wired 2.03), The War Between alt.tasteless and rec.pets.cats (Wired 2.05), alt.pave.the.earth (Wired 2.06), Sex, Lies and Cyberspace (Wired 3.01), and in one last gasp, The Epic Saga of the Well (Wired 5.05). The New Wired rarely ventures inside online communities any more, viewing the online community from the outside and primarily as a marketing tool: Life in the Digital City (Wired 3.06), The Great Web Wipeout (Wired 4.04), Metaworlds (Wired 4.06), It takes a Village to Make a Mall (Wired 5.08). OK, and there's also Killers Have More Fun (Wird 6.05), about pay communities. I'm not sure where to place that one.

  • Culture - in the old order, diversity is not a good thing; it is the mass of uniform parts that make a whole, convey power, have value. In the new world view, where interaction is all important, diversity is a good thing, because it a good thing, because it promotes the creation of new ideas and new realities. The old Wired valued diverse cultures: The Incredibly Strange Mutant Creatures who Rule the Universe of Alienated Japanese Zombie Computer Nerds (Wired 1.1), Dish-Wallahs (Wired 1.2), Wiring Japan (Wired 2.02), The Kingdom of Mao Bell (Wired 2.02), Compost of Empire (Wired 2.04), Digital Dharma (Wired 2.08)Balkans Online (Wired 3.11). In the new Wired, different cultures are more often trivialize, scorned, or depicted as societies with something fundamentally wrong with them and need to be fixed: Pachinko uber Alles (Wired 4.06), Computer Insect (Wired 4.07), The Great Firewall of China (Wired 5.06), Plotting Away in Margaritaville (Wired 5.07), and many more snippets in Flux.

Revolution is also defined by what it makes obsolete. The old Wired had a very clear sense of what was obsolete: big government, big media, and yes, big business. To the extent that it covered these at all (and it didn't cover them very much), it covered them knowing that they were on their way out. The new Wired, by contrast, embraces all three, if not in policy (it still doesn't like big government), then certainly in page-acres.

The following were obsolete in the old Wired:

  • Big Media - big media is in general unaware of the issues affecting people, and focuses instead on trivia: Mediasaurus (Wired 1.4). By contrast, on the internet, people make their own media decisions. Daily Planet (Wired 4.07). The lessons completely forgotten: Push (Wired 5.03).

  • Television and Film - is doomed in the old Wired. Techno-soaps and the Virtual Theatre (Wired 1.2). Is the next big thing in the new Wired: The Television Race (Wired 6.04). Film - especially large Hollywood productions - are not covered at all in the early Wired but now are regular features, as for example Hollywood 2.0 (Wired 5.11) and elsewhere.

  • Newspapers and Magazines - suck, in the old Wired; Online or Not, newspapers Suck (Wired 2.08), Don't Repackage - Redefine (Wired 3.02). The new Wired, and especially Katz, focuses on newspapers - and the trivia they cover, such as O.J., a lot.

  • Advertising - is dead, according to the old Wired. Is Advertising Finally Dead? (Wired 2.02). The statement is made again in the revisionist Wired 6.01: Bye-Bye That article notwithstanding, to the new Wired, advertising just needs to be repurposed: Advertising Webonomics 101 (Wired 4.02), Beyond the Banner (Wired 4.12), Reclaim the Deadzone (Wired 4.12), The Promise of One to One (A Love Story) (Wired 6.05).

  • Publishing - paper is passe, to the old Wired. Goodbye, Gutenberg (Wired 2.10) Just needs better distribution, to the new Wired. Enclyclopedia Britannica Online? (Wired 3.08), Hart of the Gutenberg Galaxy (Wired 5.02), The Next Big Thing is HTML (Wired 5.09). Let us not forget Wired's new book division, the launching of which prompted Wired to proclaim that books are "an unparalleled medium for high content thought".

  • Big Government - was and is still, always the enemy. But Wired paid almost no attention to it in the early years. Only in the later Wired, (actually, Wired 4.01 with Americans Are Note as Free As We Think We Are (Wired 4.01)), as mass media became important again, did big government become important again.

  • Big Business - was once the enemy, especially when it wanted to pry - Big Brother Wants to Look Into Your Bank Account (Wired 1.6), Separating Equifax from Fiction (Wired 3.09) - or when it wanted to run the internet itself - IPhone (Wired 3.10), Netheads vs Bellheads (Wired 4.10). The approach to big business changed completely in the new Wired, starting with the reinvention of McLuhan - Channeling McLuhan (Wired 4.01) wherein we see monopolies actually promoted in the magazine, through to the most recent focus on big business, The Wired Index (Wired 6.06).

  • Homogenity, Masses - what makes all of the above obsolete is that all are massive collections of homogenious parts, directed by one or a few people, where identity and value are determined not by individual action but rather by being a part of the whole. Wired once knew this. Living Data (Wired 2.11), Anarcho-Emergentist-Republicans (Wired 3.09), The Net as Public Sphere (Wired 3.11). The need to define the online community - despite deep knowledge to the contrary - as a mass begins with The Digital Nation (Wired 5.04). It is most sharply defined in The Digital Citizen (Wired 5.12) where identification with the online masses is not defined in terms of what people do, but rather, what they have.

Perhaps it was all inevitable. Wired is, after all, a magazine, and therefore, part of the old media. To survive, it had to reach a mass audience, and that meant attracting the mass of readers. And to do that, it had to focus on mass media, big government, and big business. For these are the big three staples, where the readership lies, and where the advertising dollars are to be found.

We know how it works. Microsoft is not going to advertise in a publication which proclaims it as the evil empire. Disney is not going to advertise in a magazine which proclaims that film is dead. Even Amazon.com isn't interested if you are slagging the publishing industry.

Moreover, advertisers look for affluent readerships, and let's face it, most hackers, garage geeks and MUD wizards aren't particularly rich. Sure, they're doing interesting things, but the people you want to attact are those other computer users, the ones who, later in their careers, own a house, have investments, use the net for business, and take their kids to the movies on the weekend.

But the big problem is: the values of those new readers, and the values of the advertisers who cater to them, are the old values. In order to attract them, Wired had to change. And change it did, in ways documented at length above, until the Wired of today was, in attitude, inclination and temprement, the polar opposite of the Wired of five years ago.

When I say Wired became a corporate shill, that it's the advertiser writing the content, what I am saying is that Wired - in the ways just documented - is representing the interests and values of its advertisers and the readers they cater to, as opposed to the interests and values of the hackers, phreaks, wizards and geeks it first sought to reach and talk about. When I say Wired sold out, I am saying that they know where the wave of the future is, but have turned away, more interested in making money than making waves.

I'm not saying this is right or wrong. It's their magazine, they can do what they want with it. And, as Art Kilner says, perhaps that's all it could ever have been, gracing tables in doctors' and lawyers' waiting rooms, teasing people into the new technology without disturbing them too much with the new reality.

But I am saying: that's what they did. And it is that passing I observe, and lament. For what used to make Wired interesting is that it was a magazine about us. It was a magazine that looked at our ideas, ventured into our MUDs, browsed our web pages, visited our nightclubs, sampled our media, and reported back on what it saw. No more.

Stephen Downes
June 14, 1998